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"The following was prepared by Mr Turley in reply to a series of questions from a student compiling a school project on pigeons and pigeon racing and the notes retain his copyright."

Leo Turley

Do you know when pigeon racing began in australia?

There is evidence that is was well organised as early as 1909, so it would not be unreasonable to assume that around 1880 would fit the data I have although I cannot give you precise dates. In terms of colony status, migration patterns etc about 50 years after what I believe is absolute starting date world-wide would be about right.
Usually, young people who showed an interest in pigeons at the age your Dad did, return at some stage later in life. Strange thing this pigeon racing. Very few juniors participate in racing as an historical fact (usually cost prohibitive) although most (boys that is) had pigeons of some sort for a while before moving on to more interesting birds (g). Often many years later when son arrives home with a couple of pigeons, old memories awaken in dad, son eventually moves on, dad takes up pigeons, mostly for the rest of his life and son does the same with his son many years later. It is a very noticeable cycle. Probably 80% of our membership is gained in this manner. Pleasing to note these days lots of women taking up the sport and they are often very good at it - must have the touch. (g) My eldest daughter Jean, apart from her cats and dogs, is my partner in pigeon racing. See my Grandson Kurt, son of my second daughter is also a pigeon fancier see and his new loft we built see so you can see I am a lucky person.
Pigeon's homing ability - how do they get home?
You have just asked the $64,000 question. Let me just quote a passage or two on the subject in my manuscript entitled "The Neighbour is a Pigeon Fancier".
"The answer today remains as elusive as ever. The old theory of teaching the birds the coutryside, by sight, made sense and we trained and raced them over the same old territory time and again. It did not seem to make much difference.
This visual theory was discounted some years ago after Scientists "blind folded" eight pigeons by putting frosted contact lenses on their eyes and releasing them one hundred and thirty kilometres from home. They all promptly returned to the general home area and crashed landed in the fields around the loft, because they could not see. Reportedly, they sat where they fell until they were picked up and had the contact lenses removed.
We later believed pigeons "homed" by taking direction from the sun's position and calculated that position against their own in-built time clock. That is, if the birds were taken three hundred kilometres East, sunrise would be earlier than normal and they would detect this and fly home westward. We had no feasible answer on that same premise for North and South journeys. We often (and still do) refrain from releasing our pigeons in training flights when we cannot see the sun. When the pigeons took to flying a night we had to include the stars into that same navigation theory. This whole theory was eventually discounted.
A modern theory, which still holds much credence today and sits fairly comfortable with most of us is magnetism in the atmosphere. Solar flares, particularly the X rated class, disturbed our races and that phenomenon has been determined as magnetic. The theory extended to migratory birds, fish and many other animals.
Bees and their ability to "home" to the hive is thought to operate on a very similar plane to our pigeons. The Rock Dove (Columba Livia) which is the foundation of the racing pigeon, was territorial and ranged up to 50 kilometres, per day, and returned with feed for thei young. Pigeon fanciers have merely capitalised on that original trait. Most of these animals have been found to have abnormal levels of iron, as a chemical constituent in thei cranium fluid.
Like all other theories, however, the "boffins" are in the process of disproving the magnetism theory and I believe they now favour a thory of sound waves. One thing is certain, our pigeons see and hear the world much different to us and I think they will remain a mystery for a long time to come, and long may it remain a mystery"
"In terms of memory, a racing pigeon has a natural gift for remembering the building from where it first learned to fly and for that matter it will remember that building down to the last detail long after the original owner has foregotten. Circumstances may well dictate a change of location, a new home, a new owner and even liberty to fly at a new location. These are all quite acceptable to the pigeon, but, given the opportunity or a change of fortune, a racing pigeon will return to its first home and will fight the current occupant for the same perch previously occupied, even 10 to 15 years later. Properly managed, a racing pigeon can retain an active role for up to 20 years.
