In 2020, Belgian Kurt Van De Wouwer put his racing pigeon, New Kim, up for auction for the equivalent of $225. The Van de Wouwers had been breeding and racing pigeons for many years and New Kim, a 2-year-old female, had won numerous competitions. Considering the decline of the sport, the family was only looking to make a small profit, perhaps to help finance their breeding operation. Instead, a Chinese bidder bought New Kim for $1.9 million, making her the most expensive pigeon in history.

Dennis ryan
Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. Visit his ...

Billed as the sport with “a single starting gate and a thousand finish lines” by film producer Jim Jenner, pigeon racing was a major competition a century ago. The first organized race took place in 1818 in Belgium, the country largely responsible for the pastime’s growth and development. It was there in Belgium where specialized breeding materialized, in particular, the development of the Voyageurs breed that was mated for distance and endurance. Much of the world’s racing stock originates from the work of these early breeders ­– or fanciers, as they are called. In the U.S., the first race was flown in 1875, with the sport becoming popular until the early 1900s.

Pigeon racing is a novel concept. Somehow, homing pigeons are able to find their “loft” where they are kept from up to thousands of miles away. It is an evolutionary marvel that scientists don’t fully understand, but some believe has to do with the birds using the earth’s magnetic field as a compass. Back to Jenner’s point, competing pigeons are all transported to the same starting location. In the heyday of the sport, this was made possible by the locomotive, which allowed the birds to be moved long distances quickly. Today, it is largely accomplished by specialized trucks. Once all the pigeons are at the race station, officials release them simultaneously.

Because the birds must travel different distances to their home lofts, the speed of the pigeons is used to determine winners, dividing the starting point’s distance to the loft by the time it took to return. Until recently, birds were equipped with a metal clip that held their identification. When the bird returned, the owner took the band off and dropped it into a special pigeon racing clock. The clock, entirely mechanical and without electricity, had a small hole in the top. Once the band was dropped into it, the time was stamped onto a sheet of paper. Only race officials had the key to retrieve and verify the pigeon’s band inside it. The mass production of this incredibly advanced technology allowed the sport to flourish in the late 19th century. Today, the electric timing system is used – the bird’s leg band includes an electromagnetic chip.

Pigeons can start racing at six months of age and can technically compete for the next 10 years, although most are past their prime after three or four years. Called “widowhood,” a common technique to “motivate” birds is to remove them from their breeding partner before the race, encouraging them to return as soon as possible. Generally, the birds only spend the arrival day with their mate before being separated again. Naturally, not all the birds make it. Sometimes bad weather forces a pigeon to land or knocks it off course. Other times, they are eaten by falcons or other birds of prey. The race is ultimately a game of both speed and survival.


Recently, one-loft racing has become more popular in the sport. In traditional races, the fancier’s ability to train the bird, in addition to its breeding, comes into play. To create a level playing field among pigeons and to prove which bloodline is best, pigeons from various fanciers are raised and trained in a single loft and then raced against each other. These races tend to produce the most prize money.

New Kim’s price tag notwithstanding, pigeon racing has been a declining pursuit, with the average age of fanciers dramatically rising. And, much like in other sports, doping allegations have also sullied the activity. However, thousands of lofts are registered across the world, including 20,000 in North America. In Ireland, for example, it is still enjoying strong support among the Dublin working class. It has been suggested that its popularity is partly because it allows participants to compete with animals, even if they have very little living space to raise them.

In the end, I can’t help but tip my hat to the Belgians. They have taken the so-called “flying rats” known to be nuisances in barns and city squares and found a way to turn them into a pastime. Having bred cattle and rabbits for shows, I can start to understand the thrill behind raising homing pigeons, as well as empathize with those who keep up the tradition. Considering how little we know about how a pigeon can find its way home and how the species has given meaning to certain groups of people, maybe we can give the bird its due, too.