Chasing history in the great South African pigeon race
I met Paul Smith, the man responsible for shipping the Queen of England’s pigeons, near a sunlit pigeon loft in Linbro Park, a light-industrial section of Johannesburg, South Africa. The loft, home to 2,453 pigeons, has a corrugated aluminum roof with translucent plastic panels to let in the sun and high-grade chicken-wire walls to encourage the circulation of air. Each of the pigeons inside the loft has a perch where it is accustomed to roosting. In two days’ time, the pigeons will be loaded into crates, put on a truck, and transported approximately 325 miles from here, to a point along the Vaal River, a tributary of the Orange River in the Northern Cape. There they will be set free, in the hope that they will fly back home.
Paul, a voluble little white-haired man in his early seventies who wears a white polo shirt, baggy cargo shorts, white Nikes, and white tennis socks, has won nearly every honor that pigeon racing has to offer. Before taking up the sport full-time, he made women’s stockings. “I first raced pigeons in 1959, when I was 15,” he says. “I couldn’t win a race to save me life.” He has traveled to Thailand, a haven for pigeon fanciers, 34 times. He helped organize pigeon races at the Seoul Olympiad and at the Berlin Wall. He has won the UK championship ten times and come in second ten times. The race that is closest to his heart, he confides, is the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, which bills itself as the most lucrative pigeon race in the world. The owner of the first-place pigeon receives $150,000, with subsequent finishers taking the balance of the million-dollar purse.
The Million Dollar, Paul tells me, was the brainchild of Zandy Meyer, a Johannesburg businessman who died two years ago. “Can’t tell you too much about him, can I?” Paul offers, in the curious way he has of emphasizing the first-person pronoun while providing only occasional dabs of specific detail, a habit that sometimes results in his conveying exactly the opposite of the meaning that he appears to intend. “There’s a lot of stories about him.” He first met Zandy, he says, in 1994 at a pigeon race in Thailand that Smith helped arrange on behalf of the country’s national tourism board. “We were sitting out there with a bottle of 12-year-old Chivas Regal. There were no pigeons home”—by which he means that none of the birds had yet returned to the loft—“and we were gradually getting worse and worse for wear. And I said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t have one of these in South Africa. Lovely climate. Cheap labor.’”
Zandy, whose six brothers were all well-known athletes in South Africa, had a crippled leg, which didn’t prevent him from becoming a famous ladies’ man who also keenly enjoyed all other available forms of competition. As soon as Paul raised the idea, he began to imagine a pigeon race with the kind of purse that would rival Sun City’s $2 million golf tournament. “Zandy said to me, ‘Wherever you think you can get pigeons for the race, go,’” Paul recalls. “‘I know a few people who’ve got money.’” According to Paul, the original backing for the Million Dollar supposedly came from 17 Swiss millionaires, who preferred to remain anonymous, although he also suggested that at least some of the money came from Zandy’s own pocket. For that first race, in 1996, Paul managed to attract 893 pigeons. The race lost money. The next three races also lost money. After five years, it began breaking even, and in years since it has turned a reasonable profit.
As Paul goes on about the history of the Million Dollar, I find myself soothed by the deep, throaty “blu-blu-buu-buu-buu” call of the thousands of pigeons in the lofts beside us. With their solid metal frames and high plastic ceilings, the two buildings where the pigeons sleep and eat seem like a nice home to fly back to. The buildings are divided by chicken wire into 16 cross-sections, each of which contains approximately 250 pigeons, which roost on inverted aluminum V’s that are fixed to the chicken-wire walls in undulating rows. The positioning of each pigeon on its perch exists in a clear hierarchical relation to the perch of every other pigeon. Their stillness broken by brief, fitful movements, they cock their heads to the side and fix one eye on the curious humans outside their cage. While the eyes of birds are often described as unblinking, they blink plenty, at regular intervals, like they are transmitting messages in Morse code from their Pleistocene ancestors. If you look deep into a pigeon’s eye, you can see the dinosaurs looking back at you.
Every pigeon in the loft arrived in South Africa between the ages of four weeks and four months old from one of 33 countries, with Germany (532 birds), the U.S. (505 birds), and Kuwait (213 birds) sending the most. After spending 30 days in quarantine, they took up residence in the loft, where they live under the round-the-clock care of three on-site trainers, who prepare them for the race. It is impossible to tell which of the pigeons belong to Paul Smith without scanning the bands on their ankles. Inside each band is a numeric code, which corresponds to another code that exists inside a digital black box, which remains untouched until the race is over.
The two lead trainers, Andre van Wyk and Corrie Naude, speak to the birds in Afrikaans. They have relatively little interest in talking to humans. Andre, a tall, cadaverous man whose bony ass does nothing to fill his well-worn blue jeans, talks in the halting way that is common among people who spend most of their days communicating with animals. He has been training pigeons for the race for the past eight years. He grew up in the Free State and received his first pigeon when he was three years old.
“On my third birthday, somebody gave me two white fantails,” he tells me. “From then until now, I am with the pigeons.”
“How do they make you feel?” I ask him.
The pigeons in the loft here in Johannesburg are less than a year old, which is young for racing. Newborn pigeons, known as squeakers, are shipped to South Africa between May and July. Once the birds are released from quarantine, Andre first teaches them to circle, directing them from the ground with a flag. After a month, if they can stay aloft for one hour, they are ready to fly home. Their first time out, the pigeons are taken three miles from the loft, then, in subsequent weeks, progress to a distance of six miles, then nine, then twelve. When they return home, they get extra food. After two months of training, they know to go out of their baskets and fly back. They then compete in preliminary races, including five “hot spot” car races, in which the owner of the winning pigeon wins a new vehicle.
In Germany, Andre says, they fly their pigeons 14 weekends in a row, without rest, which is why the pigeons there are so strong. “If a pigeon can make it, they’re a great pigeon,” he says. “If they can’t make it, they’re out.” It is not unusual, he adds, for pigeons to go missing on race day, then make their way back to the loft a year or two later.
Throughout his life, Andre has always kept his own birds, but now things are different. “I live here at the loft,” he says, gesturing toward his rooms near the pigeon coop. “I can’t keep my own pigeons here.”
The science of how exactly pigeons return home is frustratingly incomplete. The British ornithologist G.V.T. Matthews proposed in the 1950s that pigeons use “the arc of the sun” to fix their course. His theory was soon eclipsed by the work of William Keeton of Cornell University, the father of “magnetic cue theory.” While the sun did play a role in helping pigeons to return home, Keeton asserted, the birds took a far greater share of their guidance from the magnetic field of the earth, which allowed the birds to orient themselves through a kind of internal compass. Keeton’s theory held sway until the 1970s, when its primacy was undone by Floriano Papi of the University of Pisa. Through a clever series of experiments, Papi proved that while pigeons could fly straight home when their magnetic receptors were blocked, they were lost without the use of their olfactory organs. (I am relying here on a very clear and elegant discussion of the various theories in A Very British Coop, by Mark Collings.) Papi’s “olfactory theory” proposed that pigeons smell their way home, a view that remains dominant today despite a challenge in the 1990s from Tim Guilford of Oxford’s zoology department, who advanced the theory that pigeons rely on visual cues, or “steeple-chasing,” a suggestion that was in turn challenged by Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge, who suggested that pigeons rely on something he identified as “morphic resonance,” which as far as I can figure out is total nonsense.
