'Thoroughbreds of the sky' take flight after ban on racing pigeons lifts in Ontario

·3 min read
Keith Woods from Guelph, Ont., stands outside Dream Chaser loft where he trains and cares for 150 pigeons. (Submitted by Keith Woods - image credit)
Keith Woods from Guelph, Ont., stands outside Dream Chaser loft where he trains and cares for 150 pigeons. (Submitted by Keith Woods - image credit)

Pigeon racing is back in Ontario after a provincewide lockdown to prevent birds from contracting the highly contagious avian flu.

The season, which typically runs May to September, was delayed after the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) issued orders in April and May limiting the "commingling of birds from different locations."

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said that as of the beginning of May, an estimated 1.9 million birds  — both commercial and small flock — died from avian influenza [HPAI] across the country, including in the Ontario cities of Guelph, Cambridge and Woodstock.

The ban was officially lifted on May 20, good news for racers like 11-year-old Charlotte Cassell of Toronto whose pigeons, Lucifer and Tyler, came in second and third, respectively, in a race on opening weekend.

'The most amazing experience'

The Canadian Racing Pigeon Union has approximately 800 members across Canada, with Ontario clubs including Acton, Chatham, Dufferin, Guelph, St. Thomas, London, Drumbo, Woodstock and Cambridge.

Charlotte's interest in racing started when she was nine after a pigeon her father owned found its way to their home following a 12-year absence.

In this season's first competition, Lucifer flew 218 kilometres from Dunchurch to Charlotte's home in Toronto in two hours and 20 minutes.

"It's the most amazing experience. You could see birds circling around. I'll be honest — I was freaking out a bit," she told CBC News.

Submitted by Delano Cassell
Submitted by Delano Cassell

The birds are equipped with a computer chip on one leg that tracks their flight. Once they enter the safety of their loft or "trap," the birds cross an electric pad and the information is registered.

Charlotte is part of the North Wing Club and competes under the banner Born to Fly. The races she enters run in a north-south direction. Other clubs fly east-west.

Clubs race every weekend — depending on the weather — and each weekend, the distance gets longer. Pigeons are loaded into bird baskets on Friday night at the respective clubs and driven to the destinations where they'll be released.

On Saturday morning, the birds are released and the race begins as their owners wait from home and watch for them to fly back to their lofts.

The pigeons have a natural instinct and are trained to know where their home is from a very young age.

Training starts with having the birds free-fly on the owner's property, as they gain strength in their wings. As training progresses, the pigeons are released farther from their home base, starting at one kilometre, with the distance growing until they are entered into competition.

Pigeons have 'their own personalities'

Keith Woods of Guelph has been racing pigeons off and on since he was 12. Now retired, Woods trains and raises pigeons at his property, which he calls Dream Chaser Lofts, and belongs to the Wellington Waterloo Racing Pigeon Club.

Joe Pavia/CBC
Joe Pavia/CBC

He has been busy training his pigeons for the first two races from Peterborough and Manchester, just north of Oshawa.

"They're thoroughbreds of the sky, they're like feathered racehorses, basically," said Woods.

"They're incredible little feathered friends, and every one has their own personalities with regards to disposition and how they react to their handler or at the loft. I play with the birds when they're young. I feed them out of my hand. They learn to trust me."

Each season, he said, they start off with more experienced birds while the next generation is hatched and trained.

"Normally from the first weekend in May to the middle of July, we race old birds. And that's any pigeon one year or older," said Woods.

"There's usually a two-week break, and then the first weekend in August, the young bird racing starts," he said.

That continues until the end of September, when "they're back in maintenance mode," which means breeding the next generation of racing pigeons.

Woods said he's happy to be racing again and hopes the rest of the season will be uneventful.

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