As the pigeons fly: Local resident enjoys hobby of raising Racing Homer pigeons

Jordan Gerard

Birds of a feather race home together.

That’s the case for about 30 Racing Homer pigeons residing at Virginia Karlsbroten’s farm just over the Iowa state line on Locust Road. 

“I enjoy working with animals and just seeing how far they can fly,” she said. “Sometimes they amaze you.”

Karlsbroten and her husband, Dennis, have been raising the birds seriously for about three years now. They had some years and years ago, but weren’t too serious about it. 

The two breeds of pigeons – Racing Homer and Norwich Croppers – now have their own coop and are trained by Karlsbroten to fly home from wherever she releases them. The croppers don’t fly, as they are poor flyers, she said.

The distance training is Karlsbroten’s part. When she trains young birds, she lets them free fly around the farm to get their bearings. 

Eventually, she’ll take them about five miles away from the farm and let them fly home. Then she’ll increase the distance to 10, 15 and 30 miles.

“It’s fun to watch them,” she said. “It’s really fun to go some place, let them go, hurry home and when I’m pulling in the driveway, I can see their shadows on the ground and they’re flying in.”

She said the pigeons often beat her home, as well-trained birds have an average flying speed of 60 mph. Their top speed is 92 mph, for short periods of time. They also don’t have to contend with traffic or speed limits. 

Finding their way home is the birds’ responsibility. Their natural homing instinct can usually guide them home from just about anywhere. The distance from home doesn’t seem to bother them, either.

Some pigeon fanciers will train their birds to fly in distance races that can range from 100 to 600 miles, though races of 250 to 300 miles are most popular Karlsbroten said. 

When the Herald talked to Karlsbroten last Monday, she had just released a few birds from Pettibone Park in La Crosse, Wisconsin, earlier that day. Two birds had returned so far, and Karlsbroten was eagerly awaiting the return of others. Most of them returned home by Friday.

“They’re very athletic birds, but you can’t just throw them into a marathon,” she said. “They have to get flying time in and then you challenge them with further distances.”

Though they can fly for hours on end, the birds won’t wear themselves out. They will fly as much as they’re comfortable. 

Racing Homers are domestic pigeons that are selectively bred for more speed and their homing instinct. Karlsbroten received two birds – Ruby and Bruno – from a fellow pigeon fancier in Caledonia, and she’s raised many more.

Karlsbroten also received a pigeon hen from a woman in La Crosse. That bird is Silver, who is one of her favorite pigeons in her coop.

“Pigeon fanciers are happy to share information about their birds,” she said. “I’d love to share some of my birds with someone who is interested.”

Racing Homers were developed in Belgium and England in the 19th century from five major breeds, including the carrier pigeon, which is responsible for the great ability to find its way home.

Karlsbroten’s birds are fed a special feed that allows them to fly to their full potential.

“They are very hardy and prolific. They make great parents and foster parents,” she added.

In fact, her cropper pigeons are not very good parents, but that’s where the racing homers take over and raise the young croppers. 

The birds can also be banded with leg bands for identification. Birds that race are often outfitted with a band that has a chip in it that can be timed and recorded.

Bands with chips in them are also useful for fanciers to know when their birds return home. The birds enter a “trap” connected to their coop. Once they enter the trap, the time is recorded on the chip and sent to the owner. 

Depending on the size of the racing competition, up to 4,000 birds can be released at once. In some races, birds will be released by rows, but at the expense of time.

And just how popular is pigeon racing? There’s a competition called the Million Dollar Pigeon Race that pits about 4,300 birds from 25 countries against each other for about $1.3 million in total prize money. The overall winner receives about $200,000.

Racing birds are often pedigreed and papered, just like dogs, cattle and horses. They can also be bred for different colors or instincts. 

Karlsbroten said many new and fancy colors have been bred from the original bird, but that often comes at the expense of losing the bird’s true homing instinct. 

Birds can often be bought or sold for up to $4,000, especially if they’re six months to five years in age, which is their prime. If a bird has European heritage, they could be worth a lot more. One bird was said to be worth $1.4 million.

Pigeons were also used during both world wars to carry messages across battlefields and to and from cities. Some of those pigeons, 32 to be exact, were awarded the Dickin Medal. Since WWII, the Dickin Medal has been awarded to animals in military service. 

It’s a bronze medal that says, “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve.” In addition to 32 pigeons, the medal has been given to 18 dogs, three horses and a ship’s cat.

In addition to Racing Homer pigeons, there are also giant-sized, croppers, fantails and many different breeds. 

The Tri-State Pigeon Club meets in Decorah, Iowa, and is an all-breed club. The club’s fall show is coming up in November, and curious people are welcome to come and hang out with the pigeons and their fanciers.

There will be a credited judge to evaluate the birds, awards, a luncheon and silent auction. The event will be on Nov. 16, at the Danan Lansing Memorial Building at the Winneshiek County Fairgrounds.

Karlsbroten enjoys bringing her birds to Gundersen Harmony Care Center, where she works as a beautician. Her coworkers enjoy petting her birds and watching them be released.

“Pigeon fancying can be an enjoyable sport for your own fun or join a club and learn from others,” Karlsbroten said.