Fly away home

Jim DeVay

Photo by Larry Dalton

Jim DeVay, secretary treasurer for the Sacramento Racing Pigeon Club, has been breeding birds for decades, looking for that perfect combination of strong pectoral muscles, feathers built for speed, and the instinct to hurry home from distances of up to 600 miles.

The sport used to be more popular, but in this day and age, a good bird can cost a couple of hundred dollars, and DeVay had to outfit his home with computers that can clock the birds as they arrive and a global positioning system to determine just how far it is between race locations and his loft. Luckily, if you have a few good birds, you can win a few important races, and, as DeVay says, payoffs can be as much as several thousand dollars.

Tell me how you got started?

I started in 1936 as a youngster, and belonged to a racing pigeon club in Minneapolis. During WWII, of course, I didn’t have them. And when I went to school, University of Minnesota, I didn’t have them, but when I got married, I asked my wife one time, “Do you like pigeons?” … she didn’t know what I was talking about, but pretty soon I had a loft built in the back yard. I got a few pigeons here and a few pigeons there, and pretty soon I had a bunch of them.

I assume that racing pigeons comes from using homing pigeons?

Homing pigeons. You’re right. Back in Roman times, they were using pigeons to carry messages. Then of course in the 1800s, in France, they used pigeons in the mail service. Then of course in WWI and WWII, they used racing pigeons to carry messages. They had lofts, which were mobile, and they could move these lofts along the fronts. The birds would recognize these lofts. Hospitals have used them to carry serum from one place to the next. They’ve been used to carry messages and carry cameras and carry whatever.

Are they still used that way?

Not so much, but we use them because we enjoy the homing instinct. This club raises young birds, like I’m raising out in the lofts out here. And then, later on this summer, we’ll have races. We’ll send the birds to different places and then they’ll come home. And the bird flying the fastest wins the race. They have that basic homing instinct, but it needs to be educated.

Do the young birds ever not come home?

Oh yeah. You probably use about half the young birds. In the old bird races, you don’t lose as many birds. Once in a while, you lose an old bird, but it’s usually because of hitting a wire or a hawk getting it or something like that.

How do you explain that homing instinct?

Well, there are a number of theories. Certainly, young birds use the sun as one of the directional aids they have. The birds can somehow orient latitude and longitude by these coordinates, or whatever you want to call them. It has to have something to do with this magnetic business because when there are explosions on the sun and they have all these magnetic interferences, it tends to affect the birds. Their homing instinct is kind of disoriented. So sometimes, in these races where they liberate thousands of birds, they can lose thousands of them. But ordinarily the birds come home just fine.

On the landing board, just as the birds go into the loft, there’s an antenna, like a bar code in the grocery store. The pigeons wear a band on their leg that clicks when they go across that thing in the landing board.

Do you have any winning pigeons right now?

I’ve had some winning pigeons. I’m on what you call the long end. The birds coming into Auburn clock first. Sometimes, my birds beat those, but not very often. Usually the birds in Auburn have the advantage … the thing is, Auburn’s about 2,000 feet. I’m at nine feet. That’s almost 2,000 feet the birds have to descend. We get no credit for that.

How many birds do you have?

I have about 24 pairs of breeders. Those breeders will raise about 60 young birds each year. Out of those 60 birds, I’ll probably keep 10 or so.

What will happen to the rest of them?

You replace the old birds as they get old. The hens are good for about nine or 10 years and the cocks maybe 12 … usually, you kill them, but oftentimes, they just pass away.

Why would a bird work so hard to be the fastest?

That is the secret, and I don’t know what the answer to it is. That’s what we’re all selecting for.