While all the pigeon fanciers I have ever met or read are awestruck by the pigeon’s homing abilities, none seem to display much interest in any of the theories that purport to explain the behavior for which the birds are bred. What unites fanciers is a strong personal attachment to the idea of home. In the Pocket Sports edition of Ron Bissett’s Pigeon Racing, a cheaply printed castoff from Islington Libraries that I purchased for $1 at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, I found the following observation: “I have asked many of my friends in the sport today to pin-point the exact start of their interest in the sport, and many of them cannot, although the stock reply seemed to me to be ‘I have been in it as a boy’ or ‘it has always been in the family.’” Bissett adds that “pigeon racing is the only sport in which a man can compete in his own home and in which his family can take part.”
Because fanciers appear to be united by a deep longing for home, it makes sense that they come from all walks of life. King Edward VII of Great Britain raced his pigeons in the name of one of his gardeners. Britain’s reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, flies her pigeons from the royal pigeon loft at Sandringham House in King’s Lynn. Historically, the Netherlands, Belgium, and England have produced the greatest homing pigeons and pigeon fanciers, and as the populations of those countries have spread out across the world, the pigeons have followed. The mining districts of Newcastle are also famous for the excellence of their pigeons, which presumably benefited from the pleasure that men who spent their days underground took in seeing their birds fly free. The best-known pigeon fancier in the world today is probably Mike Tyson, who grew up fatherless on the streets of Brooklyn, before being taken in by the legendary trainer of human pugilists Cus D’Amato, and who kept 4,000 birds in a Harlem mansion at the height of his brutal career of knockouts and ear biting. “A pigeon fancier is very caring,” Tyson observed. “There is a great gentleness about them when they handle the pigeons.”
Fanciers agree that the body of a good racing pigeon should feel hard and firm, and should sit snugly in the hand. The skull bone should be bold and well formed, and the bird’s eyes should be clear and bright. They agree on the importance of feathers, which should be plentiful and very soft. The long wing feathers, known as flights, should fold to a place about ½ an inch to ¾ of an inch from the end of the tail feathers. According to the precepts of “wing theory,” the wing of a good long-distance racer will show very little enlargement between the ten secondary and ten primary flights. The tips of the primaries will be more rounded, and the outside primaries will open up like the fingers on your hand. Quality short-distance flyers show a pronounced step up between the secondaries and primaries, which have sharper tips. The most important flights for both types of flyers are the three outside ones—the eighth, ninth, and tenth—on the outer joint of the wing, which push the air back like a swimmer doing the breaststroke.
Trainers are gentle with their birds because they love them and in order to inculcate the idea that home is a good place to come back to. They are up to date on the latest treatments for common avian diseases, can fashion a splint for a broken leg out of a wooden matchstick or coffee stirrer and a few strips of plaster, and promote themselves to their birds from a very young age as calm, protective, and trustworthy. They will often bring parental gifts of corn, maple peas, tic beans, watercress, and other healthy foods that pigeons like to the loft. After a few weeks of gentle treatment, the trainer will start to accustom the birds to their baskets. A trainer will generally put corn in a basket, then introduce the new birds and leave them there overnight.
The history of the relationship between pigeons and human beings, which might be said to begin with the pigeon, or rock dove, that Noah sent aloft after the flood, is certainly worth many paragraphs on its own, if such a digression didn’t threaten to interfere with the story of the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race (SAMDPR). So I will skip quickly from the domestication of the pigeon by the ancient Egyptians, to their pioneering use as a means of commercial communication by the merchants of Aleppo, to the use of carrier pigeons in the far parts of Europe by the Romans, as described in the works of Pliny and Marcus Terentius Varro, to the establishment in the 12th century of the world’s first true pigeon post by Sultan Nuruddin, caliph of Baghdad. Seven centuries later, Nathan de Rothschild’s farsighted investment in carrier pigeons allowed him to receive news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, three days ahead of everyone else, thus securing the Rothschild fortune for the next two centuries. The French emperor’s use of pigeons in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 was so decisive that by 1891, France housed and fed a population of approximately 250,000 pigeons devoted to government use. The newly united nation of Italy set up 14 strategically located pigeon lofts, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire soon followed suit. In 1900, the British successfully used pigeons to communicate across South Africa and win the Boer War.
During World War I, pigeons played an important role in numerous engagements, including the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, when 178 pigeons assigned to tanks safely delivered their messages back to Allied military headquarters. Many of the greatest heroes of the American Expeditionary Forces, which turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies, were pigeons whose names have gone down in history books, including Big Tom, who flew 25 miles in 25 minutes under heavy machine-gun fire in the Meuse-Argonne action of 1918; Spike, who carried 52 messages for the 77th division without injury; and President Wilson, who had a leg shot off while delivering a message that helped decide a particularly hectic firefight in the Ardennes. The most famous of all American war pigeons was Cher Ami, who at the cost of a leg and a wing saved the “lost battalion” of the Argonne from being obliterated by its own artillery fire. After his death one year later, in 1919, Cher Ami was mounted and displayed at the National Museum in Washington.
At nine on Thursday morning, Andre and Corrie begin shooing the pigeons out of their loft for basketing, which involves loading them into rectangular wire-mesh transport boxes, which are known as baskets. The deep thrumming of the pigeons reminds me of the sound of ocean waves, over which the trainers shout, “Out! Out! Out! Out! Out!” The birds waddle together down the concrete walkway like subway passengers during morning rush hour, until all of a sudden one pigeon stops, at which point the whole group stops. The trainers resume their cry: “Out! Out! Out! Out! Out!” Shades are drawn over the last two sections of the loft, and the baskets are inserted into a slot at the bottom. The baskets are then slotted into their places on the pigeon truck, which looks more or less like a rolling bank vault.
“I’m a pigeon fancier. That’s for the last day of the race. Please come out,” pleads Willi van Beers, the owner of the legendary Birdy, a top bird at the 2008 Million Dollar, to a photographer who is angling for a better shot of the embarking birds. The unfamiliar interaction, Willi worries, might spook some of the birds and affect the outcome of the race. Behind him are workers from Malawi, outfitted in yellow T-shirts and bright blue pants, who carry the baskets to the truck and place them in a grid that measures seven box slots down and twelve across. “Both of you, do it nicely!” Willi commands. The entire process of loading the pigeons into the baskets takes less than an hour. When they are done the loft’s buildings stand empty, stained with pigeon shit and stray feathers.
