We hung out with one of Toronto's finest pigeon racers to find out why anyone would want to pigeon race. If the sport's death rattle is anything to go by, it seems like a lot of other people have the same question.
A pigeon, thinking about racing. Or maybe it's just thinking about eating and flying. Maybe it hates racing. Who's to say? Photos by Dan Berlin
Paul Tsiampas paces back and forth on his Toronto rooftop while his racing partner and biggest competitor, Nancy LeBlond, tends to his restaurant below. He glances up at the midday sky and back down at his watch. “Anytime now,” says Tsiampas, anxiously anticipating the return of any one of his 23 racers. It’s been six long hours since his prized possessions were released from their starting point, some 300 miles away. The wait is excruciating.
While their suspense will soon be over, the sport they love may also be nearing its end. Despite its rich history, pigeon racing is a dying sport in Canada, struggling to attract a new generation of competitors. Kids these days, it seems, are more inclined to participate in activities that involve the internet and not hanging out on roofs cleaning pigeon shit out of cages and hair.
Invented in Belgium in the early 1800s, pigeon racing has existed in Canada for nearly a century. There are currently 5,000 pigeon racers competing across 101 racing clubs nationally. The stars of the races are homing pigeons, whose genetically built-in GPS makes this sport possible. On race days, the birds are driven to starting points up to 375 miles away, where trainers simultaneously release hundreds of birds from competing lofts into the air. Pigeons scatter in all directions, dodging deadly hydro wires, hungry hawks, and hunters' bullets in their attempt to find a way back home in the fastest time possible. Following their grueling flight, each pigeon, sporting a timing device around their tiny ankle, must reenter their loft through a gate equipped with an electronic sensor that records their time. Here, precious seconds—and even the race—can be won or lost, so the handler must calmly and quickly lure the pigeon inside. The bird that records the best overall velocity, measured in meters traveled per minute, is declared the winner.
Six months ago, in the wee hours of a cold spring morning, Tsiampas is awake and dressed. He walks across the roof from his apartment to his adjacent loft, which he built for $25,000 a decade ago. The 4' x 16'' thermal structure stands complete with nesting boxes to accommodate more than 40 pigeons and a white-stained plywood floor from years of exposure to pigeon crap. A small hammer hangs on the wall that, according to him, is there for good luck. Tsiampas’s youngest birds, now three months old, are finally mature enough to train. With the morning sun still nowhere in sight, he loads 24 of these baby birds into wooden baskets and drives them some 12 miles away in his trusty Ford pickup truck. Once there, he opens the basket lids and watches them fly off together, disappearing into the dark sky. At first he isn't sure if they will return, but when they flap back to his roof an hour later he knows they’re ready to race.
While people like Tsiampas and LeBlond remain dedicated to the ritual of breeding, training, and caring for pigeons year after year, the next generation of pigeon racers is becoming harder and harder to find. Today’s youth is less active and seems more interested in blazing kush in front of 3D TVs. “Young kids don’t want anything to do with animals,” says the 59-year-old Tsiampas. “It’s too much work. They don’t want to get up at 4 AM and take pigeons for a training toss.” But kids aren’t the sport’s only detractors. In places like Cornwall, Ontario, municipal bylaws are in the works to ban pigeon breeding in residential areas due to its unsightly and unwanted mess.
Dedicated animal activists also threaten the sacred tradition of pigeon racing. In April 2012 PETA released a 15-month undercover investigation that exposed a cruel and ugly truth about pigeon racing: the rampant slaughter of unwanted birds at season’s end. “When pigeons are used in these races, the birds aren’t voluntarily participating in this,” says Lisa Watney, a spokesperson for PETA. “It’s not a romantic sport—it’s a pastime that costs birds their lives.” Like many other pigeon racers in Canada, Tsiampas competes solely in “young bird” races, featuring strictly pigeons under the age of one. At the end of the season the majority of his birds not retained for breeding are killed. “[Activists] would say, ‘You’re an animal killer.’ Maybe I am,” says Tsiampas. “But it doesn’t mean I’m harming them.” Despite not knowing what the word "harm" means, Tsiampas is a lifelong animal lover and can’t bear to kill the birds himself. He annually leaves his unwanted birds for a friend in a basket on his front stoop, because his friend likes to eat pigeons. Turns out pigeons that fail at pigeon racing are still good at being tasty.
The wait is finally over. His bird now in sight, Tsiampas feels that signature rush coursing through his veins. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," he shouts incessantly, while shaking a can of peanuts, trying to grab the bird's attention. The bird finally comes to rest on the loft’s perch, and with both grace and precision, Tsiampas grabs his trusty six-foot-long bamboo rod and ushers the bird through the gate to record its all-important time and velocity. Success. Pigeon No. 2061, issued to LeBlond, finds her way home in under six and a half hours, a good time by race standards.
"She always beats me," laughs Tsiampas.
But as luck—and skill—would have it, LeBlond not only beat out her lifelong friend that day, but competitors from lofts across the province, capturing first prize in the inaugural Newcastle Bow Open. It marked the second time in her career that the 57-year-old LeBlond would capture a coveted 'open' title to go along with Tsiampas’s unprecedented eight open victories over his four decades of racing.
“When I was a kid, I always thought I was flying,” says Tsiampas. “Maybe that’s why I’m for the birds.” Or maybe it’s for his love of the game.