As Summer morphs into Autumn, the Sonoma County calendar fills with events; most of which revolve around the wine industry. However, October 27th. belongs to the Breeders’ Challenge when after months of training, the racing pigeons come home to roost.
Somewhere in the rolling hills of Sonoma County is a long, low building known as “the loft” where pigeons are training to compete in the year’s longest race.
Since mid-July, breeders have mailed their birds to “the loft” for training. Like marathon runners, racing pigeons must gain the strength and endurance to fly 350 miles without stopping. While gaining strength, the bird brains build the latitude and longitude their built in GPS will use for navigating back to the loft.
The Challenge Race
The evening of October 26, the birds, each in their special crate, will be loaded on a truck then driven across the California border to a location 350 miles from home. They will chow down on a carb-loaded dinner and wait for dawn. As the sun rises on October 27, the birds will be released.
Immediately, they will head for home. The digital bar code on their leg band records each bird’s time of departure. The pigeons rise high to clear mountain passes then drop following the valleys. For approximately ten hours they will be in the air, battling wind and weather. Some will fall prey to hawks patrolling the air currents above them. A few will lose their bearing, wandering of course. As each bird arrives home, the bar code records the minute and second of its arrival. A computer program calculates each bird’s flight speed. The fasted bird wins the challenge, and a $150,000 prize.
Bird on a Rail
I learned about this because I opened the back door to find a beautiful pigeon sitting on the porch railing. Instead of flying away, she merely cocked her head and sidled off a step. Its feet were banded: a green band on the right, a pink one on the left. She was obviously used to being around people.
After spending time with google, I found a contact for the Sonoma County Racing Pigeon Club. Mike (the contact) told me that pigeons don’t fly at night. If the bird was still perched on my porch railing when it grew dark, I could catch it simply by shining a flashlight in its eye. The bright light would paralyze the flight response long enough for me to catch the bird and zip it safely into a cat carrier.
Mike arrived early the following morning with a bird box and his laptop. From the green band on the right foot, he identified the owner, and was able to return the bird to it’s home in Sebastapol. A bird story that ended well