The subjects of this competition at the Stock Show are capable of moving at blazing speeds across great distances. And they are so loyal to their owners that they have even gone to war for them.
If that description conjures images of mighty steeds, you need to be more birdbrained in your thinking. Because those same descriptors, surprisingly, apply to pigeons.
“A typical speed is about 45 to 50 mph, with no wind,” says Scot Lindsey, the pigeon show superintendent at the Stock Show, in reference to the racing homer breed of pigeon. “But I have clocked birds at more than 90 mph.”
Moreover, those speeds are not recorded in sprints. Lindsey says that racing pigeons can fly more than a thousand miles over a three-day weekend of racing, often at altitudes of thousands of feet.
But no matter how high or how far away from the release point, the birds always come home.
“A pigeon has a homing mechanism,” says Lindsey, who is in his 18th year as a superintendent at the Stock Show. “They fly off the sun, off smells, landmarks and magnetic fields of the earth. And they love their home and they love people.”
They love their human keepers so much, in fact, that they have braved shot and shell for them. Pigeons have been used in wartime communications for centuries. And some of the birds have earned places in military history by carrying vital messages in capsules attached to their legs. A bird named Cher Ami (French for “Dear Friend”) probably saved hundreds of lives in a World War I battle despite being badly wounded during a desperate flight, while G.I. Joe displayed similar heroics in World War II. In each incident, the birds averted disastrous friendly-fire tragedies. And both received military decorations for their efforts.
But the birds at the Stock Show do not have to race or dodge enemy fire. They mainly just have to look good.
“Judges look at overall health and appearance, the build of the bird, the way that he acts and the condition of the feathers,” says Lindsey, who usually keeps a flock of between 150 and 300 pigeons for racing and show.
And when Lindsey and the other breeders show their birds, they get the same sort of beauty shop treatment that a lot of the other stock at the Stock Show receive.
“We put powder on their wings. There is an oil we use on their little beaks that makes them look darker. And we use the same thing on their feet. It brightens the redness, and keeps bugs away too,” says Lindsey. “And baths. Lots of baths.”
The clean, well-oiled birds at the Stock Show also come in an amazing array of varieties.
“There are about 155 breeds of pigeon that are shown,” says Rhonda Tuley of Godley, who has shown various animals at the Stock Show dating to the 1980s, and pigeons here and elsewhere for the past 10 years. “We have racing homers and American fantails.”
That latter type of bird is one of the “fancy” pigeon breeds, suggesting that it is more showy in its feathering and, Tuley would tell you, in its demeanor.
“They are natural showmen. They throw their heads back and strut around. I think they are a little more exciting than other breeds,” she says.
Tuley further feels that pigeons make a great choice for families who want to participate in showing livestock.
“It is a relatively inexpensive way to get involved in showing animals. But [showing and racing pigeons] is also very social. There is good camaraderie in the pigeon community. You get to travel around to a lot of places and meet a lot of people.”
And, she finds the pigeons to be soothing companions.
“For me, pigeons are sort of like fish are for other people. They’re relaxing.”
But Tuley also likes to go for the ribbons.
“We are a very competitive family. We like to win,” she says with a laugh.
While pigeon competitions can be found across the country and around the world, Lindsey fears that the enthusiasm he and Tuley have for their birds is not being effectively passed on to the next generations. He feels pigeon competitions are under siege from two forces: hawks and indifference.
“When we were racing back in the 1990s, you would see a hawk every once in a while,” says Lindsey, of Fort Worth. “Since 2000, the hawks have gotten so bad that a small guy can hardly stay in it because he has to raise so many birds to be able to even compete. Hawks are literally eating our sport up. When you see them diving on your birds, it looks like the devil coming in.”
In addition to the pigeons being thinned out by birds of prey, they also seem to be having increasing trouble finding humans who want to care for them.
“No new people are coming in,” says Lindsey, citing digital distractions as the primary culprit in keeping young people away from the bird cages. “In the early 2000s, we routinely had 500 or 600 birds at this show. We have 125 this year.”
But, even if that number fell to zero, the most fundamental things would not change for Lindsey. He says that, even if there were no competitions, he would still have his birds because he treasures what they have brought him.
“We have been friends for 30 years,” says Lindsey, patting his fellow pigeon enthusiast Johnnie Haggerty on the back as the men sat at a registration table in the poultry barn. “And we met through pigeons.”