Home does not need to be a palace and its exact location is not important. An orange box nailed to a wall is still home and it is sometimes quite heart-rending to see old friends, that may have been sold or given away in a weak moment, turn up 10 to 15 years later and behave like they have never been away. Often the rightful owner is on the doorstep to take them "home" again within minutes of returning. Young and new fanciers often interpret the message in a sale notice of "none sold locally" as fear of competition racing against the offspring of one's own birds. The truth is that it hurts to see them come back and they most certainly will return if they are only sold locally.
It is even more amazing, when talking about homing ability, that home may have been shifted, intact, many filometres away from the original site and they will find it. On the other hand, only last year I borrowed a very capable racing cock from a friend, living some 20 kilometres away, for pairing with one of my good hens. When I handed him back he flew the twenty kilometres straight back to me and his mate. You may well say it was only 20 kilometres. The point is that this bird had never been out of my loft. He had no idea what it looked like from the air. He came to me in a closed box and left the same way. How did he know where he had been? Consequently, other than for fair and equitable opportunity, under racing conditions, I am very much in the same line with most other serious fanciers as being loathe to part with working pigeons because of this memory factor.
Conversely, a racing pigeon that has not been given opportunity to fly and return to the home loft, in the first four months of life, will have forever lost the ability to "home", and indeed, the ability to fend for itself, at all, in a free range situation. Whilst it is acceptable to talk about the "homing instinct" it is not widely known that it is also an acquired condition. From a fanciers perspective, therefore, it is very important that young pigeons be given the opportunity to develop their homing instinct, before this window of opportunity passes."
This passage, plus the previous one sent is taken directly out of my manuscript and should be quoted as the source.
I believe I have reasonably covered your first question, now to the second:
"Is there a way you train the pigeon to navigate?"
Yes. Young pigeons are taught to "home" to a locality, mostly at the loft where they were born. At approximately 28 days from birth, these youngsters are fully fledged and have been weaned from their parents and placed in their own special loft compartment. The fancier must first acquaint his youngsters with the outside world, without running a risk of them being startled and thereby fly away and not return. New youngsters need to be shown the outside world, including viewing their loft, from within an enclosure outside the loft. On the first occasion it is between 1 and 2 hours and they are allowed to return inside the loft for feed and water without being freed to the outside. The next day, the enclosure is taken some 10 feet away from the loft and after about half an hour the cage (enclosure) door is opened quietly and carefully to allow the new youngsters to walk out and hopefully, without fright, walk or hop back to their loft and go in for feed and water. The next day the cage is taken a further 10 or 15 feet away, still remaining in view of the loft, and in due course allow the youngsters to hop and fly back to the loft for their feed and water. The next day, the youngsters are placed quietly outside the loft without being restricted by a cage. At this time they are free to fly if they wish. Usually it takes many more days of flying to the top of the loft and elsewhere and they generally behave like children learning to swim - short little turns and always within a wings reach of the safety of the loft. After about 3 weeks these youngsters will take to the air, and if all the background training has been successful, they will return from their maiden flight, and as the days go by they will get stronger on the wing and range further afield until they stay in the air and roam for miles for about an hour at a time. All this is cementing the homing instinct in place for the rest of their lives. Once the youngsters have been ranging strongly for about a month, they can then be taken from home and quietly set down in their special carry baskets some few kilometres from home and still most certainly within the range of their roamings in the previous weeks. They are given 10 minutes of sit time to view the surroundings from the basket to get their bearings. This standard practice allows the youngsters, when released, to quit the area within a very short period, usually 1 - 2 minutes and avoids any conflict with potential predators in the area. After about 2 days the youngsters are again taken away from home and this time a few kilometres further and the procedure is repeated in increments of distance, always remaining within their potential, to cement their confidence and to let them know they are not being abandoned and generally to understand the 'game'. And it is a game, which they come to enjoy, providing they are not given a test beyond their physical capabilities. Within the space of 2 - 3 weeks these youngsters can be safely released up to 80 kilometres from home and they will all quickly return and from there they are ready and capable to race from virtually any distance up to 200 to 300 miles.
This should basically answer your question, but it needs to be remembered that this is only one facet of training pigeons to race. To this stage we have talked about basic navigation only.
