“Don’t get too attached,” says Joseph LaQuiere, a 16-year-old youth ambassador for the American Racing Pigeon Union. In 2019, LaQuiere bought six pigeons on Craigslist. The next year, the first pigeon he entered in a race never made it back. Sometimes birds will join wild flocks, die on power lines or get lost in strong winds. You’ll never know for sure.
You can’t race pigeons just anywhere; the finish line must be their home, which they find using some combination of the sun, magnetic fields and an olfactory map of familiar smells. Make the birds want to return home by treating them with kindness, feeding them well and providing clean accommodations. Start training banded, vaccinated birds at around four to six weeks old. “The youngsters are pretty tame,” LaQuiere says. They will learn to fly by circling the loft. Once the birds are strong, take them half a mile away and release them. The general rule is to conduct two outings at each distance and then double that distance. Once the pigeons fly home from around 70 miles away, they’re ready to race several hundred miles. “Let them practice flying in most types of weather, excluding heavy rain, thunderstorms, snow and fog,” LaQuiere says.
Humans have been capitalizing on pigeons’ homing abilities for centuries; Genghis Khan used pigeons to relay commands across Asia and Eastern Europe. These days, the fastest fliers tend to be highly bred and pedigreed, like racehorses. In 2020, a female racing pigeon named New Kim sold for around $1.9 million at an auction in Belgium. Still, you don’t need to be wealthy to race. “A lot of pigeon people are willing to give you birds for free to get started,” says LaQuiere, who has bought several pedigreed birds, including progeny of a bird named Porsche 911, which he is now breeding.
Although they have a house in suburban Detroit, LaQuiere and his parents and four siblings have spent months traveling up and down the country, towing a trailer outfitted with a pigeon loft for his 30 birds. Until he can get back home to train birds himself, LaQuiere is focused on breeding racing birds. “My mom will say to me: ‘I haven’t seen you all day. Where have you been?’” LaQuiere says. “And I’m like, ‘Out with the pigeons.’”