Flying - Walking or Racing - Running?

In spite of all the research that's been done, discussions that take place and ideas that are bandied about concerning the wonders of pigeon racing, the daily feats of the birds remain hidden and continue to mystify and dumbfound us. The greatest miracle of all remains as ever -- how the birds manage to find the direction of their lofts from unknown sites many hundreds of kilometres away. At the same time it is inexplicable how experienced pigeons are sometimes lost from a release point close to home; pigeons that have returned home from far greater distances and that have passed by the calamitous spot many times before. But this article is not about homing – which we will leave for another time.

Equally dumbfounding, we wonder how it can be possible that pigeons are able to keep flying for 18 hours or more without replenishing their energy sources. They stop for and take in water – often apparent from their muddy or slime-covered feet and legs – but no food. Most humans cannot run all day – even with an adequate supply of drinking water and food at advantageous spots along the route. There are other facts about flying (racing) that puzzle us. For instance; If we assume that pigeons put in a concerted effort when they race, why then does a pigeon that has just completed a race of 800km, not pant? Under normal circumstances a pigeon never pants – not from 10, 100 or 1000km. How can it be possible that a bird, kept as a prisoner for many months, can return to racing and within one month, be amongst the leaders? There are numerous anecdotes of erstwhile prisoner pigeons that returned to racing and which, after about only one month's training, were shipped to a race point 800km or more away to return and end amongst the winners? Or how can a prisoner escape from breeding loft and do a solo journey, returning to his previous owner, up to 1600km away, within the space of a few days? How is it possible that a squeaker, having only circled the loft and having done no other serious training, can latch onto pigeons in a racing batch and fly with them for 500 or 600km?

These cases are all on record and there are many more such instances that appear to be simply unbelievable. Most fanciers can vouch for them. At this moment, with our present mindset, we are not able to adequately explain these phenomenal feats. Is it not time to adjust our thinking in an effort to understand what happens? Perhaps an approach to the problem of pigeon racing from a different angle will yield better results?

Is not the reason why we find these phenomenal occurrences so difficult to understand because we tend to compare the flying efforts of pigeons with those of human athletic striving? What if this were totally incorrect? There are many differences between earth-walking creatures and flying birds. Is it wise to compare them? Even on a superficial scrutiny there is actually very little that can stand up to comparison. For instance, pigeons can fly and we (land animals) must walk, the breathing apparatus of birds works differently to that of mammals, the heart rate of birds is vastly in excess of mammals, birds have feathers where most land animals have fur, mammalian muscles are fuelled by glycogen whereas avian muscle is mainly dependent on fat for energy and so on – there are many more. During research into the physiology of pigeon muscle and its functions it was shown that it is quite different to that of human muscle.

It seems to me that in order to further clarify the pigeon-racing concept we have to understand a few basic facts about pigeon racing flight.

The first point is that pigeons when racing, do not 'race' home. The birds do not realise that they are in a race. Because man discovered many years ago that pigeons had the capability of homing from foreign and faraway places, he used this ability of the birds to create a competition between fanciers. Whose birds could return home the quickest? From here it was but a small step to select, breed and produce pigeons that were more and more adept at returning home quickly. But still the birds themselves were totally oblivious that they 'raced' against one another. The fanciers competed – the pigeons just flew back to home and hearth.

The second point brings us back to the concept of the CFV, i.e. the Comfortable Flight Velocity. As explained in a previous article, the CFV is the flying speed with which a pigeon will return home on a clear, windless, temperate day with no exterior influences and before fatigue plays a role.

Thirdly it seems that we must make a comparison of the flight activity with that of a known concept, as it then becomes so much easier to grasp the idea. This idea is possibly a rather controversial premise, yet it is the probably the most important if we are to understand pigeon racing. It suggests that racing or flying at the CFV in pigeons may be likened to fast walking in humans. When once the idea is accepted, all the questions re the 'special abilities' of pigeons suddenly click into understanding. When flying lazily around the loft, pigeons are doing what 'strolling' is to man. When circling, they are 'walking' and when racing they are 'walking fast'. When evading attack by a predator, they are 'running' and that's when pigeons pant, although I believe that the nervous excitement plays a role in the panting as well.

Running or walking?

Let's compare other activities of wild animals:

Q: Do they run when moving about from one grazing spot to the next?

A: No, then why should flying birds 'race' when they go fielding?

Q: When animals move to their watering holes do they run?

A: No, then why would pigeons do so?

Q: When animals migrate, do they run from one area to the next?

A: No, then why should migrating birds do so?

And some similarities;

A human can walk all day or more, stopping only perhaps to drink.

A pigeon can fly all day – and half the next.

A fit human does not pant from normal walking.

A pigeon does not pant from normal flying. In humans and animals, panting occurs when exercise is performed at high speed. Panting occurs in pigeons when they have been chased by predators; demonstrating that they do pant when exercising at high speed. This leads one to deduct that when they do NOT pant – as in flying (racing) – exercise is not being performed at a high speed.