The following notes I prepared about 6 months ago as part of a newspaper article being written by a Reporter and he asked me for the basic origin of the racing pigeon.
Extract from a paper prepared and read by Mr. Lewis F Curtis at the Annual Conference of the American Racing Pigeon Union at Cleveland Ohio, USA 1925
History seconds that Mons Ulens was the first fancier to ever be credited with possessing a strain of Pigeons and there is no doubt that this great fancier of Antwerp, who was an extremely clever breeder, was the first to originate a strain. A very good friend of Mons Ulens, Mons P Voort of Antwerp states positively that Ulens produced his birds by the results of unions made between the Persian Messenger, the Cumulet and the Smerle. …………Mons Ulens was not only a breeder of the highest merit, he was the founder of a pigeon dynasty, which by its undeniable quality was the only one to survive. In 1869 Ulens sold, with the exception of four birds, to Mons M Wuydts of Antwerp. In turn Wuydts sold out in part to Mons Pettevil and Bebruyn, Antwerp fanciers. When the last named fancier sold his birds, it was Mons Vekemans, Director of the Zoological Gardens of Antwerp who was the purchaser. The four pigeons that Ulens kept for himself out of his sale in 1869 were transferred in 1872 to Mons Vekemans and into whose service he passed and continued to look after the loft of the Director until the death of the latter. Mons Vekemans never had any other pigeons other than those he produced in the manner we have just mentioned, which permits us to confirm that Vekemans’ are only the continuation of the culture of the most pure Ulens. The Vekemans sale, which took place immediately after the decease of that fancier gave the opportunity for Mons M Wegge of Liere, Hansenne and Ruhl of Verviers, Soffle of Antwerp and Vandervelde of Borgerhout to secure for themselves at the price of gold, it is true, the most marvelous pigeons of their time.
(Leo Turley note. Wegge, Hansenne, Soffle, Vandervelde are household names in the pigeon racing world as the forebears of our modern racing pigeons. - it is also pertinent to mention that Darwin said that the wild Rock Pigeon Columba livia and its sub varieties found in Europe, Asia and Africa may be confidently viewed as the common parent form for all the breeds of domestic pigeons.)
L Turley comment. The Antwerp Smerle is very much in the image of our modern racing pigeon and portrays the all important features of strength and aerodynamic shape. The Smerle has a large frill or bodice on its chest and this feature appears quite frequently in our present day racers and providing reminder of their origin.
Leo Turley comment (from my own manuscript)
The modern racing pigeon is an athlete in the fullest sense of the word and the advances in pigeon technology, the same as for all other sports, is outstripping performance records of 5 to 10 years ago. Study done by John Devall and reported in the Racing Pigeon Pictorial (February 1993 No.278 Vol. 24) on the twenty year average winning speeds for pigeon races shows an increase from 1972 to 1991 of 7.5 kilometres per hour over all races. Very significantly in the same study for races over 400 kilometres, the average winning speed had increased by some 18 kilometres per hour and that is a thirty percent increase! Imagine that type of gain in the Melbourne Cup race. It would be sensational.
( the following refers to Western Australian racing)
1917 saw the opening of the trans-line and the hope and promises that it brought from not flying that dreadful North Line. Yes! Our first line was North using the Midland Railway Company freight line to Northampton. There were three clubs in Perth in a radius of 20 kilometres. Metropolitan Club, City and Suburban Seniors and Juniors Club, and the Midland Junction Club. The first long race was flown from Carnarvon in 1906. The birds were always sent by boat and took four days and to quote "It was always a hard fly". The fly was a 400 kilometre jump from the last race point of Northampton. The best time recorded from Carnarvon was 17 hours and was won on two occasions by Tancred Barkers, which had originated from Sydney. To quote the scribe "..but now we have the Trans line there will be no more North Coast fly. Last year 1916 Zanthus and Rawlinna were flown on the day and Loongana 1080 kilometres was the longest race where five birds were timed in inside 20 hours. The weather was good, but no favourable wind".
