Racing pigeons: It’s not just for the birds

NTIOCH — Fred Belus casts his gaze skyward at a flock of racing pigeons circling above his backyard. Fit and sleek, they circle a few times before a distinct whistle from Belus brings his flock back home to the loft.

“When you take them out, there are some pigeons that are leaders and some that are just followers. The name of the game is that we’ve got to teach each pigeon to be a leader on his own,” said Belus, a 70-year-old retired business owner who has won dozens of races over the years.

“If you take them and always turn them loose in one flock, some just go along for the ride. So what you’ve got to do is turn them loose one at a time and make each one learn he can do it on his own and he can be confident by himself.”

“That’s the extra training that helps you win,” said his son, Mike Belus, a 50-year-old contractor who shares his dad’s passion for pigeons.

Both father and son belong to the Diablo Racing Pigeon Club. It is one of 11 pigeon racing clubs that compete in long-distance races overseen by the Bay Cities Racing Pigeon Combine, which has about 250 members.

On race days, the combine hires a specially designed truck that can carry up to 2,000 pigeons, which are picked up at various clubs, then released hundreds of miles away. Typically, race distances are between 100 and 500 miles, with pigeons flying at an average speed of 50 mph. When the bird flies into the coop, a band on the talon is electronically scanned to provide the arrival time, which is uploaded to a computer program to determine race results. Allowances are made to adjust for distances between lofts.

Pigeon racing shares many similarities to horse racing in that there are pedigrees, prizes, training, special diets and auctions involved in the sport, but unlike race horses, not all birds get a name.

“There are too many to name, but a lot of guys, once they make it into the breeding loft, they will get a name. You will have your favorites,” said Mike Belus, who also raises pigeons and runs a one-loft, four-race series known as the San Francisco Bay Area Triple Crown.

While the bond the Beluses share with their birds is evident, there are critics of the sport. In 2012, PETA, the animal rights organization, released results of an undercover investigation into some of the largest pigeon racing operations in California, Oklahoma, Arizona, New York and West Virginia that found in many races more than 60 percent of the birds get lost or die as result of extreme weather, predators, electrical lines, hunters or exhaustion.

Deone Roberts, sport development manager for the American Racing Pigeon Union, said the group does not have statistics on the percentage of birds that don’t make it back, but said some birds may not return from a race the same day but will make it home later. The group promotes the proper and humane care of racing pigeons.

Racing pigeons love to fly and receive excellent care to keep them in the tiptop shape needed to compete, the younger Belus said.

“As a club and a combine, we are always trying to do the most responsible thing for the pigeons’ sake. We don’t let birds go out in bad weather conditions. We care about them, and there is a lot of time and energy that goes into that, ” he said.

In 1977, Fred Belus was ranked first nationwide in a competition sponsored by the now-defunct Racing Pigeon Bulletin for his overall record in the midsize combine division for old birds (those one year and older).

In 2012, one of his old birds was ranked ninth nationwide by the American Pigeon Racing Union based on four long-distance races held at various distances.

“We strive for perfect health. That’s the No. 1 thing you have to have before you go any further,” said Fred Belus, who has about 100 racing homing pigeons in his backyard loft, divided among the young birds and old birds that race and the retired breeders.

Over the years, the sport’s popularity has decreased due to housing restrictions that can make it difficult to put up backyard lofts along with declining interest in the sport among young people.

Today, there are about 10,000 members in the American Racing Pigeon Union, down from 15,000 members in the 1950s. The Boy Scouts used to offer a pigeon racing merit badge but discontinued it in the 1980s due to a lack of interest.

“The worst thing for the sport right now is that no younger kids are getting into it,” Mike Belus said. “Kids are into electronic games and are not getting outside as much.”

The American Pigeon Racing Union is hoping to help turn that around by working with local pigeon clubs to get racing pigeons placed in schools around the country. Several programs exist nationwide, but there are none in the Bay Area.

Such efforts help students learn about math, science, geography and technology while learning to properly care for the birds, Roberts said.

“There is a nature deficit with kids,” she said.

“The benefit of dealing with nature, the responsibility you learn, it improves the child’s self-esteem and his awareness of his part in the world.”

Mike Belus, left, and his father Fred Belus, right, hold a couple of racing pigeons owned by Fred Belus in his backyard in Antioch, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015. Fred owns around 100 racing pigeons, and Mike also has a large number of birds in his backyard at his Antioch home. The two race their pigeons all over the state. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)