Steve Western, a Meteorologist with Weatherquest, explains the importance of weather forecasting in pigeon racing:
“Pigeon racing is a sport in which specially bred and trained pigeons are released from specific locations (the conventional form uses the same starting or ‘liberation’ point); they then race back to their home lofts. The distance between these points is calculated to the nearest yard and the birds of each club, or group of clubs, are all released together. Each bird wears a secretly numbered rubber or electronic ring, and when each bird arrives at it’s home loft either the rubber ring is removed and placed in a clock, which registers the time, or the electronic ring submits the time to a computer. Knowing the distance of the flight and the time taken enables the club to work out the average speed, and the bird with the highest average speed is declared the winner.
“How do pigeons navigate? There is little doubt that the sun is the primary orientation clue used by homing pigeons, but there have been experiments that have developed night flying pigeons, thus showing that the sun is not the only available orientation reference. Some scientists believe that pigeons also perceive the Earth’s magnetic field, and utilize it for finding their way home. Other scientists have suggested that pigeons may navigate through a sense smell, or even through hearing low frequency sounds.
“Nevertheless, there are several ways in which weather can impact the birds in a race. Fog, mist and low clouds at the launch will be the first. Lack of sight of the sun will be a problem, and if it is raining damp feathers will not help, as this will lead to the birds landing or perching – birds are very rarely released under these conditions. If the bad weather persists and the birds are kept confined for too long they may need food and water, or may not be able to complete their flight in daylight. Once the birds are in the air they face more problems. Showers they can fly around, but a broad band of frontal rain could soak them and force them to land. Overcast skies would interfere with navigation. The wind speed and direction can make a huge difference to their journey; a head wind will slow the birds down, forcing them to fly close to the ground where the wind speed will be less, while a tail wind will push them home much quicker. The birds can fly at about 30 mph, but a tail wind of say 20 mph would give them an average speed of 50 mph or more. Which means if launched from Northern France they could get back over the Channel and across England much faster than Jeremy Clarkson in a Top Gear race, and since they can fly in a straight line they don’t have to queue for the Channel Tunnel or go around the M25!
“Our Forecasters can help with advice on choosing a release site, and time of day; with the en-route weather, such as rain or winds, we can suggest changing the date to one with clearer, drier conditions, or even moving the release site. This all helps lead to a safer race with fewer birds lost, and more enjoyment for all who take part.
“To get a forecast for pigeon racing, or any other activity, please call on 09065 77 76 75 (calls cost £1.50/min, plus network charges) and you can speak live to one of our forecasters. Lines are manned 0800 to 1800 hours, seven days a week.”