This piece originally aired in 2016.
Bill Milestone says you can tell when a pigeon is happy. They get frisky with energy. They squabble with each other. They get, he says, a sparkle in their eye.
Milestone is training his flock of forty for an upcoming race. They live in a small white house on stilts in the backyard of his San Francisco home, cooing over each other.
"If the birds are happy you can take them quite a distance and they’ll come home," Milestone says. “Each bird ideally has its own perch and has its own nest box. And, with clean water and good food they’ll be happy."
When Milestone says ‘quite a distance,’ he’s not just talking about his birds flying around the block. He’s talking hundreds of miles, across state lines. Shorter races in the Bay Area start in Nevada, with courses up to 300 miles. The longer races, however can start as far out as Idaho for a distance of about 600 miles.
Here’s how it all flies: at the beginning of a race, each bird gets a racing number that ties around its leg. The competitors are then rounded up and loaded onto a truck which delivers them to the designated start line. Finally, on the big day, thirty minutes after sunrise, on your mark, get set, release the birds!
“Generally the birds are going to be flying about 45 miles an hour,” says Milestone, “depending on whether they have a head wind, a tail wind, a side wind. But you can predict pretty close to when the winners will be coming home.”
Depending on where their home loft is, the birds will also be flying slightly different distances to reach their individual finish lines. When the birds clock in at their home loft, their distance and time is recorded, and whichever one makes the most yards per minute is the winner.
To figure out how to get back to their loft, pigeons actually use the earth’s magnetic fields as their internal GPS system - following the strength of these invisible poles to determine direction. But, aside from being able to find their way home, the birds also have to want to come home. And there’s lots of ways to do this. According to Milestone, there’s one way that works pretty well.
“There is a system called widowhood. Shall we say, the males and females are paired up in their own nest boxes. They establish their territory. And then they’re separated.”
This stress can act as a strong motivator because typically, pigeons will mate for life. They’re birds of a feather that stick together, even taking shifts to warm their eggs.
While both male and female pigeons are used for racing, widowhood is used only for males. That’s because, in general, while hens would be more interested in flying home to their babies or eggs, the male birds are more interested in flying home to the hens. Thus, in widowhood, trainers will separate the male bird from his mate a few days prior to the race, and then right before the truck arrives, they reunite the lovebirds just before hauling the male to the start line. So, that bird’s got one thing on his mind.
“‘There she is, I got to get back !’" is how Milestone puts it. "So, the bird that is racing, wants to come back to his nest box, and when he arrives there, the hen is waiting for him. And that motivates him to... full performance!”
But, living in the Bay Area, it’s not always easy to get back. Pigeons naturally tend to avoid flying over open water, so over here, the birds have to be specifically trained to cross the Bay if you want them to return home. Sometimes trainers will go so far as to take their birds on a boat and release them while on the water; Milestone, however, just takes them to Treasure Island.
Crossing the Bay is important because a winning bird could mean a lot of money. At the 2015 San Francisco Bay Area Triple Crown pigeon race, winning bird ‘Sierra Miss’ flew home and earned over $16,000!
Right now, Milestone’s pigeons are on their off-season, training for their next race. That means eating high protein diets and keeping a regular exercise routine, flying around at least once, sometimes twice, a day.
Back outside of Milestone’s pigeon loft, he’s getting ready to let them out for their daily flight.
“So, if it’s OK, I’ll let them out right now,” he says.
With the sound of jangling keys and his fingers snapping, the loft opens, and the birds rush out with a wave of loud fluttering. We look up and spot the flock, knowing that no matter how far they go, they’ll be able to find their way home.