On The Fly
Racing pigeons get a lift from driver Jon Hans
By Kathleen Landis
Prizefighter Mike Tyson raced pigeons on a reality show. England’s Queen Elizabeth II races pigeons from the Royal Loft at Sandringham House, her country home. The U.S. Army flew pigeons during World Wars I and II, and awarded some of them medals of honor.
Among Northern California pigeon racing organizations, the man behind the scenes — the one who gets the hardy birds to their release sites and frees them to fly — is Jon Hans. Hans, a onetime pigeon racer known online as “Byrdman,” hauls pigeons for the Camellia City Racing Combine, a nonprofit pigeon racing organization based in Sacramento, Calif. For the past seven years, Hans and his wife Patty have spent 17 weekends a year on the road with pigeons.
How it works
Pigeon racing came to the United States from Europe in the late 19th-century. The object is to release a number of specifically bred-and-trained pigeons that return to their homes after covering a regulated distance of between 125 and 600 miles. As with human athletes, there are distance pigeons, sprinters and those that compete in all distances.
Pigeons are typically raced, or “flown out,” for five years, then retired by their owners, known as “flyers.” Birds that have done well are turned in to “stock lofts,” or pigeon retirement homes.
“Those birds earn a special place in the loft, as well as in their flyers’ hearts,” says Hans.
Riding to fly
On race weekends, Hans stops at five racing clubs to pick up the birds that he’ll haul in his 35-foot compartmented trailer. It holds 80 crates — one for each of his feathered passengers. Before his arrival, every pigeon has had its radio-frequency identification leg band scanned into a racing clock that will record the bird’s arrival time at its home loft. Each one is then basketed into a numbered, locked-and-sealed crate, ready to be loaded by their flyers. After his last pick-up, Hans begins the journey to a designated race station, a day or two’s drive away.
In transit, the cargo coos contentedly. If the male and female birds weren’t separated, the scene might be different.
“The cocks would chase the hens around all night and tire themselves out,” Hans explains. “Then they’d be too tired to go to the race — typical teenagers.”
En route, Hans is responsible for feeding and watering the birds until their release. He watches the weather, which might influence a release, and shoulders unexpected vehicle problems that might compromise start time.
On arrival, he’s charged with taking a GPS hit from the race release station to compute the exact flying distance for each race, down to one thousandth of a mile. It’s his job to transmit that GPS coordinate to each club’s Race Secretary, who also has a hit from each flyer’s home loft.
Back in Sacramento, Frank Meder, the combine’s liberator, is also following the weather online. The combine’s liberator decides whether a release happens, with the expectation that each bird returns safely to its home loft. Rain and wind are safety threats that may cancel a race, so the duo make a final weather check one hour before every release.
On race morning, atthe appointed time, it’s up to Hans to ensure a good takeoff for his birds. He must have a release station that’s clear of telephone wires, street signs and trees that could impede, or endanger the home bound racers.
Once he knows that all is clear, he cuts the seal on each crate, then drops a lever that opens a gate through which each pigeon flies out. Hans sometimes has spectators, and until he was known as the pigeon racing guy, the local sheriff was often among them.
The birds take off from the east, in a flock comprised of anywhere from 500 to 1,200 birds. They fly north, then to the southwest, where they branch off into smaller groups, or go solo. Hans or his wife tracks the pigeons with binoculars, until they’re out of sight. “You hope they go the right direction and, 99 percent of the time, they do,” he says.
Food, a mate at home, or a mate with eggs or babies motivates the birds to return home. While training them, racers use these incentives to get their birds home faster. “Some flyers dominate week after week. The goal is to try to beat that guy the next week.”
During hauls, Hans has faced scares, and he has laughed heartily. On one occasion, he met his release time by driving 400 miles on three wheels. On another, while en route he was forced to replace his truck with the largest U-Haul rental available. He’s also backtracked late at night.
But always he has fun on his runs. A curious bystander once asked what he was hauling. Hans told him it was cattle. “The guy looked at the trailer, and then asked what kind of cattle. ‘Miniature,’ I replied, and left it at that.”
Another time, Hans joked that he was carrying lobsters, for a hotel buffet. His inquirer looked puzzled. “I can hear them in there,” said the baffled onlooker. “I’ve never heard lobsters make noises before.”
While his journeys are often long, and may present personal inconveniences and hazards, Hans’ main concern is the care and safety of his pigeons. He notes that the birds he pulls are well cared for, and pampered. “Pigeon racing is a unique sport that’s basically about one person bragging to another about how well his birds did,” he says. “In the end, though, it’s all about the birds.”