On a shady covered patio a safe distance from the loft, Paul Smith is talking with several other fanciers about new treatments for herpes and chlamydia, which appear to be as common among pigeons as they are among clubgoers in Ibiza. “That’s water-based, innit?” he inquires of a new vaccine.
The baskets, currently containing all 2,453 pigeons entered in the race, aren’t the race baskets, it turns out. They are only temporary baskets, which will be unloaded from the truck in a big gymnasium-like hall down the block. There the pigeons will be removed from the baskets one by one and brought over to long tables, where their ankle bracelets will be checked against the master list. Then their wings will be stamped and they will be put in the official race baskets, which will be loaded onto the truck, which will be parked by the loft until early the next morning, when we will begin the long trek up to the Northern Cape.
The baskets are laid out near the door of the hall beneath a festive neon sign that reads “South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race.” At the other end of the hall are the big white travel baskets, smelling sweetly of hay. Paul Smith sits at one of the inspection tables, instructing wing stampers in the proper way to ink a pigeon. First you take the bird in a tight, firm grip, so you can feel its fast-beating heart, then you fan the wing open on the table. Structurally speaking, the wing is definitely the most interesting part of the pigeon. Fanciers read wings like tarot cards, looking for clues about a bird’s capacities and likely performance. “If you get a nice cover with no gaps, that’s good,” Paul says, spreading out a pigeon wing for me to inspect. “This one has good cover all the way through.”
White flights are often thought to be superior in hot climates because they reflect the sun, but in fact they are not, he says, because they fray. If it rains, and there is no oil in the feathers, they will become soggy, and the bird will go down. Dark feathers are the ones with the oil. He presses his stamp on the inkpad and then on the wing. Then he removes the white sticker on the bird’s left foot, in order to check each number against the log, and covers it up with another sticker.
“Yeah, we’re all nuts,” Paul answers when I ask him whether pigeon people have particular characteristics in common. “We can all talk about pigeons. We’re all hoping.” The oceanic thrum of the birds doesn’t make him feel one way or another. You don’t mind if it’s a winner that’s doing it, he says. But the losers make the same noise.
The line halts. Men stand patiently at the tables, gently cradling pigeons against their pot bellies. Paul passes the time talking to a cheetah biologist who is originally from San Diego but has lived in Botswana for seven years. She is here with her boyfriend, whose pigeon won a preliminary race. Paul tells her that he is from England but spends a lot of time outside the country.
“Your accent hasn’t dimmed any,” the cheetah biologist says.
“Well, everything else has.” The line still isn’t moving. There are only about another 2,000 pigeons left to stamp.
Not every pigeon that is shipped to South Africa has a chance to win the Million Dollar. Most are owned by breeders and rival syndicates, which may ship anywhere from several dozen to over a hundred birds. Once the results of the first half of the preliminary races are in, the owners choose whether to pay the $1,100 per team of three pigeons, two of which act as backups to the first, preferred competitor, to enter the Million Dollar. All the birds fly the race, but only the results of birds whose fees have been paid are included in the official results. Last year, for example, 96 pigeons from Holland were shipped to the race. The owners paid to enter 95 pigeons in the race at $1,100 a head. The 96th pigeon went onto an online auction site, where unclaimed pigeons are available to the highest bidder, but nobody bought it. On race day it came home first, costing the guy who shipped it $200,000 in race and auction winnings. The lesson is that it can be dangerous to skimp on entrance fees.
Paul Smith looks out at the well-feathered baskets that are piling up at the end of the room and sighs. He has reached the bargaining stage, willing to sacrifice his own slight chance of victory—which based on the number of his own pigeons he has entered is somewhere around one in fifty, or 2 percent—for the even smaller share of glory that he perhaps might claim for having shipped the winning pigeon. “All I want is to see the Union Jack,” he says wistfully.
The pigeon handlers who carry the birds from the table area to the racing baskets are all from Malawi. They earn 90 rand a day, about $7, for their labor, and they sleep together in the bunkhouse on the far side of the pigeon loft. “They make sad sound,” says Ronnex Msimeko, whose smooth, unlined face, boyish stature, and gentle demeanor do little to betray the fact that he is 38 years old. If you squint at Ronnex and his fellow workers, they could easily pass for pupils in a missionary school. They speak Tumbaka to one another, which is the language they use at home, where they farm maize, groundnuts, and tobacco, and keep animals, including goats, pigs, chicken, and kudu. In two months, they will return to Malawi on buses and in minivans, and use the money they have earned to buy more land and goats.
It has been three hours, and maybe half the pigeons have been unloaded. I take a seat by the wall and read a copy of the Johannesburg Star. “Looting Frenzy,” the headline proclaims, above a picture of laughing township dwellers running through the streets of Soweto. One is carrying a crate of tomatoes, and another is carrying a bottle of soda. The article below describes “scenes of widespread looting playing out all day across the township’s many suburbs,” represented photographically by four young men carrying off a beverage display case imprinted with the Pepsi logo. Shop windows were smashed and two people died in the riots, which were directed at traders from Ethiopia and Somalia. “It’s one thing if they take all these things to their families, but they’re just wasting it,” a man named Buhle Mguda told the Sunday Times. Only foreign-owned shops were destroyed and looted. “I’m not safe in Somalia. I’m not safe here. We’ve got too many problems,” said Faisel Ali, a shopkeeper whose business was spared. “Wherever you work, they want to take your life.”
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a home, or to keep the home they might make for themselves elsewhere, is a message that can be found on nearly every page of the Star. Grab this land, says Godrich Gardee, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s radical leftist party, urging the expropriation of acreage belonging to white farmers. “They used guns to take over our land. Now, you must erect your shacks there.” The best time to take land that might once have belonged to your ancestors is during public holidays, Gardee is quoted as saying. “This country has a lot of public holidays. You must occupy the land during the public holidays, when the police and Red Ants”—a security brigade that removes squatters—“are on holiday. You must do it secretly. Do not make announcements on radios. They must just find you staying there.” He has renamed the farmland Zimbabwe, which is a nice hat-tip to the land-expropriation policies of South Africa’s neighbor to the north. There a minister of Mashonaland East province named Joel Biggie Matiza has presented “offer letters” to 19 of the province’s 33 tribal chiefs—an offer letter being a legal document frequently used by the regime of Zimbabwe’s 91-year-old dictator, Robert Mugabe, that overrides all previous title deeds and other documents governing ownership of any piece of agricultural land. According to these offer letters, the 200 to 300 white farmers who are still working small pieces of their onetime holdings in Mashonaland East must leave land that might not exactly be theirs but would be equally hard to describe as “belonging” to the government or to the chiefs. White farmers who openly support Zanu-PF—Mugabe’s political party, which has ruled the country since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1980—will be spared.
