Keep a watch on the sky Saturday afternoon and you might just see flocks of pigeons returning home to their lofts.
Liberated at Milton at 1pm the pigeons will be flying over the Illawarra after a 110-kilometre race for the first meet of the season of the South Coast Pigeon Federation, now in its 91st year.
Most fanciers will be out to beat Graham Davison, one of Australia’s best racers who has dedicated his life to racing these athletes of the sky.
In the past few months Davison, 76, keeps a tight watch on his team’s training schedule and feeds them a hand-mixed special blend of grain, wheat and seed.
His elite A-team of birds has already completed their morning training and now it’s the B-team’s turn to spread their wings. Shooting up into the blue sky the pigeons circle the backyard a few times before flying off.
When it’s time for them to come home Davison dons a bright yellow jacket and swings a push stick, signalling to his racers training is over and it’s time to come home.
The veteran isn’t expecting big things from this crew. They are the ‘‘young duds’’ as he calls them and trapping can be a bit hit and miss.
Then in a flash of feathers the duds suddenly circle downwards and swoop straight through the trap and onto the loft’s landing pad.
‘‘Did you see that, love?’’ Davison calls out to his wife June as he scatters a handful of feed to the birds. ‘‘First time – and they are the duds!’’
We generally don’t sell our birds. We try to preserve our own family of pigeons.
It’s an impressive sight. One second the B-team is in the air, the next they’re inside the roost. This part of the training is vital, explains Davison. A race isn’t over until a pigeon has crossed through the trap onto the landing.
The birds are conditioned to be either in the air or in the loft – landing in the backyard or in a tree is forbidden.
The loft, which Davison built 50 years ago, is home to his best 100 pigeons. Under the landing bay is a scanner that records the touchdown of each pigeon, which have chips attached to their legs.
The results are then sent to a computer that calculates the bird’s rate of travel over the distance of the race. The bird with the highest metres per minute wins – less than a second can separate the winner from the losers.
‘‘It’s the only bit of math I could ever work out,’’ says Davison laughing. ‘‘Back in the day we did it all by longhand. It was sometimes a week before a winner was determined.’’
How the pigeons navigate their way home remains a mystery although there are theories that they may use spatial maps or possess some cognitive ability. Another theory is that they may determine their flight direction with the help of the earth’s magnetic field and position of the stars and sun.
Mount Ousley, where Davison lives, is the perfect place for the sport. So popular is the area with pigeon fanciers that they call it Little Belgium, a reference to the country that has been racing and breeding some of the world’s best specimens since 1818. These pigeons are specifically cultivated for endurance and speed. Recently champion Belgium breeders have sold to the lucrative Chinese market for up to $400,000.
In Australia a top pigeon could go for $1000 and an average bird about $300. Davison has some of the grandchildren of Belgium’s prized breeders, paying $3700 for one bird. That price also includes importation fees.
The sport is more popular and competitive in Europe with large prize money at stake, and in 2013 six birds from Belgium were found to have been doped with cocaine and painkillers.
Davison’s home is positioned with majestic views of the Illawarra escarpment and northern coast. The uninterrupted view is the ideal vantage point in which to sit and wait for his pigeons to come home from a race.
He can also look out into the wide expanse of sky and see if his champions are in danger of being lunch for a peregrine falcon or a goshawk.
Both birds of prey are prevalent in the Illawarra, with peregrine falcons scouting the sky from nests on top of the escarpment.
‘‘This is a terribly dangerous area for pigeons. We can often see our birds get taken, particularly the squeakers [young], but there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a helpless feeling that’s for sure,’’ says Davison. ‘‘The goshawk is a sneak hunter, while the peregrine is a hunter and sportsman. Sometimes they work together as a team. Mostly though our pigeons fly above the danger zone out of reach of the peregrine or goshawk.’’
It’s not just the suburb that places Davison at an advantage, but also his home. Over the years he has purchased three surrounding houses and has claimed their backyards in order to expand his pigeon empire.
The sport gripped Davison at the age of 10 when he received his first pigeon as a gift.
After that he began working as a loft boy for a well-known racer at Gwynneville.
He began racing himself in 1953 building himself a loft in his backyard at the age of 15.
Known as the poor man’s racing sport, pigeon racing became popular among the coalmining community in the Illawarra, many of whom also raced and bred greyhounds.
The sport peaked in Wollongong around the mid-70s when there were 300 fliers between Helensburgh and Gerringong. Now that number is down to 80.
‘‘I’m the longest flying member still active,’’ says Davison, who has only ever had two holidays his whole life due to the daily chores involved in taking care of pigeons.
The champion pigeon Davison is most proud of by far is called simply the Record Hen. She flew from Bundaberg to Mount Ousley in 14 hours, 23 minutes. In 2000 he was offered $6000 for her by a Japanese flier. Davison refused to sell. Record Hen turned 20 a month ago – already living eight years longer than the average pigeon.
‘‘She was never the super breeder we hoped for. She bred some nice birds, but never one as good as her,’’ he says. ‘‘I don’t regret not selling. I’ve had her to look at and enjoy for 20 years. We generally don’t sell our birds. We try to preserve our own family of pigeons.’’
Homing pigeons can travel on average at 100km/h, or faster with a tail wind, says Davison.
‘‘We liberate them in Launceston at 7am and they’re home by that afternoon,’’ he says. ‘‘That’s 830kilometres flying over Bass Strait so they’re pretty clever.’’
Homing pigeons, Davison explains, are aristocrats and nothing like the street variety which he calls the ‘‘rats of the sky and scavengers that poke about in the rubbish’’.
‘‘These birds are clean, sharp and have more streamlined heads,’’ says Davison. ‘‘They also have beautiful eyes.’’
Pigeons have been used for centuries during war to transport messages across enemy lines.
In WWII more than 260,000 pigeons were used by the Allied forces. After the war two Australian pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal (the animal Victoria Cross) for their war efforts.
Davison has an entire room dedicated to the trophies he’s won over his long sporting career.
For the past 35 years he has taken out at least one of the categories in the South Coast Federation point score. Last year he won all of the categories.
But age is catching up. Racing pigeons is hard work and Davison thinks he’ll only be able to stay competitive for another four years. By then he’ll be 80.