Once common and now rare in Anchorage, Racing Homers are a thrill to watch

Everyone who lives in the city has seen pigeons. To most they are just another bird in the background. Sometimes someone tosses them a piece of bread or some such in the Fred Meyer parking lot, but for the most part few give them more than a passing thought.

But, there are pigeons — and then there are Racing Homers.

Racing Homers used to be fairly commonplace in Anchorage, and less so in surrounding areas. I grew up with Homers. My dad was the president of the Alaska Racing Pigeon Association for many years, and when he passed in 2000, the pigeon club gradually went by the wayside.

There were fewer and fewer lofts. It’s difficult to find a homing pigeon anywhere in Alaska these days, although there are scattered enclaves here and there.

Two years ago, a couple of birds showed up at our place about 15 miles on the Paxson side of Delta Junction. One had been hit by a goshawk and was struggling; the other only lasted a day or so before the hawk came back and took it. My daughter captured the injured bird and nursed it back to health.

We eventually captured a feral bird in a Fairbanks parking lot and were able to raise a couple of young ones. These birds were not homing pigeons. The pigeons that fly around our towns are technically rock doves, commonly called Barneys, short for “barnyard bird.” They are considered pests. The city of Anchorage traps and kills about a thousand a year in a futile attempt to control the population.

Homing pigeons stay at their home loft. Should they be released away from their home, they return home as fast as they are able. This homing trait gave rise to pigeon racing.

However, long before the sport of racing pigeons gained popularity, pigeons were used as messengers. They were used in 1200 B.C to convey news between cities regarding the flood stage of the Nile River. They were used by Genghis Khan to spread word of his conquests. They were usd by the military to send messages from the front lines in both world wars.

There is evidence pigeon racing may have occurred as far back as 220 A.D. The first documented major races were held in Belgium in the early 1800s.

The sport of racing pigeons is worldwide. In Taiwan alone, more 500,000 people participate in pigeon racing. You think a $500,000 purse in the Iditarod Sled Dog race is a big deal? There are million of dollars in Chinese pigeon racing purses.

The latest trend to rebuild the homing pigeon scene in the United States is something called a one-loft race. Pigeon breeders from around the country and overseas send young birds to a single “Home” loft. These birds are then trained and raised; a single loft may train several thousand birds.

The idea is that all of the birds from various lofts are trained and fed identically. Thus, in theory, you are racing against breeding alone.

It isn’t cheap to enter one of these single-loft races. The initial fee is $100 per bird, with another $300 due if your bird makes the cut in the preliminary races that lead up to the main event. One-loft races are like what the Kentucky Derby is to horse racing.

There are many smaller clubs and pigeon lofts around the country that hold races between local members. There is little or no money involved. The races are run for bragging rights and mostly for the enjoyment of watching the birds fly.

Homing pigeons can hit speeds of 80 mph under favorable conditions. In races of 100 miles, 40-50 mph is common.

Our Barneys are lucky to reach 40 mph with a tailwind, and so, we went searching for Homers.

A Craigslist ad brought no responses so I opted to reach out of state. A club in Washington answered my query and soon two very nice homing pigeons arrived at our local post office.

We already have the loft. This mated pair of beautiful birds will hopefully be the basis of a new pigeon loft in Alaska.

Pigeons that have been raised elsewhere — and flown — can never be released to fly here. They would do their darnedest to get back to their original home in Washington. However, their offspring will hopefully be in the air by the end of summer.

Racing the birds matters little. The thrill of watching the birds fly home from a release is reward enough.

Pigeons are our oldest domesticated birds. They are basic and simple enough to send a message back to the home loft. They make email look pretty complicated, don’t you think?

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.