Lucky Countess, one of Paul Smith’s pigeons, has won three weeks of preliminary races “on the bounce” or “on the spin”—both are British sporting lingo for consecutive victories—and is therefore looking good for tomorrow’s race. Despite having led the English teams for the Olympiad and winning plenty of big races, Paul has never won the Million Dollar, a race he personally helped found and the one he clearly cares the most about. His best showing was in 2001, when he came in second with Nicolodon, a Hungarian pigeon he bought online after its owner failed to claim it; eight of the top 32 pigeons that year were Hungarian. To cover costs for the 48 pigeons his personal syndicate has entered in the race this year, he will have to win $52,000 in prize money just to break even. When I ask him about coming in second again he grimaces, and then he says: “How happy would it make me if I won this race? Very happy.”
Pigeons are substitutes for family. They give love. They make pigeon fanciers happy, even if no one understands exactly how they find their way home. They appear in the eighth chapter of the Bible, returning to Noah’s outstretched hand. They facilitated human communication over long distances before the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet.
In addition to their critical role on the battlefields of World War I, pigeons also played an important part during World War II, especially in anti-Nazi movements in occupied Europe, which is still within the living memory of some of the older fanciers here, and is therefore one of several hot subjects of conversation at the hotel bar after the day’s basketing is done. The most affecting of the many stories I am told is recounted by an 85-year-old American fancier, Dr. Alfred Piaget, who flies Tournier pigeons in New Jersey and is a distant relative of the pioneering child psychologist Dr. Jean Piaget. He heard the story firsthand during a trip to Belgium to visit members of the Cattrysse family, who live in a small Flemish town called Moere. There, in a simple farming community of 1,200 inhabitants, the Cattrysse brothers, Gerard and Oscar, painstakingly built what by 1939 was widely regarded as the single greatest pigeon loft in the world.
According to an account they gave to a pigeon fanciers’ magazine after the war, the Cattrysse brothers were instructed in the art of breeding and flying pigeons by the great Belgian fancier Charles Vanderespt, who between 1923 and 1935 won an astounding total of 4,635 prizes, including the international prize in the Bordeaux Belgium-Holland race of 1935, which was famous for its dreadful weather. In 1923, the brothers read a news article in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir about a man named Pierre Decnop, from Anderlecht, who had won the three top prizes in a race from Dax. They purchased some of Decnop’s hens and began crossing them with Vanderespt cocks, but the pigeons they bred showed no interest in flying, even after three years in the loft, which ran the length of the attic above the warehouse of the brothers’ grocery store in town. Still, there was no question about the quality of the Vanderespt cock, which, coupled with a different hen, had bred Goliath, a famous prewar long-distance racer.
In 1936, the brothers purchased a magnificent blue hen from a fancier in Gistel and paired her with a checkered Vanderespt cock. Among the offspring was an outstanding blue cock named Grote Blauwen, who became the sire of the Cattrysse line, which was quickly recognized as one of the greatest in all of Europe.
Four years later, the Germans occupied Moere, and the Cattrysse brothers’ houses in town were commandeered as quarters for German officers. The brothers and their families moved into what had been their garage. According to the laws of the occupation, all pigeons in the area had to be turned over at once to the German authorities, who feared that the birds could be used to carry messages to and from resistance groups. Gerard and Oscar were permitted to continue caring for their pigeons under the direct surveillance of the German commander. Other families in Moere refused to turn over their birds and continued caring for them in secret, despite increasingly draconian punishments as the war dragged on and the local resistance linked up with the British, becoming a major thorn in the side of the German occupier.
A few weeks after the Normandy landing in 1944, the local German commander came to the brothers and informed them of an urgent new directive he had received from Berlin. “My orders are to kill every bird and cut their legs off,” he told the brothers. But the German officer had fallen in love with the birds, and with the Allied armies now moving inland from the beachhead, he also may have known that the war was lost. So he came up with a solution that would allow him to present his superiors with the required number of pigeon legs.
“Look, you and I both know that you have a lot of friends hiding their birds,” the commander told the brothers, at least in Alfred Piaget’s version of the story. “If by tomorrow night you can give me thirty to forty birds, I will spare thirty or forty of your birds.”
The famous Cattrysse line would be saved—if the brothers could convince their neighbors to substitute their own birds. That night, and through the next afternoon, Gerard and Oscar Cattrysse made the rounds on their heartbreaking errand, searching for substitute birds for the slaughterer’s knife. The brothers knew what they were asking of their neighbors. They also knew that they had something valuable to offer in return.
“If you can find it in your hearts, then we will breed you young ones,” they offered the local farmers. In return for handing over the birds that they had nurtured in secret throughout the war years, they would gain a share in one of the greatest bloodlines in Europe. The brothers returned before dusk with several dozen birds, whose throats were slit by the German officer, who fled town shortly afterward. Thanks to the willingness of the people of Moere to sacrifice their own birds on behalf of their neighbors’ superior bloodline, Cattrysse pigeons play a part in pigeon racing to this day.
I arrive at the pigeon loft at four the next morning, when it is still dark. There is a light on in Andre’s small kitchen, which is decorated with pictures of his children and a homey painting of a Voortrekker homestead alone in the middle of the veld. I pour myself coffee from a fresh pot on the kitchen table, where a radio is playing country music with lyrics in Afrikaans. The three men talk among themselves in their tribal language and shuffle their feet in the presence of a guest. Andre’s dog goes from man to man, nuzzling legs and hands, searching for the comfort of a pat on the head. After making his rounds, the dog ceremonially sniffs Andre’s worn leather motorcycle jacket, which is slung over the back of a chair.
Like Nazi-occupied Europe, apartheid South Africa seems like a strange backdrop for musings about the idea of home. Yet the Afrikaners, who are the poor whites of South Africa, have their own language and manners, and their own sense of rootedness in the land. With the country’s first free elections in 1994, the Afrikaners became yet another African tribe that lost its homeland, having been made constitutionally equal to the darker-skinned tribes they had so casually and brutally discriminated against. In fact, the Afrikaners lost their homeland twice, first to the British in the Boer War, and then to the definition of South Africa as a non-racial democracy in which power would be shared equally among all citizens on the basis of one man, one vote. While the idea of the Afrikaners as a white-skinned African tribe may seem wildly at odds with more common narratives of racist European colonial settlement, it is congruent in many ways with the history of the Afrikaners themselves, as well as with the history of the Zulus, Xhosa, Venda, Sotho, Tswana, and Khoi, dark-skinned northern tribes that also traveled south between the 16th and 19th centuries to populate the country they now share.
Outside, the headlights of the pigeon transport go on, and the rumble of the truck’s motor drowns out the cooing of the birds in their baskets, which are airy and lined with straw. Inside, they are safe with the flock.
