Wes Askins, of the Combine, said the pigeons are a special breed of homing pigeons, called a Homer.
The ones released in Alamo, above the rodeo arena, were to race back to the Bay area, to their own individual owners, a distance of about 400 miles which Askins expected would take about eight hours. If the birds encountered tail winds, the time could be shorter.
Most of the races are conducted in sunny weather or partly cloudy conditions, because the birds, Askins said, “need the sun to navigate. Rainy weather will cancel a race.” The birds need to see the sun to get their bearings to head home.
He said the birds he had for this race involved ones that were only about six months old. “There are older birds that race, too, but we don’t race the two age groups together.”
Using a GPS marker from where the birds are released, Askins explained, “these birds have a chip ring on their leg and walk across an electronic pad at their home loft that scans them into a computer, just like when items are scanned at a grocery store, and gives the bird’s information, including the time of arrival. All that information goes into our computers that the race secretary is keeping.”
The birds are released all at once from the specially built hauling trailer and the race secretary in the Bay area is notified when the release happens. He said the speed of the bird is not figured in miles per hour, rather in yards per minute. “These races can be figured to within a tenth of a second,” he said.
Racing pigeons can fly up to 50 miles per hour in ideal conditions, and with a tail wind, some have been clocked at 70 mph.
Askins said racing pigeons were first developed in England and Belgium about 200 years ago, and the Homer pigeon was bred from the high-flying Cumulet pigeon and Carrier pigeons. From the Cumulet, the Homer received its ability to fly for many hours without tiring, and from the Carrier, the ability to fly home covering great distances.
The Bay area group conducts races that are mostly in California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Colorado, Denver being one of the farthest east to fly back to San Francisco. However, other sections of the country have their own racing combines. The National Racing Pigeon Association, located in Oklahoma City, has about 10,000 members. European nations also have racing associations.
Askins said two years ago, their club selection committee scouted out the Pahranagat Valley and decided to come here for a release. “We were kind of wanting to change course, and found the valley here. It’s a good spot where the mileage is right. When we researched it, I liked it because we are far away enough from the big mountains, that the birds get a good run at it.”
Even though the birds have to fly over the Sierra Nevada mountains, Askins said that is no problem. “These are not the pigeons you find hanging out at the mall, these are pedigree racing pigeons, bred for their homing ability, speed and endurance.”
The old bird race, those one-year and older, he said, is from Council, Idaho, to the Bay area, a distance of about 600 miles.
The racing season for the young birds usually starts in August into October. The old bird season is April into early June.
Askins said he has been involved with racing pigeons since his youth in Scouting. “This started out for me as a Boy Scout Merit Badge. There are even professional racing pigeon breeders. You don’t have to be rich to be a racing pigeon owner. We’ve got everybody from landscapers, ditch diggers, up to heart surgeons.”