Eagles Talon Loft is home to champion racing pigeons
If you see a flock of pigeons flying over Caledonia, they very likely are racing pigeons from Jerry VanRavenhorst’s Eagles Talon Loft.
VanRavenhorst let about 40 young birds out during his interview with this reporter, so now I’ll know what to look for, and I’ll know that some very special athletes are exercising.
Pigeon racing is the sport of releasing specially trained racing pigeons which then return to their homes over a carefully measured distance. The time it takes the animal to cover the specified distance is measured and the bird’s rate of travel is calculated and compared with all of the other pigeons in the race to determine which animal returned at the highest speed. Velocity is determined by dividing the distance into yards, then dividing the yards by the number of minutes it took the bird to return. In this way, a winner can be determined accurately even though the distance to the different birds’ lofts may vary.
Races can often be won and lost by only a matter of seconds. VanRavenhorst said that with the timing mechanisms they now utilize, the birds are clocked to within 100th of a second. The club VanRavenhorst is a part of has races that range in distance from 80 to 600 miles. Usually the birds are back the same day they’re released, but for races over 400 miles a race will take two days. On the day of our interview there was going to be a race beginning in Burlington, Iowa (250 miles) which VanRavenhorst, as race secretary, cancelled because of rain. “I would have a lot more people upset with me if we had a race and it rained, than if we cancelled a race and it didn’t rain,” he said. Birds can fly in a light rain but if the rain is heavier or constant, the feathers can become wet through and then the bird goes down. They then have to wait until their feathers dry out before taking off again.
Racing pigeons as a sport goes back to the time of Christ. There are stories of legendary pigeons who delivered messages during times of war. Cher Ami flew 25 miles in 25 minutes to deliver a message which saved 200 lives during WWI. He had been blinded in one eye, lost a leg and had been shot in the breastbone leaving a hole the size of a quarter. Frantic medics managed to save his life, if not his leg, and even fitted him with a wooden substitute. For his bravery the French awarded the little bird one of their highest honors, the French Croix de Guerre with a palm leaf. Cher Ami was brought to the U.S. by his very grateful surviving soldiers and can now be seen at the Smithsonian. Cher Ami came from England, but GI Joe, the famous homing pigeon who saved hundreds of lives during WWII came from the U.S. He flew 20 miles in 20 minutes to deliver a message that saved lives by only five minutes. Pigeons were also used as message carriers by nobility and businessmen. They have been variously known as carrier pigeons, messenger pigeons, racing homers, homing pigeons and homing Antwerps, named after the city of Antwerp, Belgium. It was in Belgium in the early 1800s that birds were specifically bred to fly fast and for long distances and where competitions were organized. Belgium is usually regarded as the birthplace of the sport of racing pigeons. Racing in the U.S. started in Philadelphia in the 1870s.
VanRavenhorst says that the question he is most often asked is “how do they know how to come home.” There is only speculation. Some say it’s the sun, others magnetism, but it certainly isn’t just any one of the things we can think up. Jerry’s belief is that it is plain and simple, a God given gift.
VanRavenhorst started his experience with pigeons as a boy on the farm near Blooming Prairie/Austin. He had various pigeons (there are 100s of breeds). He had a couple of homing pigeons that when he would take out and release would return home much to his delight.
He and his young family moved off the farm and went to Albania and Kosovo to serve as missionaries. Their four boys who went along with them were two to 10 years old at the time they left and were 12 to 20 years old by the time they returned to the U.S.
They moved to Caledonia in 2002 to work with the Bread of Life Church. One day he was visiting a friend in Duluth who had racing homers. Jerry made the comment that he should get back into a hobby like that. His friend said ‘Go home, build yourself a loft and I’ll give you some.’ “So I did, and I was expecting to get a couple of pigeons and he gave me 12 birds – 6 pair,” said VanRavenhorst. “He upgraded me a couple of times so I ended up with pretty good pigeons.” Good pigeons, indeed – his stack of diplomas (earned when your bird wins or places in a race) is almost an inch thick and he has yard-high trophies, one for a champion bird and one for his champion loft.