I will be traveling with Corrie, who has generously allowed me to ride along in the back of his buckie, a vehicle that is somewhere between a large station wagon and a small panel truck. Because of the low ceiling, the only comfortable way to ride in the back of the buckie is to lie flat on the plywood feed bins. Everything fits together well, and nothing is dirty. A blanket and pillow I took from my hotel room soften my makeshift bed, which has been scoured by a decade or so of hard use. It’s like lying flat on my back in a longboat from the Pequod.
The city of Johannesburg is dark, which is how things usually are at night, or, more recently, during the day. The city’s overburdened electrical grid frequently goes out during the daytime, and blackouts are now a more or less normal feature of life, just like the carjackings, home invasions, large-scale public thefts, and outbreaks of xenophobic violence that target Somalis and Eritreans. The acrid smell of burnt rubber wafting in through the open window of Corrie’s buckie is a reminder of the apartheid-era fashion for filling rubber tires with gasoline, hanging them around the necks of suspected informers, traitors, and enemies, and then setting them ablaze. Now the people of townships burn tires for fuel; the smell is unfamiliar to most Americans and Europeans but familiar to everyone else in the world as the olfactory precipitate of poverty and inequality.
The windows offer a 270-degree panorama that reminds me of driving down the California coast at night. The sand berms outside look like the walls of beach castles built by giants, remainders of Johannesburg’s gold mines, which are now being worked by Chinese companies that reprocess the leavings for leftover gold.
Dawn soon washes the stars from the sky, and the sun comes up quickly over the highway. Sixty miles from Johannesburg, the savanna is a flat green with single trees in the center, like an illuminated picture in a children’s Bible. The farms have their own water tanks and provide watering holes for cattle.
We stop for coffee and inflate the tires of the pigeon truck. The road ahead runs two lanes in each direction, separated by a Mohawk of tall grass that has been bleached white by the sun. At the next truck stop, an hour later, I get out of the buckie to stretch my legs and peer inside the baskets. A pigeon looks back at me. Our eyes meet amid the rustling of the straw. The journey ahead is a strenuous one, and not without some real risks. There are hawks, electrical lines, and boys with guns. There is the sun, the wind, and a chance of rain. Depending on the weather, somewhere between half to three-quarters of the birds will actually make it home.
It is a basic pleasure for anyone who has been trained to do anything to be cut loose from one’s moorings, be pointed directly at an object, and think about that and nothing else. As the sun grows hotter, I decide to conserve my energy and enjoy the feeling of my back on the plywood, rolling with the bumps. The highway is now only two lanes, one going to Johannesburg and the other heading toward the Cape. We are hurtling through landlocked seas of grass toward an object that I have imagined but not yet met. Corn is in season but not yet up to the breakdown lane. The water towers out here are placed high off the ground, on stilts.
We stop in Bloemhof, which resembles a central Kansas shit hole, in front of Champion Chicken, which offers “lekker gaar hoender” or “tasty cooked chicken.” Inside the truck, the birds are hitting a note that sounds almost electric—“b-b-woomp!”—in anticipation of being fed and watered. The inside of the truck is cool, with a shady central aisle running between the two solid walls of chicken-wire baskets. At the foot of each row of baskets runs a trough made of stoppered white PVC tubing, where the larger birds have positioned themselves. The white mustache-like bands above their beaks, known as the cere, give them the unexpected look of mid-period Victorian gentlemen.
Corrie opens the bins in back of the buckie and pulls out a white bag of kernel corn, which he lugs over to the truck. He opens up the bag and pours, showering kernels down the tubing. The most aggressive birds push to the front of the baskets and peck first. Then they retire to the back of the cage and let the next birds have a go. When they are done eating, Corrie brings out a hose and floods the tubes with drinking water. Tomorrow at 6 a.m. they will have their last meal before the race. The men fold down the gate of the buckie and eat roasted chicken with their hands, washing it down with Coke.
Our next stop will be Kimberley, where we will pass by what was once the world’s richest diamond mine and is now the world’s largest man-made hole. In 2013, a dog fell into the hole and was stuck there for a week, until a rescuer rappelled down 500 feet and brought him out. Being in diamond country means that you can buy uncut two-carat stones at the garage across the street for 100 rand (about $9). Taking a piss in the bathroom is two rand.
François, the young Afrikaner veterinarian who tends to the pigeons, tells me that his friend gets more than $40,000 to live-stream ANC rallies that no one watches. He is a sweet, moonfaced boy who wears a black beret and respects his elders. “The big divide is between the men over 40 or 50 who fought in the Boer Wars,” he tells me, referring to the wars that South Africa fought in Rhodesia and elsewhere, in the hopes of beating back challenges to apartheid, “and those who are younger, like me.” Unlike many of his white peers, he has no interest in moving to Australia, or Canada, or New Zealand, or any of the other places to which white South Africans are fleeing in droves. South Africa is his home, and the wildlife here is better than anyplace else in the world.
On the telephone pole nearby, someone has posted a mimeographed tone poem above a smudged photograph of an ample woman:
IN 3 DAYS ONLY
AND PEOPLE WHO WANT BABIES.
A local phone number is written by hand beneath the photograph.
An elderly couple pass by the truck filled with cooing pigeons without a second glance. The woman is dressed in the southern African uniform of a piece of cheap printed cotton wrapped around her waist and a cotton polo shirt on top. Because this is a wealthy area, her sandals are leather rather than plastic. The man, who looks older than she is, is dressed in a churchgoer’s black gabardine trousers and white cotton shirt, which has been turned yellow by the sun.
Anton, a tiny, strutting, red-faced man who drives the pigeon truck, is wearing a green and yellow Superman T-shirt with a giant cartoon S on the front. The S stands for Springboks, the national rugby team, which is beloved by Afrikaners. His shirt catches the eye of another one of the locals, a skinny young black man in a red T-shirt, who curses at him. Andre nearly goes berserk, like one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, for the honor of the Springboks. In his agitation and insistence you can hear it all, pride and yearning and racism and befuddlement at a world in which belief in what is right, in what should be his—his rights, his land, his home—doesn’t rhyme with the history that has unfolded around him. But this is a black town in the new South Africa, and today is about the pigeons.
The men get back in the truck, and I climb into the back of Corrie’s buckie, and we head south once more. A lone hawk circles the camouflaged roof of an old military depot or staging area, which is now a used-car lot. We are close to Vierfontein, with its graveyard filled with orderly rows of headstones in Afrikaans. The midday sun through the windows is boiling hot. Jurassic-type ostrich roam the veld. The trees here have been trimmed and shaped by sun and wind, like bonsai that are several hundred times the expected size. The elegant netting of the cables strung overhead has a touch of asymmetrical whimsy that reminds me of a steel-and-wire work by Paul Klee, on a Soviet scale.
In Kimberley, the City that Sparkles, we pass by Samy’s Dial-A-Veg, a deli that delivers produce, and Samy’s Trading, an adjacent enterprise whose scope is unclear. In the shops I see Goldrush slot machines, which I have moved into towns like these in the American South with my uncle. Slot-machine parlors in towns like Kimberley are sinkholes for the wages of men who are too exhausted to think straight about what they are having for breakfast, which is often when they start gambling.
