Flying the coop: Racing pigeons in Portugal

Pigeons start to fly at the beginning of a race in Setubal, Portgual. (Tommaso Rada/Echo Photo)

File this under the category of “Who knew?”, but pigeon racing is second only to soccer in terms of the sheer number of participants and followers in Western European countries like Germany, Belgium, England, Holland and Portugal. And its popularity is starting to take flight Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Turkey and a host of others. Major pigeon racing tournaments and championships have sprouted, and this year photographer Tommaso Rada decided to chase them down in Portugal.

Up until World War II, pigeons were regularly used as couriers to deliver messages because of their keen homing abilities. But the sport itself predates that, going back as far as 19th century Belgium. It has since evolved into a full-on sport involving breeders, auctioneers, massive warehouses to store pigeons, and even bigger bets being placed (although it’s not officially legal in Europe to bet on racing pigeons). Several months go into carefully picking and training a specific breed of pigeon to yield the best results. Fanciers, or pigeon enthusiasts in this case, will often figure out specific diets and methods for training. But how does a pigeon “win”? Essentially, it’s the first pigeon to fly back to its home, or starting loft, in the fastest time. Race clocks (shown below) are used to time each pigeon.

Part of the sport’s appeal is that it’s accessible to virtually anyone and everyone, regardless of age or economic status — not to mention the potentially large cash earnings for tournament winners.  And though breeding pigeons can be a relatively easy and affordable process, the price for obtaining pigeons can be a little steep. Prices to own pigeons can range from 400 to 5,000 euros ($500 to $6,300) depending on how many you purchase, but there have been cases where Chinese and Portuguese buyers have paid as much as 300,000 euros at auctions.