Retired educator Frank Meder, 61, has been racing pigeons since middle school. As president of the Fort Sutter Pigeon Racing Club, one of about eight pigeon-racing clubs in the Sacramento area, he trains only the best pigeons to compete in races that sometimes cross multiple states. Now entering his 50th year of racing, Meder explains how to breed a champion from the moment its egg hatches to the first race back to its home at the pigeon loft. If you thought pigeons were just rats with wings, check out the speed and skill of Fort Sutter’s pure-bred racing pigeons during their upcoming season this September.
So how can you tell a pigeon will be a good racer?
Well, the birds that we keep probably have pedigrees longer than you or me. We’re looking for birds that have a homing instinct, and then we’re looking for athletes. And sometimes it’s easier to measure whether they’re athletes, because you can time them, but the homing instinct is more elusive. You can’t look at a bird and say, “Well, this is a smart one.” Some people think that they can, but it’s a lot tougher. There’s people who look at their eyes and study their eyes. Obviously their body confirmation definitely tells you something.
When did you get into racing pigeons?
I grew up in East Sacramento, and it seemed like half the kids my age had something like that going. Unlike today, I could ride my bicycle to 30 or 40 people’s houses that had pigeons. There was a junior club; the Fort Sutter club’s secretary was an older gentleman, and he had a junior program. … Sometimes there would be meetings with 20 or 30 kids.
Are there a lot of people in your club?
We have about 26 members, who range in age all the way up to close to 80 years old. … And sometimes kids start and their parents get involved. … I think kids today are less likely to stick with something as long as they may have when I was a kid.
How do pigeons home?
It’s a real skeptical thing, but basically, sitting at 20th and J [streets] feels different than El Dorado Hills or Placer County, and the birds can detect it. But you and I can’t. So you’re selecting birds that have a homing instinct, because their parents have a homing instinct or you’ve sent them a certain distance and they’ve done well. … You’re selecting birds that are athletes and intelligent.
Do you breed pigeons?
Birds are banded with bands that stay on their legs for life. The bands have the year that they were born on them. You tend to put your cocks and hens together no earlier than Thanksgiving, because it takes 10 days for them to lay, 18 days for them to hatch, and then you band them when they’re about 6 days old. You want them to hatch about the first of the year. We’re selecting birds based on their racing, or how well their parents or grandparents have raced. We’re selecting birds to pair together, thinking they’ll produce a “smart” athlete.
At what age do birds start racing?
If you were rushing them, birds that are going into races at the end of August could have been hatched in May. So, maybe four months, but 6 to 8 months old is more typical. The birds are let out for their maiden voyages at about 30 days old, and probably flying pretty well at 2 months old. They’re like kids; they’ve got a lot of energy. They fly surprisingly quickly.
How do you train them?
Normally, you start at a shorter distance. The average guy takes his bird 5 miles on the first release, and then the next day 7 and so on. The birds are sitting in a cage, waiting to get out and feeling where they are. They watch the sun, which we think is an important part of their homing instinct. We don’t like to release them in the rain or in a storm. … Our most common course is through Nevada and Idaho, which means they have to go over the Sierra Nevadas. We tend not to send them until it’s a nice day.
When you take them out, do they return to the loft?
Yes, and most of the training is done independently. With gas and what it costs, we try to get three or four guys together. But we tend to keep them separate or in small groups until the races. When the club sends them, all the birds are released simultaneously. Our club is with about five or six other clubs, and so the birds are trucked up and anywhere from up to 80 cages go out. Each of those cages can [hold] 20 to 30 birds, so it’s a lot of birds! Our lofts are all plotted to the yard … so if your bird has to fly a mile and a half farther than my bird, he’s timed by how far he flies. So it’s the only type of race where all the competitors fly a different distance.