Outside Kimberley, the air coming through my window feels like someone set a hair drier on high and pointed it directly at my face. Every field we pass has been burned brown by the sun. In one there stand a flock of shorn sheep whose black faces are turned toward the road while their white bodies stay parallel with the train tracks. We drive past the large fenced-in compound that houses the district jail in Wolmaransstad, then turn down an unpaved farm road lined with farms, until we pass one of the most remarkable agricultural structures I have ever seen—a grain silo with 16 separate compartments, eight on each side, each of which is at least ten stories high, and resembles a launch bay for ICBMs. In the center is a gigantic Italianate brick tower that looks like it was transported directly from Venice, where it housed the doge. Here the master of the house is corn.
We park at a guesthouse along the Vaal River. Pigeons are fed and watered beneath a stand of willows. Fishing rods for the guys are laid out on picnic tables so they can catch fish for supper. I sit with the state health inspector, James, who is Xhosa. We talk about South African president Jacob Zuma’s house, which cost almost $20 million. The real theft, James says, is being committed by the six big Zulus behind Zuma, whose names are never in the newspapers. It is wrong when tribes use state power to deprive other tribes of their share of the pie.
After dinner I sit outside with the men and swat mosquitoes. Above the Vaal River is the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen, with the Milky Way spread open in a way that is lush and obscene. Anton laughs. “That’s South Africa!” he says.
In the 1970s in Brooklyn, where I grew up, pigeons were everywhere, which is probably why I am here. Some of my earliest gray-scale memories include pigeons, which fluttered and occasionally nested on the windowsill of the first place I was aware enough of to call home, a housing project near the Brooklyn Bridge built for working families like mine. There was a bona fide pigeon coop on the roof of a building nearby, like in the famous scene from On the Waterfront. Sometimes I could see a man on the roof waving a flag, which in my imagination was red but in fact could have been any color. The pigeons he guided back to their loft every night were a promise of safety that New York City in the 1970s was obviously unable to keep, which is why my parents moved to the suburbs, where the birds in the trees outside my window twittered and cooed in foreign tongues that signified nothing.
Years later I moved back to Brooklyn and had a son, who played in the same playgrounds that I did and also loved pigeons. When his mother and I split up, I moved to an apartment with a view of the waterfront, three blocks away from what was now his other home and half a block from the playground with the pigeons. One day he became angry, crazily angry, at a boy who threw a stone at a pigeon that was standing by the swings and would not listen to any explanation for why the other boy might have been so cruel. “Someone should throw a stone at him, hard, and crack his head open,” my son insisted between sobs, a large rock clenched in his hand. We both had lost whatever previous idea of home we each might have had, him for the first time, which I knew from experience is hard. Still, the loss had come to seem inevitable.
Home was not with the woman I married. It wasn’t even in the Brooklyn where I grew up, which had turned into a playground for rich people with quadruple-size bathrooms and walk-in closets. America was my home, except that my parents were from somewhere else. Their parents were from the Soviet Union, which was a vast empire that no longer existed. That made me more of an American, my teachers told me, which made me feel better intellectually if not emotionally, until I went off to college, where I discovered that America wasn’t actually a place, either: It was an idea that people disagreed about. There was a lot that I didn’t know about home then, and very little that I know now.
We drive out of the gate at four the next morning, on the move to liberation point, where the pigeons will be released from their baskets. A little tsetse fly buzzes in front of the glowing screen of my iPhone. The motor rumble merges with the ocean sound of pigeons, a warm, low, guttural sound to welcome the dawn.
We park on an airstrip in Douglas, and as the men open the grates on either side of the truck, I ask Corrie if he has a hunch about which bird is going to win.
“I have no idea,” he answers. “One of them.” The birds in the top rows of baskets will be let out first, he tells me. Otherwise the birds in the lower baskets will be crushed to the ground. “They look for space,” he explains, which is as succinct an explanation as any of how pigeons fly. At the end of last year’s race, three pigeons landed at more or less the same time on the roof of the loft. Then they had a walking race to the finish line.
Like many quiet people, Corrie does his talking in a rush, all at once. “I was born in a pigeon loft,” he says over the thrumming of the pigeon truck. “I started racing on my own when I was nine years old. So I have more than 50 years of racing, and every year they amaze me. I love the birds. And you think you know, but in fact you know nothing.”
A team of young videographers hired by SAMDPR are busy setting up complicated-looking suites of GoPro cams to shoot the moment of liberation from every angle. Corrie and I watch them work for a few moments, and then I ask him what the pigeons know about the race and whether he thinks it is hard for them to be so far from home. “They are trained to do this race. It’s not a problem for them,” he said. “We breed them for the love of the loft. They want to go back to the loft. If they don’t want to go to the loft, they are free,” he continues, and then he squints up at the truck. “For the pigeons, their reward is that they come home,” he says softly. “They must come back home.”
The doors are open. The wire baskets are now the only thing standing between nearly 3,000 pigeons and open sky. They will fly 325 miles on the greatest journey of their lives, and most of them will never fly again, living out the rest of their days at stud. A crown plover calls saucily from the grass outside, and some of the pigeons respond with loud squawking: You think you are free, but your life is aimless, pointless. We are going back home, where we are fed and cared for.
Anton is standing on top of the truck as the mass of pigeon sound rises and falls beneath his feet. When they are released, the pigeons will head toward the windmill, perhaps 1,500 feet away, and then veer left toward the river. Bending down, Anton starts cutting the white plastic ties on the baskets. Each basket has two ties. By 5:28 a.m., he has finished the first side of the truck.
“It’s one of the greatest wonders of the world,” he says when I ask him whether it is worth working 36 hours straight at the car park in order to spend his weekend driving a truckload of pigeons up the Northern Cape. “How do they get home again?” When they come out, there is a droning noise, he explains, and then a wind comes over you.
There are four minutes still to go. Anton gently knocks on the metal of the truck to rouse the laggards. The pigeons are ruffling their feathers and crowding forward. They seem eager to go. “Opgewonde,” Anton says, which is Afrikaans for “eager.” The birds will cross the river many times. If we hurry back, we should be able to beat the winner by maybe an hour or two. I tuck myself between the two joined pigeon trailers so I can feel the whoosh of liftoff.
“Alles alrecht, 100 percent guarantee,” Anton tells Corrie, with one minute to go. On the back end of the truck is a silver lever, which is held in locked position parallel to the ground. When Anton pushes the lever up, the doors to the baskets will fold down, and the pigeons will fly out.
A split second later, he does, and they do. The men bang on the sides of the truck, and the pigeons swoop upward, then gather together in the sky in a loose ball, which thickens and darkens as the pigeons already in the air are joined by those in the bottom baskets. When all the pigeons are out, the banging stops. The pigeon ball drifts over the field for a few moments and then turns left. A line of pigeons stretches out toward the horizon. Four seconds later it is gone, and the sky is empty.
