When Ed Gale of Chesterfield County is asked to do a ceremonial dove release, no problem. Just don't expect doves.
“If you do,” he said, “you’ll never see them again.”
That might be OK with balloons ... but not birds. So for that wedding or funeral, you'll get white homing pigeons, thank you.
Gale isn't in the release business (some people are), though he'll do so for friends. But he breeds racing homers as a hobby, and having inherited his pigeon passion from his father, he knows his way around the loft. He's part of a small but dedicated band of pigeon enthusiasts in the Richmond area.
And they'll tell that you while pigeons and doves are virtually similar, the homing instinct is a big difference. As the American Dove Association notes, white doves (a color variety of the ringneck dove) "do not have the homing instinct and should not be released in any situation.” They won't be able to fly far, they become easy prey for predators, and they won't be able to forage on their own.
So if you're ready to dismiss all pigeons as unwelcome pests – from their roaming of public parks to their "deposits" on windshields and monuments – give the homers credit for a keen sense of direction. And for Gale and other locals, pigeons are part of a longstanding hobby – a source of pleasure, pride and adventure (and, occasionally, income).
Andrew Kerns of Powhatan County really gets around. Like, Saudi Arabia.
He is a noted authority on fantail pigeons, including the haughty but gorgeous American fantails that puff up their chests to the point that they can’t see where they’re going.
“They’re very gentle birds, very proud birds. They strut and stance,” Kerns said. “They’re like bumper cars. When they walk, they’ll just kind of walk around and bump into each other, in a friendly way.“
Kerns is a member of the Virginia Pigeon and Dove Association, and on a larger scale, he belongs to the Central Fantail Association and the Eastern Fantail Association. In the Eastern group, he is one of only four certified master breeders in the 124-year history of the club.
“I judge all around the world now,” Kerns said, noting that he spent a week in Saudi Arabia in January this year – his second trip there – to judge a major pigeon show. “I’ve judged for Europe. I judge all over Canada and the U.S. So, yes, it’s grown into this really awesome hobby.”
With its roots in Richmond, the Virginia Pigeon and Dove Association has been around since the mid-1940s. Organized originally as the Tidewater Fancy Pigeon Club, "it was a couple of guys returning from World War II – veterans," Kerns said, “and they met in the back of a feed store in downtown Richmond and formed the club. And it’s been going strong ever since.”
It's a small group – about 65 members including a few in North Carolina – and they hold three events a year. There's a summer show (more like a cookout, Kerns said), plus an exhibit at the Virginia State Fair and a competitive show at the Chesterfield County Fairgrounds in the fall.
At this past November’s show in Chesterfield, there were nearly 600 entries representing two dozen breeds. In a large barnlike structure, visitors and breeders walked about, swapping stories and checking out the goods, while judges examined the birds entered for competition. At one end, 50-pound bags of pigeon feed were being sold out of a pickup truck.
Similar to national dog shows, pigeon judging is based on published guidelines, Kerns said.
“Each breed has a standard document, a standard of perfection. You’ll have 100 points for the perfect bird,” he said. The tail, for instance, might be worth 20 points, and each bird will be judged for size, shape and beauty.
The cages were filled with satinettes, blondinettes, frill-backs and Jacobins, as well as American and Indian fantails and more. Named for the order of French monks known for their distinctive hoods, the Jacobins feature feathers grouped distinctively over their heads. The fantails, with tail feathers that fan out, are show birds as well.
“They’re just basically a pet,” Kerns said. “They’re bred to stand in that posture and strut around. So they’re strictly ornamental.”
As he noted: "They can’t fly worth a darn."
While fantails and other fancy breeds win beauty contests, homing pigeons for centuries have earned their stripes on the battlefield – literally. During World War II, the U.S. Army Pigeon Service alone was home to about 54,000 pigeons, which were prized for their intelligence and bravery in carrying coded messages and microfilm between separated elements of fighting forces.
Gale grew up in a family of 10 kids in Farmington, Conn., and inherited his father's hobby. When on duty with the Navy in the mid-1970s, Gale was sought out whenever a stray pigeon landed on his ship.
“Generally speaking,” he said, “the Navy doesn’t allow pigeons on their warships.”
Exceptions are made.
Once in the South Pacific, a couple of pigeons landed on Gale’s ship after a storm. From information on one pigeon’s band, its ownership was traced. The next time the ship made port in Taiwan, Gale found himself in a jeep heading deep into the countryside to present the pigeon to its owner, a Taiwanese farmer. The story made the front page of the military newspaper Stars & Stripes.
These days, Gale breeds and races homing pigeons – and boy, can they fly. A good racing homer can fly 500 miles a day at speeds of 50 to 55 mph.
“They are truly Thoroughbreds of the sky,” he said.
Gale, a Civil Service retiree who lives on 5 acres in southern Chesterfield near Lake Chesdin, was on hand at the November show in Chesterfield and was joined by Phil Smethers, a carpenter who lives in Lakeside in Henrico County.
He, too, breeds and races homers – though while Gale has done so for decades (and has about 130 pigeons), Smethers is something of a newbie (with only about 20 or 30 birds, but that stems partly from zoning restrictions).
The cost of raising racing pigeons depends on the breeder’s level of activity. Gale figures he spends roughly $100 a month for feed, $100 a month to keep his vehicle on the road during racing season, and $300 to $400 a year for medication to keep the birds healthy.
“They’re athletes, and they have to be able to compete, so they can’t have worms or other bacteria that rob the body of nutrients,” he said.
In November of this year, Richmond will host – for the first time – the Dixie Southern Racing Pigeon Association’s annual convention and race. Gale, the convention chairman, said the competing pigeons will be released about 300 miles from here – in Spartanburg, S.C. – and race back to Richmond.
