GRIP: How to hold a pigeon.
GRIP: How to hold a pigeon.
FEATHERS: Essential for a good racing bird.
FEATHERS: Essential for a good racing bird.
FANCIER: Eugene van Graan loves his birds.
FANCIER: Eugene van Graan loves his birds.
HOME: Is where the pigeon perches.
HOME: Is where the pigeon perches.

RECENTLY I moved home. On my stoep, as the sun softened, a flock of birds circled, as though of one mind, in a wide arc above my roof, their beating wings making a soothing sound like a sheet ruffled by the wind, before they swooped into a nearby red shed.

This oddly soothing ritual repeated itself every evening.

The birds’ owner, Eugene Van Graan, acting principle of Raithby Primary School in Somerset West, was bitten by the pigeon racing bug at age 15 when he visited his uncle’s loft. From that moment Eugene was obsessed, but his father, wisely, would not allow him to build his own loft until he had graduated as a teacher.

The loft is the epicentre of a pigeon fancier’s world. If a pigeon doesn’t like a loft, he will move, or trap, to another. Eugene, who has lived on his property for 32 years, builds a new loft every three years to house almost 200 pigeons. Each pigeon has its own perch inside his 24 square meter square loft.

Currently it’s the breeding season and Eugene, hoping for strong birds for the next racing season, is inspecting his young birds, known as “squeakers” for “winning genes”. Two months after hatching the birds are molting and losing their baby feathers. Eugene shows me what pigeon fanciers look for in a bird. Most importantly, the feathers should be plentiful, strong, well-formed and soft. The long wing feathers, known as flights, should fold to a place about ½ an inch to ¾ of an inch from the end of the tail feathers. A pigeons eyes should be clear and bright affording the bird an easy 360 degree vision, far superior to humans.

“This is my famous 59,” says Eugene fetching a bird that won both the Victoria West and the Beaufort West race. Its number is embossed on a rubber band worn on its ankle. Eugene opens his wing, displaying his feathers like a fan.

He shows me how to hold a pigeon with its head pointing into chest, tail pointing away. As we chat, one by one the birds leave the loft and start flying around. The younger ones make smaller circles than the older birds. They fly for about 90 minutes a day, but Eugene says, “They fly their own distances; we don’t have control over that.”

The history of the relationship between birds and people was probably first recorded in the Bible, when a bird returned to Noah’s outstretched hand. Playing the role of the telegraph, telephone, and the Internet, pigeons have carried messages, between people, over long distances. They enabled Nathan de Rothschild to learn about Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, three days ahead of everyone else, thus securing the family’s fortune for the next two centuries. Pigeons played a part in South Africa’s military history. In 1900, the British successfully used pigeons to communicate across South Africa and win the Boer War.

A pigeon’s flying speed is impressive. On average they fly at 100 kms per hour. But when they have the wind at their back they can reach speeds of 160 km. When this happens in a race it is called a “blow home”. Another factor common to fanciers is their love of the birds. Eugene says, “My birds come first. I love my birds so very much.”

Keeping pigeons takes dedication. Eugene feeds them every morning a 6.30am and then again at 5pm. He doesn’t like going on holidays because no-one can look after his birds as well as he does.

Eugene has to be vigilant against diseases like canker, roup, coccidiosis and one-eyed cold and treat them accordingly. “Negligence is the big enemy of this sport,” says Eugene. “Pigeon racing is very scientific.” Disease does not only affect the birds. Fanciers are sometimes forced to give up the sport when they contract an asthmatic-like disease called bird fanciers lung or pigeon lung.

Eugene likes to spend an hour or so every evening in the loft. “I’ve been scolded by my wife for spending too much time in the loft,” he admits. “It’s very relaxing. I lose my stress. The birds don’t talk back.” The worst part of pigeon racing, for Eugene, is losing birds. Hawks are the enemy of pigeon racers. “A fancier shouldn’t put his heart on a certain bird because they can get lost,” Eugene warns.

Normally Eugene’s birds fly in four races a year. They start with the shortest distance, 170 km from Touws River and build up to the longest race from Kroonstad. Described as poor man’s horse racing, pigeon racing is hugely popular in South Africa. South Africa’s million dollar race bills itself as the most lucrative pigeon race in the world. The owner of the first-place pigeon receives $150,000, with subsequent finishers taking the balance of the million-dollar purse.

Well-bred birds are huge business. The world’s most expensive racing bird, Bolt, earned his Belgian breeder $400,000 when he sold it to a Chinese businessman.

In Eugene’s loft, I discover the allure of the pigeon, a bird that I’d always considered the proletariat of birds. Later, without knowing how I’d spent the morning, my companion describes being deeply moved by a story written by Herman Lategan: A man and his pigeons were forcibly removed from District 6 to Grassy Park. The man’s pigeons disappeared and were found again, roosting among the derelict remains of their previous home.

It’s a haunting image that captures the pain of exile.

At the heart of pigeon racing is the compelling mystery of the homing instinct, the term used to describe the ability of a pigeon to find its way home over long distances. What unites fanciers is a strong personal attachment to the idea of home. In The Pocket Sports edition of Ron Bissett’s Pigeon Racing, Bissett explains that “pigeon racing is the only sport in which a man can compete in his own home and in which his family can take part”.

l Federated Board of Homing Union, Yasheed Moer: 021 862 4885