The attic of Peter Pauls’ tidy two-storey garage is filled with giant runts, white homers and Warsaw Schmetterlinge, also known as Polish butterflies.
They are all pigeons, although you won’t find the latter just anywhere.
“They’re the ones with the feathers on their feet,” he explained. “They are bred for show, but they do fly.”
A few years ago, Pauls received what was possibly the only pair of Polish butterflies in Canada following the death of a fellow pigeon breeder from Selkirk. He’s since bred the pair, selling their offspring to enthusiasts across Canada.
The East St. Paul grandfather has been fascinated with pigeons since his boyhood in north Winnipeg.
“In North Kildonan and East Kildonan, and especially in Winnipeg’s North End, on every street there were a few guys with pigeon lofts in their backyards,” Pauls said. “The immigrants who came here raised pigeons and rabbits because that’s what they did in the old country.”
Pauls says no one in his family shares his passion — although he has hopes for his four-year-old grandson — but he’s hardly a rare breed. Although membership is on the decline, there are still dozens of pigeon clubs, organized by region and breed, across the country.
“It’s a grassroots type of hobby that appeals to all types of people, young, old, men and women,” said Clint Robertson, president of the Canadian Pigeon Fanciers Association, which has about 650 members.
The Amaranth-area cattle rancher first became involved in pigeon breeding as a child.
“My dad was reading the Co-operator and saw an ad for pigeons… he thought it would be a good way for me to learn responsibility,” said Robertson.
Little did he know his hobby would help keep the family farm going during the BSE crisis.
“My pigeons supplemented my income — they were my saving grace,” said Robertson.
He sells breeding pairs worldwide, and while common pigeons can go for as little as $25, rare breeds and pedigrees fetch astonishing sums. Last year, a Belgian racing pigeon by the name of Blue Prince was sold to a Chinese buyer for $200,000, while a colony of 218 pigeons offered at the same auction went for $1.8 million.
The opening up of China politically and economically has not only boosted interest in pigeons but excited the interest of diehard fans.
“We’re finding that in isolated regions, and villages, people have been breeding pigeons for thousands of years focusing on one trait,” said Robertson.
Pigeons fall into three categories; fancy, performance and utility (which are bred for meat, and called squab). While Pauls’ Warsaw Schmetterlinge are stars in the fancy category, they’d be a bust at Winnipeg Pigeon Flyers’ races, which run from mid-May to October.
“This is a special type of bird,” said club president Bill Voulgaris. “They originate from a homing pigeon, but have been specially bred to be a little more athletic. A homing pigeon will come home from, say, 30 miles and take a couple of hours whereas a racing pigeon will speed back in about 35 or 40 minutes.”
A racing pigeon, which has a special diet, can hit speeds of 45 miles per hour and cover as much as 1,000 miles in a day (the Winnipeg club’s races start as far away as Kenora). It helps if they’re a bit hungry at the start of the race and male racers seem keen to return to their lifelong companions, said Voulgaris.
At one time, birds were shipped by rail the night before a race, released the next morning, and had their tiny rubber leg rings time stamped when they got home. Today, birds are taken to release locations using a specially designed trailer and scanned electronically when they return.
“It’s the same as being at the grocery store and scanning a can of peas,” Voulgaris said. “As soon as they get home, they walk over a little pad to get into the loft and it registers him as being arrived.”
Pigeon racing took off in Belgium in the 1800s, but many argue the sport dates back to the third century. And their impressive, but poorly understood, homing ability was recognized long before. Carrier pigeons were in use in Persia by 500 BC, and continued to be used through the Second World War.
Today, they also get pressed into service at ceremonies where doves are released.
“You don’t actually release doves because they wouldn’t come back — you use white homing pigeons,” said Pauls.
Earlier this year, Pauls helped out a man who called asking if a carrier pigeon could deliver a message to a woman he wanted to date.
“I said no offence, but obviously you know nothing about pigeons,” said Pauls laughing and noting there’s no such thing as a “postal pigeon.”
“But then I said, ‘Hold on, I think I can help.’”
He lent the man a homing pigeon, who had it delivered to the woman in downtown Winnipeg with a note asking for a date and requesting she release the bird with her answer. Twenty minutes later the pigeon had returned to its East St. Paul loft, and the man had his date.
Raising pigeons has also brought Robertson into contact with people he never imagined he would meet.
The Jacobin breeder has travelled to the Middle East, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, to show, sell and judge birds.
Just don’t confuse these pigeons with their feral urban cousins, Robertson stressed.
“That would be like comparing a high-bred show dog to a coyote,” he said.