Ohioans fly to top rankings with homing pigeons

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WINESBURG, Ohio – The Winesburg Homing Pigeon Club has just concluded its racing activities for the 2002 racing season.

In total, 11,192 homing pigeons were raced from the midwestern United States over the course of 19 weekend races, flying home from distances of 100 to 600 miles to their lofts spread widely over northeastern Ohio.

The members of the new Winesburg club performed very well in the highly competitive Buckeye Combine, winning the 350 mile Great Black Mountain One Bird Derby, flown from Black Mountain, N.C., and the 300 mile Ohio SBMF Race, flown from Elizabethtown, Ky.

Members also won the 300 mile Greater Northeast Ohio Race, flown from Orleans, Ind., a 600 mile Buckeye Combine race from Memphis, Tenn., as well as three other Buckeye Combine races.

Family partners. “I was so nervous, and was shaking so badly when my bird came in from the SBMF race that I could barely remove his rubber race ring.” said Millersburg’s Steve Schlabach upon winning his first race.

Schlabach and his 10-year-old son Tyler, fly as “partners” from their garden loft on County Road 629 between Millersburg and Berlin.

“I catch the returning birds, pull the race bands, and give them to Tyler who is my clock man,” explained Schlabach.

Tyler’s clocking activities are “supervised” closely by his talkative 6-year-old sister, Brandy.

Homing pigeons. Homing pigeons are highly intelligent. They are renowned for their ability to imprint at a young age on a geographic location, and for their unyielding determination to return to that location from great distances.

Competing and racing the birds was a natural outgrowth, and the sport was born in the late 1800s, originating in the Dutch countries of Europe. Pigeon racing today is a major sporting event in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, Japan, China and many other Asian countries.

In fact, it is normal for pigeon race releases to be shown on television in Holland, Belgium and Germany.

Finest stock. Belgium is considered to be the cradle of the sport, having over 100,000 fanciers involved in racing, and is considered to have the finest genetic stock in the world.

As a result, racing enthusiasts have made Belgian pigeons the most sought after racing pigeons in the world.

In fact, many of the birds being raced in Ohio are bred from parent-stock imported from Belgium for the express purpose of racing.

Racing pigeons are sold at a wide range of prices, with many being purchased for breeding purposes from $100 to $5,000.

Last year in a Chicago auction of racing pigeons, the top pigeon sold to a California fancier for over $30,000.

Offspring one generation removed from the Belgian racing champions are sold privately all over the country for $1,000 to $1,500 apiece.

Helping beginners. Newcomers are encouraged to get acquainted with nearby clubs. Generous members share young birds to help out beginners.

In the United States, over 13,000 fanciers compete regularly and have formed a national organization, a museum and a hall of fame in Oklahoma City, Okla., called the American Racing Pigeon Union and The World of Wings.

The union, in addition to establishing national awards and uniform racing rules for use throughout the country, has focused on youth programs and scholarships as part of its service to the sport.

The Winesburg club is a member of the larger Buckeye Combine, Inc., which is a non-profit corporation consisting of five cooperating clubs that have joined forces to reduce shipping costs and increase racing competition.

The combine owns a trailer and hires a driver that collects the race birds from each club the evening before the race, and then drives the birds to the pre-designated release point for an early morning release the next day.

Global positioning. Through the use of global positioning, the exact yardage is calculated from the release point to each fanciers loft.

Upon returning to the loft, the race birds are “clocked” by computer scanning as they enter the loft to determine their exact minutes of flight. An “after-race” committee can then determine a bird’s speed in yards flown per minute.

This system permits a “flier” that is located farther from the release point to have additional time for his bird to fly the extra distance.

Most speeds range from 1,100 to 1,600 yards per minute. In a recent 200-mile race from Walton, Ky., William McEldowney of Alliance, Ohio, defeated Stan Dickerson of Coshocton, Ohio, by less than a second, or by 3/100 of a yard per minute, after allowing for the 64-mile distance between them.

Typically, racing pigeons fly at about 45 miles per hour, but speed is affected by wind. In tail winds, they fly faster. In head winds, they fly slower.

“The real trick is to get the bird to defy its instincts and leave the safety of the big flock during a race to fly alone to its home in as straight a line as possible,” according to Stan Dickerson, of Coshocton, the only 2-time winner of the elite 300-mile Greater Northeast Ohio Race.

Secrets and goals. Fanciers call this “breaking” from the flock, and have their own secrets to increase the bird’s motivation to return straight home alone. Physical conditioning, experience, nutrition, health, mates and nesting condition all play a role.

“A goal of nearly every racing pigeon enthusiast is to breed birds strong and brave enough to fly home from a 5OO-mile race on the same day it is released,” added Randy Specht of Strasburg, Ohio.

Specht has just returned to organized pigeon racing after a 15-year hiatus, and had the third best performing young bird in the combine this season.

“This year our club had four of only 35 ‘day birds’ to return from a 500-mile race with 2,124 birds, released in Ofallon, Ill. The other birds made it home the next morning. That’s a real accomplishment in this sport,” Specht added.

In 2001, the group also had 500-mile day birds and the very rare 600-mile day birds.

Membership. Members making up the local Winesburg club are Steve Schlabach of Millersburg, Hank Schlabach of Millersburg, Lee Kohli of Dundee, Randy Specht of Strasburg, and Stan Dickerson of Coshocton. Junior members are Tyler Schlabach and Jonathon Specht.

The club’s meeting room and basketing station is located on North Chestnut Street in Winesburg, across from Whitmer’s General Store.

The group is prepared to offer assistance for startup to individuals interested in joining the club and participating in the sport of pigeon racing.

“For the most part, this is very much an individual sport with the bulk of the activity taking place right in your own backyard in your own loft assisted by your own children,” stated Lee Kohli, who has a degree in poultry science from Ohio State University.

“My loft is my studio, where I have designed a work area to assist me in ‘trying’ to develop a bird so beautiful, dependable and fast that my colleagues can’t beat it.

“I have never been associated with an activity that so engulfed me and gave me so much pleasure and challenge, but permitted me to control so many of the factors affecting my success.

“I am regularly involved in genetics, nutrition, physical conditioning and training, health care and even woodworking. I go to many auctions and seminars, and am always on the lookout for that new champion breeder or that new idea that can give me the edge on my fellow fanciers.”

Getting started. However, despite the friendly competitiveness, last year he gave away nearly 60 of his very finest young pigeons to assist both new and existing members in their efforts to succeed in this great sport.

For more information on how to start in homing pigeons, contact Lee Kohli, at 330-359-1402, or the American Racing Pigeon Union, at 1-800-755-2778, or visit their Web site at www.pigeon.org.

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