A specialty racing pigeon competing in a nearly 500-mile race across Ontario, Canada, got lost and ended up in Chetek on Saturday, July 25.
The bird landed at Crimson Hue Resort, owned by Jennifer and Matt Blatz. While the bird has delighted kids at the resort, the Blatzes are now looking for ways to help the lost bird return 600 miles directly to its home in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, near Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
The Blatzes first found the bird on Saturday morning when they were outside of one of the cabins. It walked up to them and didn’t fly away when they got close, so they knew it was tame. They noticed it had metal bands on its legs, listing a website and a code.
Via the website, they learned the bird was a lost racing pigeon and were able to contact the bird’s owner, a man named Tony Rodgers, from Burlington. Because of international travel restrictions, Rodgers asked the Blatzes to look after the bird for a day or two so it could recuperate for its journey back.
Jennifer and Matt got a crate with a perch, birdseed, water and a bath. The bird was hungry and thirsty, and walked right into the crate, they said.
They released it on Monday morning, but it stuck around for the day and was back on Tuesday, July 28. Jennifer said, on Rodger’s recommendation, they were looking for someone heading toward Detroit and Flint, Mich., to release the bird there, closer to its home.
Pigeon racing is similar to horse racing, wherein birds are bred for their pedigree, there are races of different lengths and there are different age groups, Rodgers explained via phone on Monday, July 27. The bird lost in Chetek, which is identified by the number 442 on a band on its foot, was in a roughly 500-mile race that began two weeks ago on July 11 in Hearst, Ontario, Canada. Flying 30–60 mph over the ground, depending on the wind, a bird can cover 500 miles or more in a day.
There was an unexpected storm that popped up during the race and he suspected the 2.5-year-old bird tried to fly around it, then got lost on the U.S. side of Lake Huron. The birds don’t like flying over large bodies of water, he said. Rodgers had heard from someone near Holland, Mich., (near Grand Rapids, Mich.) that had found 442 last week. Apparently the bird was still a bit confused and flew west, eventually landing in Chetek.
While racing pigeons have a seemingly magical ability to find their way home over hundreds of miles (usually), when they get tired or hungry, they go into “survival mode” and start searching for a safe place to land, Rodgers said.
“When he is fed and watered and feeling strong, that little ‘GPS’ kicks in again,” Rodgers said, meaning the bird should continue on its journey home.
He noted it is not exactly known how they navigate over vast distances, but he thinks they use a combination of the earth’s magnetic field, the position of the sun, scents and familiar landmarks to return home. Messenger pigeons were used in World War I and World War II to send vital messages.
After birds are hatched, the first place where they are let out becomes the home they return to, Rodgers explained. After they get about four months old, they are trained by taking them a few hundred yards away and releasing them. The distance gradually increased up to 60–70 miles; then they are ready for long-distance races. Most races are between 100 and 500 miles, but some clubs organize 1,000-mile-long races, Rodgers said.
There are several different types of races, but usually, all the birds are released at once from one point and they fly back to their individual home coops, or lofts, as they are called. The birds’ bands have radio-frequency ID tags that register the time when they return. Because lofts are different distances away from the starting point, the distance from the start to finish is divided by the race time to calculate the average speed. The bird with the fastest speed, not necessarily the fastest time, wins, Rodgers said.
Races are organized by clubs and there are national and international organizations, like the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union. These organizations help standardize racing rules, as well as help lost birds get reunited with owners. The CRPU was how the Blatzes were able to contact Rodgers.
Most birds make it back from races. Some don’t, due to hazards like predators snatching them. Some birds have returned to him after two years. Those birds might have found a friendly place to stay or perhaps someone captured the bird to raise their own racing pigeons, Rodgers said.
Rodgers has been racing for at least 56 years, starting when he was a child. He has around 80 birds currently and usually races around eight to 12 birds in a race. Some people have as many as 200 birds. The father of 442 was his best racing pigeon, so he has a good pedigree, Rodgers said.
He said it is a fun sport, but it is a dying hobby in North America. It remains popular in Europe. Races don’t usually have large cash prizes for top winners, but he said it is a great sport to get out of the house with. He also noted it is fun and fairly simple to take care of the birds. He gets a sense of pride when a bird returns after a race.
“I just love seeing the birds coming home,” Rodgers said.