Janesville man races more than 200 pigeons
JANESVILLE--Dale Herion scanned the low, overcast skies the morning of Sunday, Aug 11. He was fretting the return of his newest squadron of young racing pigeons to their lofts in his backyard.
It was their first race, and they were a few minutes late from a 200-mile flight back from Libertyville, Iowa. Herion was sweating it. He checked an app on his smartphone and noted that a few birds owned by a Dubuque, Iowa, pigeon racer had crossed the finish line at his lofts. They had averaged 47 miles per hour on their trip.
The Dubuque finish meant little because Dubuque is closer to Libertyville than Herion's home on Kidder Road in rural Janesville.
At 10:48 a.m., Herion's phone rang. It was news from one of Herion's buddies at Rock River Racers, a racing pigeon club in Janesville. A Madison-area pigeon racer's birds had just come in. In terms of time and distance—the measure used to determine winners in pigeon races—the Madison racer's birds had just won first place.
"Well, I lost the race," Herion said. There was disappointment in his voice.
An hour later, at 11:40 a.m., a gray-and-black-banded racing pigeon flapped over a tree above Herion's pigeon observatory deck. It circled the yard like a military helicopter and made a low pass through the side yard, landing on the roof of its loft.
The bird preened its 13-inch wings for a moment and then moseyed through an open hatch into its loft, past a little radio-frequency reader on the roof. Race over, at least for that bird.
Herion was still waiting on nine more birds he had had trucked out to Libertyville. He sat at his deck, beating himself up over what he called a lapse in training for the 4-month-old birds.
"I took a week's vacation and didn't fly them that week. I shouldn't have. Maybe they'd have done better," Herion said.
For Herion, a former foreman at the Janesville General Motors assembly plant, racing pigeons is a hobby that's more like a full-time job. He's the president of the Rock River Racers, and he has more than 200 birds in four lofts he built at his home. He has been raising and racing pigeons since 1995. He raised pigeons for a brief time as a teenager.
Herion breeds the birds and trains them to race in competitions throughout the Midwest as soon as they are old enough to fly.
Herion races his birds about 25 times a year on flights ranging from 150 to 500 miles. In races, Herion said, they fly in a single-file line at about 50 miles per hour.
Herion's birds, which are mixed-breed homing pigeons bred for speed and sturdiness, have placed first in Midwest races, some as far away as Junction City, Kan.
His normal regimen for training young birds starts with short flights around the yard. They move on to a mile, then two miles. Eventually, Herion drives them to Monroe for 50-mile practice flights. Often, they beat him back home.
When they're ready, Herion enters them in races against other competitors. Along with birds from other racers in the club, Herion ships his pigeons in a special trailer to a location that's roughly an equal distance for all racers involved.
Each bird is banded with an identification number on one leg and a radio module on the other. The bands are used to record flight times in races and to help racers recover lost birds, some of which can cost racers as much as $3,000.
Herion said racing pigeons make hundreds of choices during a race; each choice can make or break their chances. They can run into a storm front and take a bad route around it, get off course flying around a large tower antenna or get caught in a crosswind along a hillside where they haven't flown before.
“It's all about experience and choices the pigeons make,” Herion said. “You just let them go at a central location, and the rest is up to them.”
Sometimes, as Herion speculated was the case with his young birds' first race Aug. 11, the pigeons simply fly off course or follow another racers' birds home. That can throw the birds miles off course.
“I'll bet they're sitting on the roof of somebody's loft or barn right now, resting and recalibrating,” said. “That's pigeons.”
Herion figured the rest of his birds would come filtering in later in the day, probably around dusk.
The bottom line is the longer the birds stay out, the hungrier they get, Herion said. From experience, the birds know that after they fly, their lofts are stocked with plenty of high-protein birdfeed, peanuts and water.
Herion said he seldom loses a bird in a race. The biggest threat to racing pigeons is hawks.
Herion has seen his birds get picked off in the air by hungry Red Tail and Cooper's hawks. Once, he said, a hawk snuck in one of his pigeon lofts and killed a few pigeons.
As Herion waited for his young pigeons to return from their Iowa flight, he opened the hatch on one of the lofts with older birds. Out flew about 30 pigeons in shades of gray, white, silver and black.
The birds, more seasoned race veterans, flapped off over a glacial hill and went into a tight formation. They cruised back by the side yard at top speed, their feathers beating the wind hard.
They looked like fighter jets flashing past against the gray, rainy sky.
For a moment, Herion forgot about the wayward young pigeons that had lost the race. They'd come along. He pointed up at the birds as they flew past.
“Does anything get better than that?” he said.