The SAMDPR video guy, who was standing on the roof of the second trailer, looks befuddled. “Where are the birds?” he asks. It all happened so fast, and now it is impossible to get his shot. As it happens, the GoPro cams didn’t work either, and now there is no footage of the liberation. Luckily, François captured the moment on his cell phone, and he shows it to everyone.
When I play the liberation video backward, I discover something even more spectacular: A ball of pigeons emerges from the sky and hovers for a few moments over the field. Single pigeons then peel off and fly low and straight toward the camera, backward. Two seconds later, the black ball breaks apart in the sky. The pigeons fly back to the truck, and the cage doors shut, making their temporary home permanent.
It is our job to get back to the lofts before the pigeons do, by driving at double speed across the grassy plains. Somewhere up in the sky, the pigeons are seeing an aerial version of what we are seeing now, the grass giving way to the blinding white-silver gleam of aluminum-roofed shacks, then to the cinder-block homes with tires on the roof. Some will glide and surf the thermals. Others, arriving a few minutes earlier or later in the same exact airspace, will beat their wings against strong gusts that threaten to blow them off course. The pigeons will get thirsty and drink from the Vaal River below. Those that continue the journey home will get back up into the air and fly over the township houses with their rooftop solar collectors, courtesy of the ANC’s last election victory.
We stop only once before we reach the city limits, where the highway maintenance is noticeably worse. Exhausted from the drive, we head directly to the loft and climb a short flight of steps to the control room, which overlooks the pigeon trap on the loft roof, which looks like a birdhouse and has food and water inside. The difference between a pigeon trap and a birdhouse is harder to spot but should be obvious from the word trap: The birds can go in, Corrie explains, but they can’t get out.
Michael Holt is waiting in the control room, which has four airy windows looking out on the loft roof, where the winning bird will land. When the first bird enters the trap, there will be a gap of one-twentieth of a second while the code is inputted. The results will be visible to Michael within 20 seconds, after which the victory chime sounds and a fanfare is played. “They were seen somewhere an hour ago,” Michael offers when we walk in. Michael, two SAMDPR workers, and a photographer, Corrie, and I are the only people here. “Owners get too excited,” Michael explains. “They make noise and scare the pigeons. So they’ve never been allowed near the lofts on race day.”
The only exception is Paul Smith, whom I can see from the window is pacing around the loft grounds. Every 20 or 30 seconds, he nervously checks his watch. “We’ve seen him get sick,” Michael says.
After my third bottle of water, to counteract the dehydration of the long drive, I am feeling woozy but no longer feel like I am going to pass out. I am anxious for the pigeons that won’t make it. I haven’t talked to my son in a week. I imagine him sitting on the couch and reading a C.S. Lewis book and wondering when the pigeons will come. I am homesick.
Two pigeons land on the roof. One is plainly bigger than the other. “Go! Go!” I start to cheer. The pigeons ruffle their feathers, turn away from the trap, and stare back at us. It is a strange moment. Michael, the photographer, and the other three guys in the control room are all looking at me.
The bigger one starts to walk toward the trap, and then he stops, allowing the smaller one to catch up to him. The smaller one then takes three steps forward and stops. Now everyone in the control room is laughing. Over the course of ten minutes, the pigeons trade the lead three times before they reach the halfway line I imagine running the length of the roof.
Now the race is really on, or so I am hoping. But crossing the finish line is a formality that doesn’t seem to interest the pigeons at all. As they stop and start and then stop again, it seems entirely possible that a third pigeon will suddenly appear in the sky, fly into the trap, and win the race. But no other pigeons are visible. It’s like watching a spider race. It strikes me at this moment that while the pigeons have flown 325 miles across the length of South Africa, and crossed the Vaal River many times, this is the only part of the greatest pigeon race in the world that I have actually seen with my own eyes, except for the moment when they left their cages. The leisurely walk across the roof continues, until the smaller of the two pigeons has had enough and dashes across the finish line, followed by the larger pigeon.
Twenty seconds later, the results of the race are official: First place belongs to Sanjay 1, a blue bar cock with pearl eyes owned by Karl-Heinz Koch of Germany, with a flight time of nine hours, four minutes, and 18 seconds, which marks a surprising improvement from his previous finish of 1,158 in the fifth and final preliminary race. That, in turn, represented a great improvement over his finish of 3,014 in the first prelim, close to dead last, results which, depending on how you read them, show the bird’s unique passion for self-improvement or else illustrate the maxim that every bird has his day. He is followed by Robben Island, a Kuwaiti bird from a distinguished racing lineage who finished in the top 100 in ten races so far this season. Melton Moment from Australia arrives at the finish line nearly two hours later. “Fuck, that was fast,” Corrie offers. But because his owner failed to pay his fee, third place goes to the fourth-place bird, Welfen-Fuerst, who came in five and a half minutes later.
Most of the birds are still 60 miles away, with storm clouds closing fast. No one wants to think for very long about the birds that won’t make it home. It’s an Episcopal moment. I imagine a hail of drenched pigeons falling out of the sky onto the green-carpeted veld. They will have to wait for the rain to pass and their feathers to dry out before they can continue their flight. Those who break their wings will be unable to fly home. They will lie there on the ground, looking up at the sky.
Back at the Hilton, the fanciers gather for the post-race banquet, where “well done” alternates with “best of luck” and expressions of concern for the birds who are sleeping out tonight. The top ten pigeons get gold medals, five of which go to Germans and are collected by Willi van Beers, who looks gleeful when the German national anthem is played. “They are really driving the sport right now,” says Frank McLaughlin, an American fancier seated to my right. While pigeons, like people, can be a crapshoot, the great fanciers have a knack for selection, he says. Out of a group of 2,500 good birds, there are a handful of truly exceptional birds that are from another planet. “I can put two fingers like this and feel the electricity in the superstars,” he says.
I ask him about Zandy Meyer, the patron saint of the Million Dollar. “He was a wonderful speaker. Spoke about seven languages,” he remembers. “He was very smart and had an incredible amount of integrity. And he knew a lot about people. He told me once, ‘If you ever want to know what people really think of you, watch how their kids react to you, and then you’ll know.’”
I spend the rest of the evening table hopping, meeting fanciers, including Dr. Alfred Piaget, who started at age seven with a pair of pigeons he got from the farmer across the street, only to discover that they were both male, which is why they didn’t have babies. Raising pigeons helped him make friends. He is proud of having published one of his earliest articles in the American Pigeon Journal. Five years ago, he went to the great Barcelona pigeon race, where 25,000 birds were released from 24 open-sided freight containers, with two fanciers on each car to make sure the birds were OK. “It sounded like thunder,” he remembers. “They were out of sight in three minutes.”
