Start the Pigeons


What do the unlikley combo of the Queen, Mike Tyson, Gloria Hunniford, former England captain Gerry Francis and  ex Scottish footballer Duncan Ferguson have in common?

Well it’s certainly not that they all regularly go out on the beer together. What they have in common and along with Glen Towers (right) and Peter ‘Dougie’ is they’re all pigeon fanciers.

Glen Towers started racing pigeons with his Dad when he was a boy. His Dad Ken was one of the top ‘pigeon fanciers’ in Leeds, so he learned from the best from an early age. His mate ‘Dougie’ dabbled between 1971-80 and after a prolonged break got back into it thirteen years ago.

“I didn’t feel I’d anything to prove, I’d won a lot first time round and I’m still winning a lot now but I  like the social side of it as much as anything.”

For the uninitiated we’re talking about ‘Pigeon Fancying’ or racing pigeons. Simplistically, it’s about training a special breed of pigeon, taking it away and releasing it seeing how quickly it comes home. Glen and Dougie both race their pigeons as Members of Chapel Street Social Pigeon Club which is one of the strongest clubs in Leeds. There’s fierce competition within and outside the club in the season which spans April to September. The races vary in distance from 60 to 500 miles.

There are clubs and races all over the country and beyond, it’s a world wide sport, though it’s not without it’s pitfalls.

“It’s very time consuming.” says Dougie, you’ve got to have an understanding wife! You have to keep the loft clean, so it stays free from disease and put the hours in feeding and training them.  But the more you put in the more you get out of it. They have to be excersied every day and also taken out training. Usually we start them off in Doncaster because it’s a straight line home. The homing instinct kicks in but we’re at the mercy of winds which can blow them miles off course and they get lost, plus they have to deal with birds of prey and power cables, so anything can happen to them.”

Another common problem is feral pigeons which fanciers call flying rats. Attracted by food, they carry diseases which can spread throughout the loft and it’s very bad form for a breeder to show up at a race with diseased birds, it can give them a bad reputation so breeders subject their pigeons to regular check ups.

inside dougies loft

inside dougies loft

All homing pigeons have an ID ring put on when they’re born, it’s not possible to add the ring passed six days old. These rings are essential for racing but also if they get lost.

“It’s an unwritten rule to always return a pigeon to it’s rightful home if you come across one,” says Glen. “There was a case recently when a pigeon bound for Aberford turned up in Barbados. I think they left it with the trainer over there due to the cost of getting it couried home.”

Glen recently was part of a syndicate which won a “one loft race’, this is where birds are raced against each other under the same training regime, in an effort to test the best birds rather than the best trainer.

“We were proud of that, it was a very prestigious win and says a lot for the pedigree of birds we have. The pigeons are a special breed called the ‘Racing Homer.’ We’ve been breeding for years and we’ve built a family, there’s      brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, which might sound a bit twee but there’s a reason and that’s to breed a pure pedigree bird.”

The birds develop a pack or flock mentality and natural leaders appear, which are followed. They are trained and controlled by food.

“That’s where the skill comes in breeding and training. You really have to know when and how  to feed them. If they’re underweight they won’t have the energy to fly and if they’re overweight they’ll just sit in the loft waiting for their next meal. You have to be able to judge it just right.”

Although Glen and Dougie have yet to see the Queen cleaning up after her pigeons, Mike Tyson donated a trophy a few years ago to a club in Leeds which is raced for annually.

“It’s a sport where your working man and a multi millionaire can compete on equal terms.  The splendidly named ‘Up North Combine’ a club based around Tyneside regularly have between 20,000 and 30,000 birds racing at a time. It’s the heartland up there but it’s all over the country, Europe and beyond. It’s not exclusive anyone can join and it’s popular in Tenerife, so anyone thinking of a place in the sun can take their pigeons out there!” says Glen.

And for those who would deride the sport as something for Jack Duckworth types in flat caps, think of this.  Homing Pigeons were used in both world wars to convey messages. The Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for bravery, given to non-human animals, was awarded to 32 pigeons and in France the Croix de Guerre was given to ‘Cher Ami’ who in 1918 delivered a message despite having been shot through the breast or wing. The crucial message, found in the capsule hanging from a  ligament of her shattered leg, saved about 200 soldiers lives.

Interested? Give Glen a call on 075 924924 78

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One Comment

  1. It’s cruel and should be banned.

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