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Racing Pigeons Among Birds That Meet Their Doom Against City's Skyscrapers

By Justin Breen | September 8, 2016 5:45am | Updated on September 13, 2016 10:37am
 LEFT: A dead racing pigeon found Downtown Tuesday RIGHT: A racing pigeon waiting to take off
LEFT: A dead racing pigeon found Downtown Tuesday RIGHT: A racing pigeon waiting to take off
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Twitter/David Jakubiak (Left): Flickr Creative Commons/Rokkor Fella (Right)

DOWNTOWN — Racing pigeons, valuable birds trained to fly more than 1,000 miles in a clip to win huge prizes, are among the thousands of birds killed each year as they pass through Chicago.

Blame it on the skyscrapers.

The latest death came this week when a racing pigeon, identified by the band around one of its legs, apparently crashed into a building on Wacker Drive.

Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, whose members pick up dead or nearly dead birds that have crashed into buildings, receives hundreds of calls each year about the racing birds.

The birds, unlike regular city pigeons, are banded around their legs and can travel more than 1,000 miles during events. The racing birds, raised in coops and fed by humans, sometimes get lost during races or meet an unfortunate fate when they slam beak-first into a city skyscraper.

Annette Prince, director of the collision monitors, said she's recently fielded calls from people who have found dead, banded racing pigeons in Old Irving Park, Logan Square and Downtown. That includes the bird discovered dead Tuesday on Upper Wacker between State and Wabash.

"People are racing these everywhere," Prince said. "They're trained to come home, but they don't always make it home. ... These birds don't find food or recognize predators like city pigeons do. If they get lost, they won't make it. They'll either starve or get injured."

Pigeon racing is banned in Chicago, but that doesn't mean the birds don't fly through the city during competitions — either as part of the route or by getting lost. One Oak Park-based pigeon last year was blown off course by a storm but nursed back to health by an Indiana family.

Deone Roberts, sport development manager for the American Racing Pigeon Union, said "homing pigeons are always expected home ... however, in dealing with nature, there are no finite certainties."

"There are predators that have an eye for smaller animals such as other birds, small dogs, maybe rodents and other such animals," Roberts said.

Roberts said her group has more than 600 clubs and 10,000 members (called fanciers) in the United States alone, and there are several other pigeon racing organizations across the country and worldwide. Roberts said the birds are "geniuses" in their own right, noting they can pick up sound from as far as a state away.

"They are amazing creatures," she said. "To experience them in the racing hobby is to delve into nature unlike the typical activities of man."

Racing pigeons are identified by bands with letters and numbers on their feet. The band on the pigeon found dead Downtown on Tuesday was not fully visible, but part of it read "AU 2016." AU is the national organization that registered the bird, in this case the American Racing Pigeon Union; 2016 is the year the bird was hatched and banded/registered. Other information included on bands are letters representing the pigeon club the bird is registered to and numbers to represent each pigeon from that club.

Racing pigeons is a sport that dates to 1200 B.C., according to the Royal Pigeon Racing Association. The birds are descendants of rock doves, which were used by the Romans as messengers to fly more than hundreds of miles. In the 1800s, an official pigeon postal service was used in France, and the birds were used as messengers in World Wars I and II.

There are many theories about why the birds can remember long flights home, including a 10-year study from Oxford University that concluded pigeons use roads to navigate and can change directions at junctions. Other studies say the birds can remember visual clues like landmarks.

"These are amazing birds. They're underappreciated. They're smart. They're great flyers. They learn things," Prince said.

The hobby can be expensive. One Chinese buyer paid more than $300,000 for a racing pigeon in 2012. The top birds can win huge prizes, too — up to six-figure payouts. Some tournaments cost thousands of dollars to enter.

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center estimates 365 million to 988 million birds are killed in collisions in the United States each year. In the area Prince and her network of 100 volunteers can cover, about 5,000 birds per year are picked up.

Hundreds of bird species migrate through Chicago every year, especially during the spring and late summer/early fall.

Prince would rather focus on the birds passing through the city because of migrations rather than a race.

"Hours and hours have to be spent answering hundreds of calls and trying to rescue these unfortunate birds," she said.

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