This is pigeon-conditioning season for Jim Allan.
Just as a trainer exercises his young Thoroughbreds for the racing season, as a purebred owner grooms his pups for the kennel show, even as a Little League coach gets his team shaped up for the playoffs, Allan is prepping his new flock for the opening of pigeon-racing season on Sept. 5.
While there's only so much you can do with pigeons--compared to horses, dogs and people--getting them to race requires special knowledge and skills.
Allan, 25, who lives in Claremont and is manager of the poultry ranch at Cal Poly Pomona, is a third-generation pigeon racer. He learned from his father, James Allan of Manhattan Beach, who learned from his father in Scotland.
"I knew how to hold a pigeon when I was 4 years old," he said, tenderly stroking one as he anxiously scanned the heavens for the rest of his flock of 35 young racers, who should have been home an hour before.
He took them to Lancaster that morning, "and this is the first time they haven't beaten me home," Allan said.
Such outings as the one to Lancaster--and sometimes farther--constitute the pigeons' conditioning program. Allan takes his flocks to faraway places to accustom them to flying long distances and then rewards them with some special seed in hopes that the birds will fly home faster and faster.
Season Begins in September
The season to race young birds--those born since Jan. 1--begins in September. Their natural instincts will get them home, but Allan takes his entire flock to increasingly distant places to help strengthen them.
On this day, Allan explained, the birds were not familiar with the mountain pass they had to go through and probably were circling over it to get their bearings. Sure enough, within an hour they were back on their perches and enjoying the reward of a little flax seed.
Allan said that he came by his lifetime fascination with racing pigeons naturally. In Scotland, where his grandfather competed, pigeon racing has been a popular sport for several generations.
Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands have hundreds of thousands of participants who turn loose millions of pigeons every September.
Allan and his father share an "old bird team" of about 50 in Manhattan Beach, and he keeps about 40 more at Cal Poly, where they are used for research on feeding and breeding.
At his home in Claremont, he has 35 young birds in a small coop in his backyard, where he feeds them and fusses with them an average of two hours a day.
They require a clean, comfortable home, he said, and they spend most of their time competing to maintain or take over the best perches. The birds are quiet, making soft, cooing sounds, and they do not appear to disrupt his quiet neighborhood.
"My neighbors are actively interested," he said as several youngsters poked their heads over a back fence. "Most cities allow pigeons. They're not poultry and they're not noisy."
There are two schools of thought about what makes some pigeons good racers, Allan said. He sides with those who believe it is breeding, more than training, that produces winners.
"I don't think there's any competition among pigeons. I think you breed greatness," he said. "Everything depends on breeding and good health. But not everyone believes this. I think most good racers are females, but the great ones are males. One who wins seven or eight races in a season is usually a male."
Allan belongs to the Baldy View Club, one of about 65 clubs in Southern California that exist just to race pigeons.
All Columbia livia , the racing breed, are banded and given a number by the owner's club when they are 6 days old. For a race, the birds are given special numbers placed on a leg band. The pigeons are driven in one truck to their release point--usually 200 to 300 miles north, but sometimes more than 600 miles away.
Speeds Up to 75 M.P.H.
At the take-off point, all the cage doors open at once, and the pigeons take off, usually flying about 50 m.p.h. In some cases, they can fly up to 75 m.p.h., Allan said.
When the first bird reaches his roost, the owner removes the numbered band and places it in a special box with a clock that stamps the arrival time. Usually an owner will collect the bands of birds that arrive in the first hour. He then takes the clock box to the club, where arrival times of all the racers are compared and the winner announced.
Allan believes that older birds fly fastest when they are racing home to nest eggs. Others, he said, want to get back to their perches and the reward of special seed. They race best when they are 3 years old, he said, and they breed for about 14 years.
While betting is the big attraction in Europe, Allan raises some of his birds for trading and selling, and he believes he has a superior, speedy flock. He will not say how much they have earned him, acknowledging only that he gets enough to cover the $1,000 he spends annually on their care and diet.