In his series of articles on the exercise and training that pigeons must do in preparation for racing, Joggie Peters (no relation – just a good friend) makes the valid point that pigeons can achieve fitness with less training than human athletes. (This dovetails nicely with what we saw in the above cases where untrained or scarcely trained birds flew many hundreds of kilometres.) But why should this be so? Is it not because the birds only need to prepare for lengthy exercise at what we would call a 'fast walking' pace, whereas human athletes need preparation to compete at maximum output? During racing, pigeons never reach the point of maximum output.

What is the significance?

If we accept the premise that pigeons 'race' at a 'fast walking' pace, what if any, is the significance hereof? Is there any practical value in knowing this supposition?

Would all our knowledge, theories and premises about breeding and genetics still be true? Yes, they would!

And would the importance of good muscle development, the correct wing design and the effect that climatic variations have on racing velocity, drag, position and so on still be applicable to racing? Yes, they would!

And would an effective loft, good management, perfect health, good food, adequate training – would all these prerequisites still be applicable? Yes, they would!

If we accept then that pigeons are not aware of being in a competition, that they 'walk' home and that they walk at their CFV, what do we have? What determines the winners?

When pigeons fly home they are 'walking' as a group. Obstacles like big buildings, 'koppies' (hills), large trees etc split the group and very often the split group does not reunite. Any birds not fit or failing in constitution, fall behind. After several hours, when fatigue begins to set in the tired birds also drop behind. Eventually we have various groups all-flying in roughly the same direction. But who wins the race? It is any member from the group that takes the shortest route home. Within that final group there will be leaders and followers. Any one of them can win. The pigeon within that final group that is most motivated has the best loft position and traps quickest, will be the eventual winner.

Road Training – How much is enough?

But now consider this question; What difference does the total distance of training tosses done in the week (or hours on the wing in training) make?

Before examining the last question I would like to pose another.

When pigeons are being tossed, what is being trained, the body or the mind? Or; What is the purpose of the road training? At first it might seem a mindless question but let me explain a little more. We are talking now of pigeons that are already fit and have had one or more races. Let us first consider the body. The pigeons are already fit. (Remember that they 'walk' when 'racing'). Is there any purpose in further heavy training? When 'walking', the musculature is not strained to the limit. All that is required is to keep the muscles loose, the weight down and the bird keen. I submit that limited (30 minutes or less) training is as valuable as severe training – with one exception, to which I'll come later.

In my opinion it is the mind that requires the most training. It seems like a paradox because I am also of the opinion that one cannot really teach which route to fly. However, it appears that repeated releases, either from different spots or from the same point, assist in enhancing the homing capacity of the birds. And it is this sharpened homing ability that makes the difference at the end of the day. Pigeons that are trained often can be seen to turn homewards almost immediately upon release. We have previously discussed how this leads to 'reflex homing' but I think that it has additional advantages. It seems that reaffirmation of the correct direction to fly is done repeatedly during races and tosses, with minor adjustments to the course setting being made all the time. The additional confidence brought on by the strong ability to interpret the various 'input signals' and find home unerringly, goes far towards making the winner. Birds that are not subject to these repeated releases take longer to find the correct direction and lose it more easily.

I would contend then that road training is aimed more at tuning the mind. If this is so and we also assume that pigeons cannot tell how far they are from home (a contentious issue) then it means that once the muscles are fit, we do not have to train from great distances at all. Would this not be a pleasure! Think of the many hours saved! To say nothing of the fuel used!

There is one exception. Pigeons that are entered into races when the velocity is slow are usually birds that are very well trained. When the faster races are flown the winners are often pigeons that were trained lightly.

Why this is so, remains somewhat obscure but if we may conjecture; exercise builds muscle and muscle is weight. Slower headwind races are more suited to birds with a bigger wing loading or in other words to pigeons with a relatively heavier musculature. This is probably because headwinds provide extra lift enabling the pigeon to utilise its wing power for thrust production and not lift production. Additionally the stronger (heavier) muscles are more powerful and better suited for battling against the headwind. It must be clearly understood that this is definitely does not apply to slower races that are slow because of extreme heat. Here the opposite applies, namely that the lighter birds are at an advantage.

Healthy body – healthy mind

Finally, there is not a more accurate place to give credence to the saying – 'a healthy mind in a healthy body', than in pigeon racing. Whatever the reason for the lack of body fitness, it reflects immediately in a delayed and inaccurate homing ability. Whether it be recently administered medicines (antibiotics particularly), disease, lack of fresh air, draughty lofts or any of numerous conditions, if the body is not right, the mind lags behind. Nowhere is this truer than in pigeon racing and it is the root cause of the sometimes-inexplicable failure of many champions and potential champions.

By Dr. Wim Peters

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