The Speed of Racing

I have often been struck by how easily the expression 'sprinters' or 'speed racing' is used. It triggers a whole chain of thoughts set off by the obvious question, "When in a race why does one pigeon arrive before the others?" The quick answer is that it "flies faster". But is this true? Why should any one pigeon fly faster than its neighbour? And, does it really fly faster than the others? To correctly and fully answer these questions may be difficult, perhaps impossible but there are basic truths, which help us arrive at an answer. Let us look at some of them.

Before anything we must discuss a concept, which I believe is fundamental to our understanding of the speed of pigeon flight. I believe that pigeons, when racing, fly at what I call the COMFORTABLE FLIGHT VELOCITY or CFV, which by definition is the 'speed' with which a pigeon will fly home on clear, windless, temperate day with no exterior influences and before fatigue plays a role'.


Consider a basket-full of your birds that, on a nice day, are taken on a fifty-kilometre toss. What happens? They may circle for a few minutes after which they head off home in a bunch and all arrive together at the loft. Have you ever considered why this should be so?

There are three possibilities:

Either all the birds fly at the same top speed, or the faster birds deliberately slow their flying speed to enable the slower birds to stay with the group, or the faster pigeons set the pace and the slower do their best to keep up.

Let us briefly discuss these possibilities.

1. Do all pigeons fly at the same top speed? Why should this be?

As surely as two people do not run at the same top speed neither do two horses gallop, two buck run, two tortoises crawl, two fish swim nor do two pigeons fly at the same top speed. It would be too incredible if this were true!

2. Do faster-flying pigeons slow down and wait for the slower?

From experience, when out tossing the birds, we have often observed how the pack (group) will leave any stragglers behind. Any pigeon that is eggy, sick or injured is unceremoniously left behind to trail the pack and arrives home many minutes later. At no time does any pigeon slow down to wait for the straggler, not even when one of two paired pigeons is effected. Conclusion? Pigeons do not wait for one another.

3. The third scenario is the most likely.

Pigeons have a strong flock-bond. All fanciers have seen how the birds form a flock and fly as a group at the slightest opportunity. With the pace of the training group being set by the faster pigeons the remainder increase their natural flying speed above that at which they would normally fly. This means that the birds are not flying at top speed but at a speed that the pacesetters can comfortably maintain.

I call this the Comfortable Flight Velocity or CFV. Logic tells us that the slower members of the group must then fly above their CFV to maintain their links with the group.

What has this to do with the racing velocity?

The CFV that pigeons record during their racing flights from any distance is also employed when racing. Pigeons do not know that they are in a race, nor do they know how far they are from home. Whether training or racing, they fly at the same CFV, regardless of the distance. Even at 1000km away from home, the racers begin their homeward journey at this CFV and its only later, when fatigue sets in, that the flying speed is adapted.

Of course we do not know what happens to the pigeons when they are 'on the road' but from the recorded results, certain deductions can be made. The most interesting one relates to actual short-distance races.

Taking all the races over a ten-year period from a number of organizations we plotted the winning velocities on graphs. As a whole, we found that the velocities did not diminish until the race distance reached about 700km. From there on a definite decline in velocity could be noticed but on any distances shorter than 700km the winning velocities were practically equal. This was true of course only when racing conditions were exactly the same for the races under consideration.

What was very illuminating was that the winning velocities of the very short races, less than 200km, actually declined. (It therefore is a complete misnomer to talk of sprint races, speed pigeons and such. The only comparison to sprints in human athletics is the short distances competed in. The actual speeds are SLOWER. This is probably also why Dr Gordon Chalmers, in his excellent studies on the muscle of racing pigeons, could find no difference in the structure and appearance of the muscle fibres that were taken from long distance and those from short distance pigeons – as opposed to human muscle where muscle fibres from sprinters appear very much different from those of long distance athletes.)

