For our next story, I accompanied Alex to an area not far from Sintra, to Mem Martins, where the columbophile club Algueirão e Mem Martins is located.
And it is here that we meet Antonio, introduced to this passion by a friend. Through his stories, he open to us an absolutely unknown world, that of carrier pigeons, which we therefore decide to share with you.
But before getting into the specifics, let’s try to understand more of this tradition which is much older than we can imagine.
From Ramses III to King Solomon, passing through Genghis Kahn or the armed forces of the 20th century, carrier pigeons have influenced the course of various armed conflicts throughout history and in recent centuries have become “highly competitive athletes”, capable of flying even a thousand kilometers in one day.
Pigeon racing is the art of breeding carrier pigeons for competition and became a sport in Belgium in 1820. Initially practiced mainly in Belgium, Holland and Germany, it then spread to the Iberian Peninsula in the 1920s and 1930s. Portugal won a gold medal at the 36th Pigeon Olympics two years ago.
Carrier pigeons fly miles in a single day with the instinct to go home and have a “biological GPS” aligned with the planet’s electromagnetic field, which gives them a unique sense of orientation. And they create a unique relationship with those who provide them with food and shelter.
The current carrier pigeon is the result of crossings of some Belgian and English breeds, carried out in the second half of the 19th century. This pigeon model has been continuously selected to ascertain two main characteristics: an orientation ability and an athletic morphotype.
The task of the pigeon breeders is to improve the physical and orientation skills to participate in the championships. They develop top speeds of between 87km / h and 102km / h over distances that can exceed 1,200 kilometers.
In these competitions, carrier pigeons do not carry messages from one destination to another but are transported from their loft to a certain starting point, from where they must return home.
It is a sport that, to the surprise of many, has become the 3rd most practiced nationally, it is practiced all over the world, from the Americas to the emerging and rich Asian continent, namely China and Japan, South Africa also has the ” largest race in the world “the” Sun City Million Dolar Race Pigeon “where the” amateur “(name by which the owners of the competing pigeons identify themselves) wins a prize of 1 million dollars, plus part of the value for which the winning pigeon will be auctioned.
Thanks to the explanation of Antonio, president of this club, we discover that there are practically pigeon clubs in all the districts which are then organized by region and then there is a national association.
Each “trainer” has about 100 pigeons or more. The selection of the best ones is always made to register them for competitions.
The Mem Martins club is quite old, it dates back to 1976, but Antonio explains that there are older ones. The one in Lisbon was among the first to start, but today it is not the strongest at the national level.
Each Club has more teams and Antonio leads us to meet his, called Avelinos, Barroso & Camolas where Camolas is Antonio, who in this team has Josè Avelino, Marco Barroso and João Avelino.
Through this team, we were able to observe more closely how the work of training and preparing the pigeons works. These are trained and cared for in dovecot and often fans of this sport are forced to give up because they don’t have enough space to place the dovecot. When, for example, you live in an apartment building, the other tenants do not always allow it, and even if you live in a house, sometimes the neighbors disagree. Not to mention the fact that often the evolution of the city and the need to build new houses has led to the destruction of dovecots.
In some cases the municipality has also tried to help by proposing the construction of real pigeon-loving villages.
Antonio explain to us that engaging in the breeding and training of pigeons is very complicated, as well as being extremely expensive because the necessary products, nutrition and medical care can be very expensive. And it is a passion that requires many hours of work.
First of all they explain to us that we need to have pigeons for breeding and pigeons for competitions (children). The eggs are fertilized for 18 days before the baby pigeons are born. Slowly newcomers have to get used to the environment and the street. It begins with small spontaneous flights in the dovecote, and then begins with the actual training.
The pigeon trainer has to come up with a real training plan. Pigeons need to train twice a day. When they are ready, we begin by getting them used to d get away, let them free and make them go home alone. It starts with 120 km and then increases the distance.
Daily accompaniment and a lot of care are required.
