The Great Race and Beyond


One of the most prestigious international sporting events was held a few weeks ago: the 21st annual South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race (SAMDPR).

More than two thousand pigeons competed in the February 8th final, with three hundred of them completing the approximately 306-mile flight from liberation point to loft in under twenty-four hours.1 This year’s winner, Little Miss Nikki, was one of two top-ten finishers from the United States. Other countries well represented near the top were Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Pigeon Fandom

The SAMDPR has been compared to the Super Bowl and the World Series.2 While pigeon racing, of course, attracts only a fraction of the attention given other sports, it has big-name supporters and big money behind that support. Famous enthusiasts include Queen Elizabeth II and former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, whose relationship to pigeons goes back to his adolescent days in Brooklyn, NY.3

Like other sports, pigeon racing has unfortunately also experienced its share of ethical issues. In recent years, allegations of doping4 and cheating5 have emerged, which are not surprising considering the large prize amounts and six-figure pigeon auction prices.6 Problems have been reported as well regarding the treatment of bred pigeons in a few incidents7 and the risks racing conditions can pose for the birds,8 among other issues.9

Aside from these concerns, the sport continues to fascinate—as does avian racing in general.10 Pigeon racing has even inspired paintings by Andrew Beer and influenced the poetry of Geoffrey Hill (“Scenes from Comus”) and Rebecca Goss (“Pigeon Love”). In addition to the world of racing, pigeons have a long and significant history as messengers.


  1. “Race Directors Report,” 2/16/2017. South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race:
  2. Ganus Family Loft:
  3. Blechman, AD. Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. New York: Grove Press, 2006. pp. 5–6, 163–165.
  4. Macur, J. “Pigeon Racing: Faster and Farther, but Fair?” 10/25/2013. The New York Times:
  5. Criddle, C. “Pigeon Cheating Scandal: Champion Bird in Race from South of France Never Left Its Oxfordshire Loft,” 7/29/2016. The Telegraph:
  6. “World Record Price Paid for Belgian Racing Pigeon Bolt,” 5/21/2013. BBC:
  7. Harrabin, R. “Is Pigeon Racing Cruel?” 3/27/2013. BBC:
  8. Breen, J. “Racing Pigeons among Birds that Meet Their Doom against City’s Skyscrapers,” 9/13/2016 DNAinfo | Chicago:
  9. Opar, A. “Mike Tyson to Star in Reality Show on Pigeon-Racing, A Sport Linked to Raptor Deaths,” 3/17/2010. National Audubon Society:
  10. Arizona’s Chandler Chamber Ostrich Festival, for example, entertains its gatherers with races involving ostriches and emus, respectively. See that event’s official website for more information:


13 thoughts on “The Great Race and Beyond

  1. I had no idea that pigeon racing still was taking place. If you know someone willing to train about a hundred pigeons, I’d be happy to ship them wherever, just to get them off my balcony. I see that one of your references calls pigeons both “reviled and revered.” I suppose I’m on the reviled end of the spectrum — but only because they ran off all the other birds I was feeding, and now refuse to leave. It seems they have long memories, and are capable of maintaining hope for a very long time!

    And who knew there was an Arizona ostrich festival? I know there are festivals in Texas for raptors, hummingbirds, and migrating songbirds. I wonder if there’s a forlorn little species with no festival? We could start one.

    1. Wow—nearly a hundred pigeons; I can only imagine the mess! Andrew Blechman’s book on pigeons, which is a really good read, addresses the messy part, the main reason they’re obviously so “reviled.” It’s a shame they have run off so many of your other birds. Not restocking the feeders should eventually drive them away. However, if they’re anything like our squirrels, they will be persistent. As for bird-themed festivals, I haven’t given much thought to them, but you raise a good question. The European starling, house finch, and house sparrow probably don’t have any celebrations, but good luck trying to attract folks to an “Invasive Bird Species Festival.” 🙂 That would be a tough sell!

      1. The good news is that, with the removal of the peanut feeder and one large sunflower feeder, I seem to have reduced the army to a platoon in only a few days.. I’ll keep one sunflower feeder up until the rest of my seed is gone — partly to wean away some of the sparrows who still come. The one thing I can keep putting out are peanuts in the shell for the bluejays. The pigeons can’t cope with those!

      2. We only have a few pigeons, and they usually peck under the feeder where there’s fallen millet and milo. The birds won’t touch our sunflower seeds, which do attract some blue jays. By the way, great photo of the great blue heron; it goes well with the beautiful Oliver poem.

  2. Lovely! A couple of years ago a young pigeon appeared in my kitchen window and settled for a nap. He was lost, obviously, and tired. I gave him water, read the number on his ring and made a few telephone calls. In a couple of hours his owner was there to pick him up.

      1. He didn’t even say thank you 🙂 Just took the bird and left. I was grateful – I was afraid that she would die 🙂 I have no idea what they eat.

  3. The only racing/homing pigeons I know about are from really old b+w British movies where they were used as messengers. I always wondered how they were trained.

Comments are closed.