Although homing pigeons are rarely used in the modern military, they were once indispensable messengers in wartime. Today, fanciers generally raise homing pigeons to race rather than to relay information. Racing pigeons fly to their respective homes from a central point. The winning bird is not necessarily the pigeon arriving home first, though; the winner is the one with the fastest speed. Training homing pigeons involves imprinting them on their resident loft at an early age, then removing and releasing them to let them find their way home, releasing them from longer and longer distances over time.
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Training a homing pigeon starts the day a chick emerges from the egg. Initially, you'll just handle the newborn, which helps the hatchling acclimate to you. You must interact with your pigeons every day, beyond simply feeding and watering them and cleaning their loft. Domesticated pigeons are not far removed from their wild cousins -- and without daily human contact, they remain semi-wild birds. You can start teach signaling from a baby pigeon's birth, using a specific command or noise, such as a whistle, to indicate feeding time. Never feed a bird anywhere but in the loft.
Out of the Loft
By the age of 6 weeks, you can let young pigeons out of their loft for flight time. Let them out prior to their evening meal on a sunny day. Let them leave the loft on their own volition -- don't force them out. They might fly several miles away but should return within an hour or so, ready for their meal. The signal you've trained with for the prior six weeks will come in handy around feeding time if any have not returned.
Conditioning birds requires reliable transportation, since you will take pigeons a certain distance and then release them. Racing-pigeon suppliers sell training and transportation crates in various sizes and materials; a single crate might carry two or 12 pigeons. You start out releasing the birds close to your base, increasing the distance as the birds improve their ability to home. Release your young birds initially in a group, but later release them one at a time. Each pigeon uses instinct to return to his loft, but that instinct develops over time. You might start out releasing pigeons just a mile or two from home. By the time they're ready for competition, they will have flown home from distances of 100 miles or more.
It's important to keep a record of each bird's flights and activities. You can keep records digitally instead of manually now, but the advice given by the Office of Navy Operations a century ago regarding the care and training of pigeons still holds true. Those instructions stated that "an exact record" of every occurrence must be kept, including all flights and each bird's performance, with any "unusual occurrence" noted. While you might not understand why something out of the ordinary occurred during a particular training session, it's possible that you can determine the reason over the course of several flights.
- First Birds' Inn: The Sport of Racing Homing Pigeons
- Wisconsin Trails: Al Porter, Pigeon Trainer
- Navy Department Library: Instructions on Reception, Care and Training of Homing Pigeons in Newly Installed Lofts at U.S. Navy Air Bases
- Dr. John Lamberton: Racing Pigeon School
- First Birds' Inn: About Us
- American Pigeon Racing Union: Home
- Western Sporting: Transport/Training