In 1918 the Western Australian Homing Association (fore-runner of the PRF of WA) was formed and its first two combines from Mingenew and Northampton were won by Joe Bucknell. (Joe Bucknell was a retired Railway Foreman from East Perth Steam Locomotive Depot and retired to Bunbury. In 1954 Joe Bucknell bred me my first team of 30 birds to race in the Collie Club)

What prizes are awarded to the winners?
Prizes vary from region to region and according to the strength of population of pigeon fanciers.
In Australia, there are some 450 racing pigeon clubs and all of them race for a trophy on each race. I think the same exists in most clubs in the US and possibly UK. Continent may be a little different and may be more money oriented, but I generally think trophies are fairly universal. In US UK, Continent and Aust. the racing calendar starts about Mid May and finishes mid October, there are some variations, but basically that is it. There are 21 weekends of racing. Most clubs will race one event a week ie 21 races and each will have a trophy. Of course it is possible and done in a minor percentage where fanciers will race in multiple clubs and therefore their racing calendar may be 40 or 60 races per annum, the average fancier, however, races 20 - 21 races. In Australia, modest prize money exists in most clubs on a self funded basis ie no sponsorship, prize money based on entry fees by members and is not normally very high stakes at club level, say no more than $100 to win a race. Clubs that band together to form Federations and race what is know as Federation races may have prize money of say $100 times the number of clubs in the Federation. In my Federation, for example, 15 clubs, so relatively $1500 to win the race. A separate and sometime lucrative monied avenue is called 'pooling' and this is where a fancier will match a chosen pigeon against other chosen pigeons for 'pools' the first bird home in a race amongst the pool birds wins the money. These pool birds do not have to necessarily win the race, but they often do and in any case need to finish high in the club/federation results to be a pool winner. Pools exist at almost all levels of financing. One may nominate a bird in a $0.50 pool against all others in that pool, the same applies at $1.00, $2.00, $5.00, $10.00, $20.00 and so on upwards to say $100.00 Pools can go beyond $100.00 but are generally organised privately. Pools are so well entrenched in pigeon racing that the club itself organises/runs the pooling of which, historically, is reasonably believed to have grown out of side wagers conducted by some fanciers back in the early days of pigeon racing A fancier may have enough confidence in one pigeons to cover it for all the pools I have mentioned above. It may win various combinations of those pools, or it may win the lot. The size of the pool depends how many pigeons have been nominated. In Australia and US pools monies are usually small by comaprison to UK and Continent which can get up into the multiple thousands bracket. There are also other races called Sires Races and Futurity Races. This is another relatively new (last 30 years) area of money races. The US Snowbird Futurity can total some $US300,000. The South African Sun City Futurity tops the $?US1M mark. There are many other lesser races of this type throughout the globe. You may try and research the Sun City race. Try the on-line journal "In the Loft" which you will find on my webpage at

Don't you think the pigeons will get lost if they go so far and then never come back??
Good question. Only very fit pigeons can return over long distances and that is very much the part the organisation (Federation) plays in promoting good racing conditions, throughout the year, to produce the fitness required to fly long distances. Today, there are regulations in place in Western Australia to ensure the pigeons are prepared correctly. Pigeons and their preparation for these races is the same as preparing a superb athlete to win a marathon.
Do pigeons use their instincts???
I have covered some of that in my previous post. Pigeon's instincts have evolved over 30 million years, which is where they can be traced back. All birds are living dinosaurs. They have many inbuilt instincts, so many that how much do you want? At hatching, they know how to get out of an egg - that's instinct. They know how to reach out and incite their parents to produce their 'pigeon milk', they know how not to mess in their nests, they know how to fly without carrying 'L' plates. They know the difference between predators without ever having met one before. With a falcon they will stay on the ground, with a Goshawk they will take to the air, they know how to build a nest without ever having seen one built, ..... where do you want me to stop? Their whole being is based on finely tuned instincts - some of it extremely hard to understand.
The most informative video on pigeon racing is titled "Marathon in the Sky" and marrated by the late Michael Landon and runs for 57 minutes. Excellent public viewing material. produced by Pacific Communications Inc, Olympia, Washington, USA - copyright JH Jenner, PO Box 4439, Tumwater, WA, USA 98501.
