For many of us, pigeons are simply birds that litter our city centre on the prowl for half-eaten chips or anything else they can get their beak around. As they strut and lurch through the high-street hunting for scraps, they do not give the impression of being a particularly graceful or intelligent bird. The latter assumption is a misconception though, as pigeons are widely considered to be one of the most intelligent bird species on the planet. This is something we know as they have long been subject to a wide range of cognitive tests.
Although there are other smart birds on our planet, what makes pigeons especially unique is their ability to find a way back home, even over extremely long distances. Such a trait is not something all pigeons possess but it is a characteristic of the mail pigeon, a variety specifically bred for this purpose. Using magnetoreception, these pigeons can consistently return to a specific point (their home) even when hundreds of miles away. Most other birds cannot do this and instead they are only capable of learning migration routes.
Because of how reliably homing pigeons can fly to a specific location, they were frequently used in World War I and World II to deliver important messages. They have continued to be bred to this day with their purpose rather mixed. Some narcotics gangs have used the birds to smuggle drugs across borders or into prisons. Not all pigeons end up participating in crime or war though, as some are used for pigeon racing. While an extremely long way from being a mainstream sport, it does have a passionate following for those involved in it.
How Does Pigeon Racing Work?
With most sporting races, all competitors begin at (roughly) the same spot and then try and reach the same, fixed finish point in the quickest time possible. Pigeon races usually begin in the same way, with all birds released at the same time at the same location, only their destinations are not all the same. Each pigeon will aim to fly back to their home so this means some will fly further than others depending on where their own loft happens to be.
Although this is predominantly how pigeon racing operates, single-loft racing also exists. In such races, all pigeons (belonging to different owners), will be part of the same collective loft and this will be the place where they were all born. As such, all pigeons end up racing back to exactly the same location, meaning they are covering an equal distance. This type of racing has the benefit of providing a more even contest as not only will all birds fly the same distance, they will also face the same weather and wind conditions during their flight.
While GPS tracking devices are becoming increasingly smaller and lighter, they are still a little too heavy (and perhaps too expensive) for pigeon racing purposes. Instead, most pigeons race with a band on their leg that contains a tiny RFID chip. When the bird arrives home, the chip is scanned, thus recording their exact finishing time.
Such technology is widely used across sports, for example, during marathons. It is not simply a case of the first pigeon home wins though because average speed is the determining factor in pigeon races (excluding one-loft racing), often measured in yards per minute. The pigeon with the highest average speed in the race is classed as the winner. Allowances are usually given for birds flying further distances to make it a fairer contest.
Races Range from 100 to 600 Miles!
It can take quite a long time before a winner is declared too because pigeon races are not short-lived events like horse or dog races. Pigeon contests typically cover a minimum of 100 miles, with this being considered a short-distance affair would you believe? At the upper end of the scale, you can have some pigeons flying close to 600 miles for some marathon contests. Despite the immense distance covered, homing pigeons are distinctly faster than your average pigeon, certainly more so than any overweight ones you see waddling through town with a too-big piece of bread in their maw.
Over moderate distances, many pigeons can comfortably average speeds of 50 to 60mph. Some have been known to go significantly faster than this though with speeds of 80mph to 90mph witnessed in short-distance races. Nevertheless, even with these rapid speeds you are still usually waiting a few hours before a pigeon is able to return to its loft.
What Are the Big Pigeon Races?
Much pigeon racing is carried out at a local level among nearby enthusiasts. It is difficult to arrange any national, and certainly international, competitions because some birds would have their lofts close by, whereas others could be thousands of miles away. Some variance in distance is always permitted as part of the sport but it would not really work to have some birds competing over a relatively short-distance, while others are required to go five times as far or even more.
