Johnny Hutcheson, of Dearing, began training homing pigeons six years ago. The unique breed of bird has an innate ability to find its way home, even over long distances. As a member of the Georgia-Carolina Pigeon Racing Club, Hutcheson trains his pigeons to fly home faster than the others.
“They’re free. They’re in the air,” Hutcheson said. “You have to treat them nice to make them come home.”
Hutcheson competes against other club members in a sport known as pigeon racing. On a race day, competitors release their trained pigeons at a centralized “liberation zone” and clock the time each pigeon takes to fly home.
From 150 miles away, a racing pigeon needs three to four hours to fly home. Birds only rest in trees if they lose their direction. Occasionally, some will fall out of the air because of exhaustion, Hutcheson said.
“Birds have a lot of enemies,” he said. “If that bird doesn’t come home, something’s happened to it.”
Pigeons begin their training when they are weaned from their mother 28 days after hatching. Then, the birds gradually fly farther from the loft. They begin flying about 20 minutes per day, then increase to 50-mile flights until they are ready for longer distances.
Participants deliver their birds to a club member the night before the race. Pending a clear weather forecast, the birds are released about 8 a.m.
“We all sit around at home waiting on our birds,” Hutcheson said.
Each pigeon has an electronic band with a bar code and tracking number wrapped around its foot. An antenna attached to a bird-tracking system records the exact time the pigeon flies over its home.
The homing pigeons are different than birds found in the streets.
They have a larger heart and wingspan, which suits them for competition, Hutcheson said.
The Georgia-Carolina club has seven members, but active clubs in Atlanta have nearly 70 members. More than 20 pigeon racers compete in Athens, Ga.
Dale Rogers, of Grovetown, travels across the Southeast for pigeon races. In 2010, his birds won first and second place in The Big Pigeon Race, a regional competition that featured 600 birds flying several hundred miles.
Rogers learned the hobby from his father and has been racing birds for 36 years.
“Instead of horse racing or dog racing, we’re racing pigeons,” he said. “Racing pigeons, that’s my first love. I enjoy that more than anything I’ve ever done.”