Mike Gran of Caledonia, also a pigeon fancier, introduced VanRavenhorst to the La Crosse United Flyers. The La Crosse club is a part of the American Racing Pigeon Union, also known as the AU or ARPU which has approximately 700 affiliated clubs around the country. The La Crosse club has 10 members right now. “It’s a great sport, but mostly it’s older people that are doing it,” said VanRavenhorst. “There are a few young ones. The AU encourages junior members to join and fees are cheaper for them. It would be a great sport for 4-Hers or any kid.
“To make things more competitive, clubs in La Crosse, Sparta and Nekoosa formed what is known as a combine, and last year we joined with a group out of the Cities to form a federation,” said VanRavenhorst. He is the race secretary for his club and for the combine. “In a week will be the Midwest Classic from Topeka, Kansas, one of the biggest races in the country.”
Birds are fitted with a band for identification which never comes off. When the bird has proven that it knows enough to come home it is fitted with another band that contains a chip for homing and racing purposes. Birds that are lost or injured can be returned to their owner using the information on their identification band. VanRavenhorst has had birds become lost and has recovered them thanks to people who go to the trouble to find him. Owners can be found online; just google racing or homing pigeon; the AU site has the information, or you can call VanRavenhorst. He had one bird that flew over 50 races in a two year span and came home every time; then, after one race he didn’t return and hasn’t come back yet. Sometimes birds will be gone for long periods before coming home. After thinking he would never see a bird again, it can suddenly show up in the loft. But, he says, the most trouble he’s had are the Coopers hawks, Peregrine falcons and chicken hawks right in his own neighborhood in Caledonia. It’s a sad moment when he finds a trail of feathers in the grass. VanRavenhorst said that if his flock of birds perches on the light poles by Veteran’s Memorial baseball field by his house he knows there’s probably a hawk in the neighborhood. The pigeons are waiting until it’s safer to come all the way home because as they sit on the roof of the loft or the outside of the cage area they’re easy pickings for raptors. “In the fall when they fly in groups hunters will shoot at them, the birds hurt themselves on highwires and some just don’t come home,” said VanRavenhorst.
When there is a race, the birds are placed in wooden baskets and taken to the clubhouse where they clock them into the computer. 30 pigeons go in a crate in a pigeon trailer which is then driven to the release location. All the birds are released at around 6 a.m. the moring of the race. “They fly from 40 to 60 miles per hour, sometimes faster, sometimes slower depending on incidences along the way,” said VanRavenhorst.
VanRavenhorst feeds his pigeons seeds of various kinds, peas, wheat, rice, “and they love safflower,” he said. Before a race they try to feed seeds with more carbohydrates and fats which the birds can store for the long distances. He said that peanuts and corn are the best feed for energy and body fat.
These avian athletes, “Just like race horses,” said VanRavenhorst, “have pedigrees. We keep track of their ancestry.” One can obtain a racing pigeon for free or pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for one bird. Paying a lot of money for one bird can be understood when you know that races, called one loft races, exist where one can bet on the outcome. Here a winner can come home with as much as $100,000, but in Africa millions of dollars are on the line. These races go on all over the world. Pigeon racing is a national sport in Belgium and Holland and is very big in England and Germany as well.
Birds start racing when they’re two months old and can race for seven to eight years. There are two seasons of races. Young birds fly in the spring and summer season and older birds late summer and fall. Jerry has some breeders that are over 10 years old and some can live for up to 20 years. Jerry showed this reporter various birds with their different colors. There is silver, black, check, blue bar, grizzle, white and red. The color white is very popular and some owners keep white “doves” that can be released at special events like weddings. Jerry said the birds have personalities and are very intelligent. “They have to know how to come home, so they have to be smart,” he said. Racing pigeons’ eyes are bright with color and intelligence whereas the eyes of pigeons in your barn and the city park are dull and black. Also, Jerry pointed out, “Racing pigeons’ beaks have more of an arc where regular pigeon beaks are straight like a robin’s.”
If anyone is interested in the sport of racing pigeons Jerry says they can see him and he’ll set them up. “It would cost zero or very little. It’s a fun sport; I’d like to see it continue,” he said.