The Great Race and Beyond

winnerpigeon

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.

Sources:

  1. “Race Directors Report,” 2/16/2017. South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race: https://www.samdpr.com/news/gn20170216.
  2. Ganus Family Loft: http://www.ganusfamilyloft.com/.
  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: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/26/sports/pigeon-racing-doping.html.
  5. Criddle, C. “Pigeon Cheating Scandal: Champion Bird in Race from South of France Never Left Its Oxfordshire Loft,” 7/29/2016. The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/29/champion-pigeon-racer-in-scandal-after-winning-bird-from-south-o/.
  6. “World Record Price Paid for Belgian Racing Pigeon Bolt,” 5/21/2013. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22613247.
  7. Harrabin, R. “Is Pigeon Racing Cruel?” 3/27/2013. BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-21938429.
  8. Breen, J. “Racing Pigeons among Birds that Meet Their Doom against City’s Skyscrapers,” 9/13/2016 DNAinfo | Chicago: https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20160908/downtown/racing-pigeons-among-birds-that-meet-their-doom-against-our-skyscrapers.
  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: http://www.audubon.org/news/mike-tyson-star-reality-show-pigeon-racing-sport-linked-raptor-deaths.
  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: https://ostrichfestival.com/2017-attractions/.

 

Fowl Ball: Birds as Mascots and Monikers

eagle_goteam

Out of hundreds of university and college team nicknames in the United States, one easily soars above the rest. In fact, according to Roy E. Yarbrough, a professor of sports management studies and author of a book on mascots, more than 70 schools use the same bird moniker (1, 2).

Symbols of Power, Emblems of Distinction

Fans of Boston College, Emory University, Marquette University, North Carolina Central University, and Tennessee Tech may already know the answer. Yes, the Eagles are #1. That moniker easily outranks other notables, such as Tigers, Bulldogs, Panthers, and Knights. It also is more than twice as common as the second-most popular bird nickname, the Hawks (3).

The popularity of raptors—eagles, hawks, and the like—is easy to understand. Like other popular team nicknames, such as Cougars, Bears, and Warriors, these birds are symbols of strength and finesse. Of course, birds generally known for their courage and aggressive behavior, such as Cocks and Cardinals, also make for common monikers in college athletics.

Perhaps as a way of setting themselves apart, some schools have opted for more unusual nicknames. As examples, there are the Ducks (University of Oregon), the Roadrunners (University of Texas at San Antonio), the Penguins (Youngstown State University in Ohio), and the Herons (William Smith College, a women’s college in New York state).

Birds Make it Big in the Pros

Professional sports organizations within the United States and Canada have displayed a bit of variety in their chosen monikers. Below is a compilation of 13 clubs named after birds, from the Canadian Football League (CFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL):

Anaheim Ducks (NHL)

Arizona Cardinals (NFL)

Atlanta Falcons (NFL)

Atlanta Hawks (NBA)

Baltimore Orioles (MLB)

Baltimore Ravens (NFL)

Montreal Alouettes (CFL)

New Orleans Pelicans (NBA)

Philadelphia Eagles (NFL)

Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)

Seattle Seahawks (NFL)

St. Louis Cardinals (MLB)

Toronto Blue Jays (MLB)

At this time Major League Soccer lacks any teams with bird monikers. However, one franchise, D.C. United, includes a stylized bald eagle as part of its logo.

Two hockey clubs absent from the above list, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, require a bit of explanation. Despite their costumed bird mascot Tommy Hawk, the Chicago team’s name is actually inspired by a Sauk Indian chief (4, 5). And while the logo for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, a franchise known briefly as the Falcons during the early 1930s, features feathered wings on a wheel, the team does not explicitly convey the name of any particular type of bird (6). So, these two clubs actually do not have bird-inspired nicknames, so that’s why they’re not included.

Like the Chicago Blackhawk’s Tommy, several popular bird mascots promote teams that do not bear their likeness. For instance, the Pittsburgh Pirates, a Major League Baseball team, have the Pirate Parrot (7). Even the biggest star among costumed squawkers and arguably the most influential mascot in all of sports history, The San Diego Chicken (a.k.a. The Famous Chicken), is not officially connected to any particular team (8).

When College Nicknames and Mascots Don’t Match

In the world of collegiate sports, several popular bird mascots, too, are not directly related to their school’s team nickname. For starters, there’s Sebastian the Ibis, who cheers for the University of Miami Hurricanes. You’re probably wondering, what does an ibis have to do with hurricanes? Well, the Mascot Hall of Fame website explains, “According to folk legend, the ibis is the last sign of wildlife to take shelter before a hurricane, and the first to return after the storm passes” (9).

On the opposite side of the gridiron, another avian mascot represents Miami’s conference rival, the Virginia Tech Hokies.   Derived from the school’s older Fighting Gobbler mascots, the HokieBird is a bit of a cross between a turkey and cardinal. However, the Hokies nickname, originating from an 1896 “spirit yell”, came before the introduction of the bird mascot (10). Perhaps one can say that a HokieBird is a Hokie, but a Hokie is not necessarily a HokieBird.

The moniker adopted long ago by the University of Kansas involves a similar situation. That institution’s nickname, the Jayhawks, has ties to a label adopted by the state’s mid-19th-century political and paramilitary abolitionist groups. However, by the early 20th century, notions of a large-beaked, shoe-wearing bird began taking root. Today, those precursors have evolved into the University of Kansas’s two costumed mascots, Big Jay and Baby Jay (11, 12). From a historical perspective, though, Jayhawks are arguably different than the school’s colorful representatives.

Of course, interesting histories can be found behind the nicknames and mascots at many other colleges. These teams are just a sample of several in the U.S. that are cheered on or fronted by popular fowl.

Sources:

  1. Rosenberg, B. “It’s all in the name: From Bulldogs to Horned Frogs, mascots help build institutional identity”, 8/13/2004. NCAA News: http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/NCAANewsArchive/2004/Association-wide/it_s%2Ball%2Bin%2Bthe%2Bname%2B-%2B9-13-04%2Bncaa%2Bnews.html.
  2. “The top mascots in college and professional sports”, 2/13/2005. USA Today: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/2005-02-13-tenworstjobs-mascots-yarbrough_x.htm.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “History: The McLaughlin years”. Chicago Blackhawks (official website): http://blackhawks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=46778.
  5. “Tommy Hawk”. Chicago Blackhawks (official website): http://blackhawks.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=46626.
  6. “Written History: 1930s”. Detroit Red Wings (official website): http://redwings.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=43758.
  7. “The Pirate Parrot”. Pittsburgh Pirates (official website): http://pittsburgh.pirates.mlb.com/pit/fan_forum/mascot_index.jsp.
  8. “Biography”. The Famous Chicken (official website): http://www.famouschicken.com/biography.html.
  9. “Sebastian the Ibis, University of Miami”. Mascot Hall of Fame: http://www.mascothalloffame.com/virtual/past/index.html?staff_id=37.
  10. Cox, C.B. “What is a Hokie?”. Virginia Tech (official website): http://www.vt.edu/about/traditions/hokie.html.
  11. “The Jayhawk”. University of Kansas (official website): http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/jayhawk/.
  12. “The Mascots”. University of Kansas (official website): http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/mascots/.