South Africa: Million Dollar Pigeon Race
The only way of having lots of competitors feature in the same race, therefore, is through a one-loft race. For these, you can potentially have thousands of birds all released at once and all flying to the exact same destination. Some one-loft races carry a very large purse due to the amount of competitors involved. In South Africa for instance, they feature one of the richest in the world, known as the Million Dollar Pigeon Race. In 2020, total prize money for this race has risen to $1.8m, with first prize awarded a very handy $300,000 of this.
Australia: Gold Coast 50000
South Africa is not the only country where it is possible to win a lot through pigeon racing. Australia is home to the Gold Coast 50000 which usually dishes over $300,000 in prize money over four races. Similarly, there are many lucrative events in China, so much so in fact that one Chinese bidder paid $1.9m for one especially talented young bird named New Kim in 2020. In doing so, this anonymous buyer broke their own record they had set a year earlier when buying a bird called Armando for $1.4m. At the time, avian ace Armando was dubbed the ‘Lewis Hamilton of racing pigeons’.
Also Popular in China & Taiwan
Although this may seem like a huge sum for “just” a pigeon, pigeon racing in China these days is a lucrative one. One club alone in Beijing for example paid out $10m in its autumn championship in 2017. It is not just China where racing pigeons can be worth big bucks either. Neighbouring Taiwan has also witnessed a huge increase in people interest in pigeon racing, with total prize money paid out over the year, across all races, exceeding one billion Taiwanese dollars. So, win a few races and the buyer of an expensive bird can easily have recouped their money. On top of this, there is also a potential fortune to be made via breeding.
Can You Bet on Pigeon Racing?
Some of the more competitive pigeon owners place wagers among themselves as to who will have the fastest bird for a particular race. They do no need a bookie for this as they will agree a bet verbally or stake the money at their club. Technically, if the club is facilitating bets (without a licence) then this would be illegal but it is incredibly difficult to police in reality. Despite the illegal, or semi-legal nature of it, PETA reported that millions of pounds ends up wagered at UK pigeon racing clubs every year.
Reasons It Is Unavailable at Licensed Bookmakers:
For members of the public though, there is usually no means of gambling on pigeon racing as it is simply not something offered by any licensed bookmaker.
1. The Issue with the Odds
The reason for this is largely two-fold. Firstly, it would be very difficult for bookies to produce odds for races given the number of birds competing in them, often with limited experience.
2. A Huge Amount of Work for Very Little Reward
It would require a huge amount of work on their part for extremely little reward given how few punters are actually interested in betting on it. It is particularly challenging too because races do not include just five to 10 birds like you would get in horse or dog racing, instead many feature hundreds and possibly even thousands.
3. Manipulation & Insider Trading Issues
Another issue is that most pigeon racing is carried out at such an amateur level that it would be far too open for manipulation and insider-trading. An owner could purposefully sabotage their own birds by giving them extra-weight and instead bet on some rival pigeons.
4. Time-Recoding Technology Possibly Unreliable
There are other perfectly innocent things that could go wrong too. It is also perfectly possible that an owner’s car could break down on the long journey to the start point, meaning none of their birds could compete. Similarly, the time-recording technology could potentially fail to work meaning the actual winner of the race could never be credited with the victory.
No Legal Way to Place a Pigeon Race Bet
With all the challenges faced, combined with the limited interest it would receive, it is little surprise bookmakers do not bother with pigeon racing. This is not to say that gambling does not exist on the sport though. In addition to the UK, discussed a little earlier, there are other instances of pigeon racing gambling across the world. Betting is strictly speaking banned in China but punters gamble on pigeon racing anyway (illegally) on a large scale with winnings completely untaxed. As race results are published live in real-time, this has facilitated a burgeoning gambling scene, further boosting the popularity of the sport.
The reality of the situation is that you will really struggle to find any legal way of betting on pigeon racing. In many countries across the world huge cumulative sums are bet on the sport, but this is done without a licence and/or in places where betting is illegal. So, if you wish to bet on a sport involving animals in a legal way, you will have to opt for horses or greyhounds.