How a passion for pigeon racing is starting to take off in Nova Scotia

Out of all the birds in the world, David Ottaway says if he was reincarnated he would want to come back as a pigeon. 

Not just a run-of-the-mill pigeon, though. 

He wants to be a bird thick with muscle, equipped with a bigger brain and sharper eyes than its wild cousins. A pigeon whose bloodline can be traced back 200 years to its mother country of Belgium, the birthplace of the sport Ottaway loves.

He wants to be a racing pigeon.

"They get fed the best of food, have the best place to live, fresh water and don't have to do nothing but fly around," said Ottaway. 

He would know. Ottaway has spent 53 years racing pigeons and keeps about 100 in two pens in his backyard in Upper LaHave, N.S. 

It's a sport that Ottaway has worked hard to grow in Nova Scotia since he arrived from Ontario two years ago. As part of the Central Nova Racing Pigeon Club, he's helped double the number of pigeon racers in the province from six to 12.

Steve Lawrence/CBC

Pigeon racing involves releasing the birds from a set point and seeing which one flies back to its home loft the fastest.  

Racing pigeons have a natural ability to find their way home over long distances. The trick is to motivate them to return quickly. 

There are several ways to do that. The pigeons are trained to know they'll be fed once they return to their loft. They also want to get back in a hurry because after a race they're given some alone time with their mate, said Ottaway.  

It takes some time but pigeons learn to return to their loft as soon as they near home.

"After a while I just put my hands up and say, 'Get in there.' As soon as they see my hands go up they turn right around and run right in. They're pretty smart," said Ottaway.

Steve Lawrence/CBC

The birds can be released up to 800 kilometres from home.  

Before they start a race, an electronic band is placed around one leg. It logs the entry and a racing computer uses the distance from the release point to the bird's loft to calculate how many metres per minute it was flying.

The bird that travelled the fastest wins the race.

If a pigeon has further to fly to reach its home, that's factored into the calculations so it is not at a disadvantage.

Steve Lawrence/CBC

Some people pay thousands of dollars to have racing pigeons imported in from Belgium, England and Germany. Ottaway knows people who have spent $150,000 to buy a bird from a championship lot.

Back in March, Armando, touted as the best long-distance racing pigeon in Belgium, was sold to a Chinese buyer for $1.8 million, according to PIPA, a pigeon auction company that facilitated the sale.

Ottaway said if he imports a bird he'll only pay up to $1,000.

"Racing pigeons are very addictive and it's hard to get out of the hobby," said Ottaway.

But it's even harder to get the younger generation interested in the sport.

"They've got games with joysticks and they've got iPhones and they've got all this stuff that as far as I'm concerned deadens their brain. You need to get outside, you need to get involved in something. Pigeons, dogs, horses — something."

Steve Lawrence/CBC

To increase interest in the sport, Ottaway and other members of the Central Nova Racing Pigeon Club have set up information booths at chicken shows and put notices on Kijiji. Ottaway's also called up old racers to try and reignite their interest. 

He even gives away some of his expensive imported pigeons to help people new to the sport get started.

"I'll give them my best bird. I'll give that new member the best chance to succeed, because I want to race against 10, 15, 20, 200, a 1,000 people. I don't want to race against five people," said Ottaway. "I want to have depth in the club."

It's paid off.

The number of people racing pigeons in the province has doubled to about 12, and Ottaway said another three are currently building lofts. In other parts of Canada, like Ontario, pigeon racing is more widespread, with hundreds of people taking part.

Steve Lawrence/CBC

Ottaway said pigeon racing is family friendly, and parents and children can co-operate to raise the bird and then race it for fun. There's no prize money for winning in Nova Scotia; only a pat on the back, or perhaps a plaque, said Ottaway.

He has also thought about what kind of bird he'd come back as if he couldn't be reincarnated as a racing pigeon — a falcon.

"I do like them, but they are deadly for pigeons," he said with laugh.