The slower speed of short distance races is probably due to the comparatively longer time taken for direction finding and the time wastage on arrival. (Note; The actual time taken is the same but relative to the total flying time it is greater e.g. 5 minutes in a race of 2.5 hours is a larger fraction than 5 minutes in a race of 5 hours). The effect of comparative time wastage is offset to some extent by the greater number of obstacles that occur during the longer races. Any obstacle will slow down the velocity somewhat – how much being totally dependent on the sort and severity of the obstacle.

But, the reader may say, when we race pigeons they do not arrive all at one time? How does this tie in with the training flight where all arrive together? The answer consists of many parts.

When looking at short distance races, the rapidity of direction finding is very important. (Why I do not use the word 'orientate' will be explained later). Any pigeon that can find the correct course home before any other has an immediate advantage.

This explains why old experienced birds do better during the first races of the season when competing against immature youngsters. The fancier plays an important role in influencing this capability. He must toss the birds often in the race direction thereby giving them experience and creating the homing reflex in his pigeons. A full minute or more may be gained over more inexperienced competitors in this way and we all know how much one-minute can mean in short-distance racing. Rapid direction finding at a young age is possibly an advantage for fast-maturing birds as many young-bird races are flown when the youngsters are still fairly young, and the more mature and experienced they are, the better they would be equipped to compete.

The second and possibly the most important reason why there often is a break between home arrivals from a race is the varying ability of the pigeons to break the flock bond. Being in full control of this instinct, is possibly the greatest attribute, which any pigeon can have – particularly in a short distance race, as a timeous break will often lead to a good result. Any delay in the breakaway will result in an equally late time arrival. All pigeon fanciers do not live in the same spot and particularly where water masses, mountain ranges or prevailing winds play a role, position can be crucial to the outcome of races. Pigeons that can break from the pack and find the shortest route home can largely overcome the disadvantages of an unfavourable position. Breeding this behaviour trait into a family of pigeons is possibly the most difficult task facing a breeder.

The strong flock-bond that pigeons possess has to do with the survival instinct, built up by many generations and it is a rare and valuable breeding bird whose offspring are in full control of this age-old genetic behaviour pattern.

During races any number of obstacles may occur. The longer the race the more exposure for the birds and the greater the chances of meeting with such hindrances. Usually all the racers are subject to a specific hindrance but localised rainsquall, for instance, may affect only some of the pigeons.

Mountain passes may be covered in cloud or mist when the leading pack arrives, forcing them to search for an alternate route and be temporarily open when the second pack arrives – this can have a dramatic effect upon the pigeons' end position in the race. Between groups homeward routes may vary as affect only those pigeons that took route A but not reach the birds on route B. Many more examples of random hindrances affecting only a percentage of the pigeons in a race could be quoted but they will be familiar to all fanciers with some experience.

During long distance races the stayers, those with a slower CFV, group together and are separated from the early front-runners. Some pigeons can persevere in their homeward drive whilst others cannot and must stop to rest, eat or drink. In the race the birds with a high CFV take an early lead while the pigeons with a slower CFV form groups that fly at a slower pace. They overtake the faster pigeons when these begin to tire and can no longer continue at their CFV. These are the 'stayers', plugging on at their slower CFV and who will then surpass the faster birds. From the above we can see therefore that the racing velocity is very much dependant upon the CFV of the pigeon.

The second essential is that the CFV for every pigeon depends upon it's breeding – which obviously is unchanging and its management which is changeable and which would incorporate training, state of health, feeding, housing etc.

Then breeding of every pigeon determines both its non-physical (mental) and its physical attributes. The physical attributes for racing being muscle quality, wing design, wing strokes per second, body mass, eye characteristics (?), and training responses. And though the non-physical attributes are even more essential for any pigeon to be successful than the physical, the two attributes are totally interdependent.

Mentally the bird must possess an overpowering desire to keep on till the bitter end whereas the physical features must be such to make the mental aptitudes possible. A pigeon may have the will to persevere but if it lacks the physical power to do so it must inevitably fail. This is particularly true for long distance and marathon racing.

The wing strokes per second are never mentioned but I believe that they are crucial to pigeon racing and that they possibly hold the key to the difference between long- and short-distance pigeons.

By Dr. Wim Peters

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