Here’s how it works: The breeders taking part in the race – whether from Virginia, Louisiana or any other participating state – will pay an entry fee and mail their pigeons to Gale. This is done “when the babies are old enough to take care of themselves,” he said.
Gale eventually turns them over to six or so “handlers” in the Richmond area, such as Smethers. The handlers will train the pigeons, taking them out for weekend training runs of gradually greater distances toward Spartanburg – maybe in increments of 40 or 50 miles at a time.
It’s like training for a marathon: The pigeons build up their mileage until the big day.
That means Gale, Smethers and other breeders spend a lot of weekends on the road. Like many hobbies, racing homing pigeons is time-consuming.
On race day, all of the competing birds will fly together for most of the course, said Gale, who is an officer of the Richmond Concourse Association of Pigeon Fanciers that is hosting the race.
“They are flock-flying birds, so they prefer to be in groups,” he said. “But they have to know [when they’re] close to home and it’s time to get off the interstate, time to peel off.”
The pigeons trained by Smethers will head toward his lofts in Lakeside. Likewise, those handled by Gale will land at his place. Other handlers similarly will train and release birds for the race. The winners are determined by computed flight speed.
“There’s a GPS location from where they’re all released, and there’s a GPS location to everybody’s individual loft,” Smethers said. “Multiple finish lines, but everybody’s racing the clock.”
Motivating the pigeons to get home as quickly as possible is key to winning. Aside from cross-breeding championship lines of pigeons – much like Thoroughbred horses – there are tricks of the trade to increase a racing homer’s speed.
“Ed did widowhood this year,” Smethers said of Gale, using the lingo of one such tactic.
The gist: You breed the pigeons together, but as the season starts, you separate them and then show the male his mate for 30 seconds or so before he begins a training run.
On race day, all that racing homer can think about is getting back to his sweetheart as fast as he can. "And when he gets home, he gets 10 or 20 minutes with the hen,” Smethers said.
Gale said that type of motivation is hard to beat.
“When [the male] comes home, it doesn’t matter if he’s thirsty because he’s been flying for 14 hours, or if he’s hungry,” he said. “The first thing he does is go up to his nest box.”
Gale and Smethers are into pigeon racing for fun, not for money, though the few hundred dollars available for placing high in Dixie Southern and similar races helps pay for pigeon feed, entry fees and other expenses.
But there is big money in this realm – both in races and in the birds themselves.
Pigeons have inhabited the earth for thousands of years, but big-time racing didn’t take off until the 19th century, when Belgian breeders introduced long-distance racing as a sport. Belgian breeds soon came to rule the roost. (At the onset of World War I, the German army invaded Belgium and captured 2 million pigeons, the best of them to be trained as military carrier pigeons.)
Belgian racing pigeons are still highly valued. Armando, considered Belgium’s best-ever long-distance pigeon, sold online in 2019 to a Chinese bidder for $1.4 million.
Internationally, the stakes are going up. The South Africa Million Dollar Pigeon Race offers $200,000 to the winner. (A German couple’s bird won in 2018, and it sold for $26,000 after the race.) The Hoosier Classic Million Dollar One-Loft Race in Indiana offers a $500,000 top prize from a purse of $1 million or more.
Entry fees for the big races might run to $800 or $900 per bird.
Tragically, in the Indiana event in October 2019, a huge pigeon loft on site caught fire, killing about 2,000 racing pigeons and canceling the final of the multirace competition.
“I actually lost some pigeons in that fire,” Smethers said. “I had some in there that had made it the whole way through.”
Pigeons don't have to be an expensive hobby, and it’s an easy one to start at any age. Kerns, the fantail breeder in Powhatan, got his first pigeons when he was 5.
“My older brother and I were the type of kids that we brought home boxes of stuff, whatever we could catch or trade for,” he said. “We always had a box – two of this, two of that.”
Growing up in Richmond and Henrico, the boys would go to the State Fair with their parents.
“They left us alone for a few minutes one year at the State Fair, and we came back with a cardboard box with two pigeons in it,” Kerns said. “And two turned into 20 in no time, because they had babies. And eventually a few years down the road, I discovered the fantail breed and fell in love with 'em.”
“The pigeons are just something I’ve always done,” he said. “Geez, like when I was in college, I rented a piece of a guy’s yard for a coop when I lived in an apartment, just so I could keep a few pair. So I literally can trace my birds back to the mid-'80s, since I’ve never been without 'em.”
Kerns makes a living as a territory manager for a beverage distributor. But his passion is found at Wildbriar Lofts, his family farm, where he raises alpacas and has lofts housing about 275 birds (pigeons and some doves).
“The fantails actually support some of the other costs on the farm,” he said.
A 50-pound bag of pigeon feed, at $20 to $30 a bag, will last him about 2½ days, Kerns said, or about $300 a month. By contrast, a good fantail will sell for between $100 and $150.
“I’ve done it for a very long time, and I compete internationally,” Kerns said. "My birds are really in high demand. ... I’m in probably in the 1 percent of pigeon breeders who make a profit.”
Only a small portion of his birds are going to be extremely high quality (one sold for $2,500), Kerns said. Of the rest, “I’ll give some away to kids, and sell some for $3 or $5.”
As a judge for competitions, he said he normally doesn’t charge a fee, but it is expected that his expenses – airfare, hotels, meals and incidentals – will be covered.
Kerns operates at an advanced level of breeding. But pigeons can be raised on a smaller scale almost anywhere.
“It’s a neat little backyard hobby, because you don’t have to have a lot of space,” he said. “And they’re not noisy. So if someone wants to keep a couple of pigeons in their backyard, it’s relatively low maintenance, low investment – and we have an active club to help promote them.”