A good book, with all the references is "The Pigeon' by Wendell M Levi, 1941 with reprints to present day.

Title - 1 Greyhounds of the Airways 2 Nature's Marvel - The Racing Pigeon 3 Voyageur Extraodinaire - The Racing Pigeon
Very few pigeons on the Australian scene have names, or nicknames. If a pigeon is a particularly good one it may get a name, but these are basically a one in a thousand - some fanciers like using names, but most fanciers here do not - names are more popular in the UK and Continent. We generally refer to a bird by its life band registration number, as you may have seen on my family webpage. We also frequently refer to a good bird as 'son of' 'daughter of' a particularly noted pair, or in more frequent cases the same as my 12525/94 as the "Coral Bay Federation Winner". 3216/92 "1994 Federation bird of the Year" and so on.
Another thing I had not mentioned was that Racing Pigeons are the most decorated animal in all theatres of war up to modern time. Many servicemen, whether from downed aircraft or under bombardment, owe their very lives to the racing pigeon and its ability to maintain open lines of communication. Almost a million messages were safely delivered by pigeons in WW2 alone. A vast majority of all the Dicken Medals awarded were to racing pigeons. Look up pigeons in war on the net, but look beyond the Americans. It will be certain that Iraq will be using pigeons for communications, if current unrest leads to war. They did in the last skirmish - and they will do so again, you simply just cannot jam a racing pigeon!

Losing a pigeon:
Losing pigeons is not a very nice feeling at all, but it is part of the hobby. Every time a pigeon is freed for exercise it has the option of not returning and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it wants to live somewhere else. It is one of those things that goes with giving an animal its freedom and pigeons flying free is the greatest feeling for all pigeons fanciers - it is that vast difference from just having captive birds of any species as virtual static pets. Out in that blue sky are a lot of predators and once the pigeon takes to the air it become part of that scene. There are electric light wires, there are many un-noticed obstacles that are dangerous to all birds and most people do not know about the drama that is forever unfolding in the skys overhead - when you get time, just sit and look up and listen for half an hour and see and hear all the movement in the air. Listen to the change of chatter for all the little birds in your garden when they are telling one another where the resident Goshawk is at the moment - see the beauty and grace of the many Australian Hobbys in your area and that rare sighting of the Peregrine Falcon and how your pigeons deal with that emergency. You probably need to be a pigeon fancier or a bird watcher to really get to fully understand the activity that goes on in the sky above where your pigeons live. Of course a pigeon has 30 million years of instinct to back it up and knows what to do when a hawk or a falcon wants it for breakfast. Pigeons are very good at managing out in that wide blue yonder - but yes, some do get lost and it is not a very nice feeling when they do - but, overall, it is a very stimulating occupation to see your birds free and enjoying themselves. Almost, without exception, our most cherished birds as breeders of further generations are not ususally freed for exercise as the risk of loss is far too great. Many of these birds are the very best of our racing pigeons selected after a lengthy service to propogate for the next generation. With racing there is an even greater risk of losing your birds. It is a big country and there are a lot of changes in weather conditions, such as wind and rain between where they were liberated and home, many more opportunities for predators as the pigeons pass through their territory. Pigeons properly prepared for races and good organisational management to ensure that they are not released into 'mission impossible' is extremely important. Today, there are many tools available such as communications with the liberator, Bureau of Meteorology assistance, satellite imageary and radar that collectively ensures that our birds are not released into adverse conditions and in the main they do safely return from many distant places with stories of those journeys that we, the owners and managers, can only sit and ponder and remain in awe of their ability to do what they do. These are the very basics that keeps all racing pigeon fanciers alive and in their hobby over many years. Sadly, the downside is that some do go missing and we never know where they are - it is a sense of loss and a degree of guilt that we try to obliterate by turning to our other pigeons for comfort and balance it all up with the joy, excitement and hopes that go into a new youngster emerging from its nest as a replacement and the feeling that maybe this one will be the one.
Check out my website at There is also much more on the site if you want to follow it through.

Leo Turley