Though Frank and Albert are both expert fanciers, neither one has ever come close to winning the Million Dollar. Ton de Kovel, a thin, curly-haired man in is his early fifties who is sitting at the next table, won the race in 2013, with a pigeon called Untamed Desert. He is sitting alone and is glad to tell me the story, which begins with his mother, who passed away the same year he won. The previous year, she bought two chairs from Eijerkamp, a famous retailer of modern furniture. When I look puzzled, Ton explains that the Eijerkamp family are famous fanciers. “When you buy furniture there, you have the right to get pigeons for free,” he says.
When he went to get the pigeons, however, Henk Jurriens, the trainer, told him that they weren’t ready yet, but he could send Ton’s pair to the Million Dollar Race in South Africa. Ton agreed. On the morning of February 2, 2013, he went to the gym and noted that one of his pigeons was still in the final race, which by his reckoning gave him 1 in 2,750 odds of winning. Later that day, he checked his computer and found that his pigeon had won. He screamed—and then immediately assumed that his computer had been hacked. The next day, the news of his pigeon’s victory was broadcast on national radio, at which point he realized that his luck was real and that he was now $124,300 richer.
“I never thought that I could win,” Ton explained. “My father was a fancier, not me.” His father, who died in 2011, kept a loft for 50 years, beginning in the Second World War. “He was a real pigeon fancier,” he remembers fondly. “He was talking to the pigeons, and they were fond of him. They came to him. When he was away, they missed him. They loved him.” He himself never cared much for the pigeons, he adds. Now they are all he has left.
The Million Dollar pigeons will always believe that the loft in Johannesburg are their home, which is a big reason why they will never race again. Instead they will mate, which after racing is the second-favorite subject of pigeon fanciers, who become legends by locating and maintaining a bloodline that produces winners. One result of the importance of breeding to fanciers is that much writing about pigeons reads like a strange cross between writing about bridge and the writings of the Aryan enthusiasts who gained such wide popularity in Europe and America during the 1920s and 1930s. As Dr. W.E. Barker, one of the great postwar British authorities on pigeons, wrote in his classic Pigeon Racing, “Luck and chance have no part in the scheme of the creation. There is no law in nature more certain than the law of Heredity.”
The practice of line breeding—meaning the pairing of half-brothers with half-sisters, grandfathers with granddaughters, mothers and sons, and other combinations that would discomfit the authors of the Bible and legislators nearly everywhere on earth—is understood to be not just normal but necessary for sculpting a genotype that will spit out future champions, generation after generation. When the bloodline starts to resemble the later generations of the Habsburgs, breeders seek to revive it through cross-breeding before returning to the DNA of the original pair.
The morning after the banquet is the auction, where I can hold the winning pigeons in my hands, in case I want to buy them. The Kuwaiti pigeon, who came in second, is clearly the most impressive of the pair who waited on the roof for 14 minutes yesterday. His body is slung forward, like an Olympic sprinter. “He’s in very good condition. The feathers are like silk,” Paul Smith shows me. I take the bird in my hand. The feathers do feel like silk. “There’s a gap here in the feathers,” Paul points out. “People would frown on that.”
Sanjay 1, exhausted by his once-in-a-lifetime journey, sells for $6,000. “If we could export these pigeons, they would sell for $30,000,” Paul explained. “But nobody wants to take that big of a chance.” A moment later, someone whispers in his ear and he winces, then he explains, “I’m told my pigeon just arrived now.” Frank McLaughlin buys a pigeon named Black Champ for a friend. “Well done on that pigeon,” the auctioneer says. Al-Juwaisri 1, the 13th-place pigeon, who has a particularly good bloodline, and top results in the preliminary races, goes for $13,000—twice the price paid for the first-place bird, who had the day of his life yesterday.
In the back, I find the great pigeon breeder Jan Hooymans, a tall, gentle Dutchman, who is talking to an Australian man named Ben Williams, who has bought two of his birds. “You hear that a lot of good pigeons have very soft feathers and are built very well, and that’s an important thing,” he instructs. “For example, if you make a selection for the Olympic games, in the marathon, a skinny guy may win. And if you have a 100-meter sprinter, you need strong, bulky legs. So first you think, what distance does the bird need to fly?” After that, he continues, the key is selection and breeding, with the goal of always returning back to the bloodline of the stock pair. “Selection, selection, selection,” he insists. “Fly a lot, breed a lot.”
When he is done, he hands over a business card with a pair of pigeons on the front. “That’s the stock pair,” he explains to me. “All the children from that pair, almost all, 90 percent, have good racing results, some better than others. And also good breeding results. It’s phenomenal. I have had pigeons all my life, and I have never had such a pair.”
A top-shelf fancier is lucky to find a truly great pair once in his lifetime, so every detail of how the pairing was made is worth remembering, on the off chance that lightning strikes twice. “I had a good cock, a son of the Blacksen,” he remembers. “That’s my Young Blacksen. And all the hens I put him on produced good or very good birds. So I said, This is my chance. I have to look for a very special hen. I went to Gerard Koopman”—perhaps the greatest fancier in Europe—“and I bought at auction the daughter of Kleine Dirk,” a famous champion racer who was also inbred, “named Amore Re. And I put them together, and the youngsters were wonderful. There was James Bond. I think he bred eight or nine top-ten birds. Harry flew three times in the national—he came in first, first, and third of 30,000 pigeons over 500 to 600 kilometers. His sister won first in the national and went directly to the stock loft.
“And now I’m looking again for such a pair,” he continues. “But it’s tough. When I was a child, I was always going to auctions, looking at the winning birds, how they are, how they must be. But I can’t look into a pigeon. I had luck.”
Pigeon racing is no way to make money, he explains. He supports his pigeon-racing habit with the money he makes from running his family’s mushroom-compost factory. What drives him is his dream. “My dream is to make world-famous pigeons,” he explains. “And I remember the mistakes I make. I make hundreds of mistakes. And I don’t forget those mistakes. And then you learn.”
Pigeons will always fly home, no matter how far away you take them, because that is how pigeons are bred and trained. Whether people are made the same way is an open question. However, one answer I did receive on the night of the banquet has stuck with me. It came in the form of a story from Alfred Piaget, the 85-year-old pigeon fancier, who told me a coda to the story about the Cattrysse brothers loft and the bravery and self-sacrifice of the people of Moere, who ensured that the famous birds of their village survived to breed more champions after the war.
Years ago, Alfred told me, he made a personal pilgrimage to Moere, where he met the daughter of one of the Cattrysse brothers. She had been a little girl when the Nazis occupied her village. She told him that 26 or 27 years later, when she was then a young mother, she heard a knock at the door to her home. She opened the door to find an old man standing there. He was clearly not from the village, but she felt that she had seen him before. As he stood in front of her, she recognized the young officer who had been stationed in her house and had allowed her family’s pigeons to live if other birds would die in their place. He felt that he needed to apologize for what he had done during the war, he said. He wanted to come home.