Nowadays the coach of any sport is not just a coach, he must be a leader, he must be a psychologist, he must be an athletic trainer, an analyst, he must be everything that revolves around the art of leading a team, and so on. And a “Colombophile” there is a breeder, a “nutritionist” – the food during the week is not always the same, these animals carry out tests ranging from 200-300 km (speed races), passing through 300-500 km ( medium distance) and from 500 to 800 km (depth), being that for the closest ones, the pigeon must be lighter than the more distant ones, where its energy reserves must be greater, a “veterinarian” – All pigeons for to be able to participate in the competitions must be vaccinated at the beginning of the season, after which it is essential to carry out treatments for the most common diseases, such as coccidiosis, trichomoniasis, salmonellosis and respiratory tract. It is important to always pay attention during the season, as a pigeon does not fly with only its wings, if its nasal passages and / or its lungs are blocked it costs it to run. He is also a physical trainer – expert in much of the physiology of the effort for the recovery of the athlete after the competition, the vitamins to be administered, the amino acids or even the electrolytes for recovery; all this is part of the competition and life of a pigeon lover.
Treating pigeons like competitive athletes is a long and very particular process that requires patience and work method.
In Portugal, pigeon races take place between February and June of each year and in the remaining months there are other pigeon races, namely derbies. The number of pigeons is estimated at 4.5 million.
The club arranges the delivery. Each pigeon has a ring at the paw. Before it was a rubber ring with a number that the coach recorded and when the pigeon returned, he wrote down the number and collected the ring. But this could lead to cheating. Today the system is much more complex. Each coach and each reference club has a machine that registers individual pigeons with the reference number of a tin ring on the paw which corresponds to a real identity card. The transport takes place in TIR trucks, equipped with the necessary care for the well-being of the birds, in terms of watering, internal temperature control and food, being authentic athletes of high competition.
Arriving at the starting point, the pigeons are released and begin the flight home. They reach a speed of 700/800 km per hour.
There are various theories, but there is still no concrete explanation for how they manage to orient themselves and leave, knowing that they arrive at the starting point in a completely closed truck. But the fact is that they find their way home. And once back, each coach directs the CIP of the document of each pigeon in the car and thus records the flight time and speed.
And if at the level of physical preparation of pigeons, the trainer must pay attention to the nutrition and health of the animals, in relation to the strategies to make them return faster, the speech is different, as the relationship between trainer and animal can be decisive. Since in these competitions it is not enough to leave the carrier pigeons in a certain place and make them return home. They need to get home as fast as possible.
There are several strategies.
For example, during the week the males are separated from the females and prepared for the test and when they return they automatically know that when they arrive in the attic the females are there waiting for them and vice versa. Or you can make some kind of milk and honey soup.
But as far as we understand everyone has his own secret and does not want to reveal it.
Are we about to leave our new friends when Carlos Barbosa arrives, who now has no more pigeons but continues to come to the club. He began to devote himself to pigeons for passion. Originally from Ponte de Lima, he raised pigeons as a child and created such a bond with them that, when the pigeons were sold in the market, if the buyer was not careful to keep them in the house in the following days, the pigeons would run away and come back to him. His father had once told him that the same pigeons had returned three times!
He leaves us with a truly amazing and funny story. He says he welcomed and trained a pigeon that no one wanted, because he refused to mate and spent his days close to male pigeons like him. Enrolled in a race, he managed to amaze everyone.
One day, he had left the house, calculating that the pigeons would start returning in a couple of hours. Soon after, a call from his wife warned him that a pigeon was already in the dovecote. Given that there was still a long time left, he had thought of a lost pigeon who had found refuge in his dovecote. Imagine his surprise when, back home, he discovered that that champion was not only his pigeon, but that pigeon that no one had wanted.
In short, we leave with the awareness of having discovered an almost unknown world, made up of ancient traditions, patience, a lot of work, affection, care and where there is no place for discrimination.