Racing pigeons in the outback is a game of survival that attracts a dedicated bunch of bird lovers who live and breathe their sport.

Story By Nick Cook

Dawn breaks gently over the desert landscape south of Alice Springs, its sunlight finding Charlie Forbes and Wayne Brady already on their feet preparing for a task they’ve travelled 1300 kilometres to complete. The soft cooing of homing pigeons augments the familiar morning warbling of native birds. Charlie’s trailer is filled with three levels of birds that will soon be released to retrace the path they have taken until they arrive at their various homes in the Adelaide region. Most of those that complete the race will get there before Charlie or Wayne.
The pigeons in the trailer are sharp-eyed and clean-feathered, standing tall and showing off the glistening green patches that signify their high breeding. Charlie says they are as different to the feral pigeons found in cities as thoroughbred stallions are to wild brumbies.
Charlie’s been flying pigeons since he was 14, when he and a mate jumped the fence into a neighbour’s yard and helped themselves to a pigeon each from his loft. “He caught us, but instead of giving us a flogging he gave us the pigeons,” Charlie says. “My mate wasn’t allowed to keep his, so I ended up with two and I haven’t looked back since. Once it gets in your blood – that desire to breed the best birds you can – you just can’t help but keep doing it.”
At the scheduled time the two men from the South Australian Homing Pigeon Association stand ready, then Charlie pulls the pin while Wayne flings the gate open. The pigeons tumble out into the air, accompanied by the percussive beat of their wings. They don’t disappear immediately but fly back and forward as a flock, as though trying to find their bearings or pick up a trail. After a while a pattern emerges and it becomes obvious that each new turn takes them inexorably further south, until they recede to the size of a faint black mist on the horizon before disappearing altogether. Charlie gets on the phone to report that the birds were “out of sight in two minutes”, which will be welcome news to the owners back home waiting for an update. Then he and Wayne get into an argument over the strength and direction of the wind that makes them seem like mismatched partners in a buddy cop movie. It’s important information because the owners who are waiting need to have a rough idea of when their pigeons are expected to return, particularly those who don't have electronic timers and will therefore need to keep a sharp eye out.
Among those waiting are Rod and Judy Billing, who live on the outskirts of Adelaide and become race winners when one of their pigeons arrives home an impressive 20 hours later (after flying at an average speed of 65km/hr). “If you can win Alice Springs, that’s the pinnacle of pigeon racing,” Judy says. “We feel over the moon.”
Rod has been racing pigeons since he was a boy and they’ve been doing it as a couple for the past 35 years. The birds don’t require a huge amount of maintenance, just regular food and water and a daily clean of their loft, but the shared passion adds an extra dimension to Rod and Judy’s relationship. “It’s given us an interest now that the kids have left home and are off our hands,” Judy says. “It gives us something to talk about and it’s good that I know where he is all the time – in the backyard with the pigeons.”
Training the pigeons involves taking them out to find their way home, starting with short distances and gradually increasing the length until their speed and homing ability are up to racing standard. “Our general rule is that once they can beat us home we take them out further,” Judy says. One of the most fascinating things about homing pigeons is that nobody knows for sure exactly how they find their way. “It’s baffled scientists,” she says. “That’s why they’re so intriguing. There are different theories but they just can’t work it out. They reckon they might have their own inbuilt radar.”
As impressive as that radar is, if indeed that is how they navigate, it’s not foolproof. Of the four pigeons the Billings sent to Alice Springs, the winner is the only one to make it home. They weren’t the only ones to end the race with lofts slightly less populated. Altogether 222 pigeons were sent north with Charlie and Wayne, only 28 of which completed the journey before the race was declared over and times stopped being taken. Some stragglers may have come in since, but a month down the track Judy and Rod’s missing birds still haven’t materialised.

This story excerpt is from Issue #68

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2010