Watching them pecking at discarded French fries, it might be hard to imagine much potential for greatness in the average street pigeon.
But for practitioners of the sport of pigeon racing, which originated in Belgium in the early 1800s before coming to the United States later in the 19th century, these birds are the avian equivalent of marathon runners, according to the American Racing Pigeon Union.
Birds are bred for their homing instinct, speed and endurance. Like human athletes, they feed on a specific diet of carbohydrate- or fat-heavy seeds and grains to provide them energy for races covering as much as 1,000 miles, said David Stacy, who flew birds for 13 years with Chattanooga’s club.
The Chattanooga Racing Pigeon Club has been around at least since 1945, but some members said they think it actually originated in the 1920s. This year, the club’s membership swelled to 27, five more than last year, said Jerry Fitzke, the club’s race secretary and a 20-year racing veteran.
Alvin Petty, a member of the Chattanooga Racing Pigeon Club for 20 years, breeds his birds from a stock of about 200 housed in a barn near his Ooltewah home.
Although the sport may seem strange to outsiders, to those who race, it’s addictive, Mr. Petty said.
“They’re just incredible athletes,” he said. “The best thing is seeing them come home. We can’t afford horses, so we got pigeons.”
Because the only part of the race pigeon racers see is the return of the birds to their lofts, much of what happens during their flight is a mystery, including how they find their way home, Mr. Stacy said.
“(The homing ability is) a God-given thing, and they really don’t know how it works,” he said. “It’s a free-choice thing; it’s not something they’re made to do like training a walking horse with weights on its feet.”
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...