THEY are often thought of as rats with wings, flying vermin and disease carriers, but when you scratch the surface there is a lot more to pigeons than meets the eye.
Pigeons have been a part of Rod Adams’ life for more than 60 years and he has become something of an expert when it comes to breeding, racing, diagnosing and treating ill birds.
Over the years his wife and his children have had to take second place when it comes to his true passion.
“I was 10 when I first started keeping pigeons,” said Rod. “I lived in South Shields at the time and I used to pinch the pigeon eggs with my friends from nests in the coal staithes.
“The area I lived in, the only pets kids could afford were rabbits and they were boring, so we moved on to pigeons. If we couldn’t get our hands on lost racers we would go get eggs.
“We would hand feed them. It was a cheap way of having a bit of sport – we would build little hutches and race them ourselves.
“We used to get them as far as Peterborough, which is 170 miles. That wasn’t bad for kids.”
He added: “We didn’t race for money in those days, we used to race for one of the lad’s sisters, Paula Smith – the winner would get to take her to the pictures!”
Rod’s first love was a big, white pigeon that belonged to an older boy in his street and he “pinched” him off his roof. Next thing was a hen for his new white pigeon, purchased within days for the princely sum of half a crown.
Rod said: “I then learned lesson number one. As soon as I let him out the white cock went home. Homing pigeons do that.”
As Rod grew up he became part of bigger and better societies. At 16 he started to race pigeons and he lost a lot of money initially before he became wise to the older fanciers tricks.
Most of the miners had allotments and that’s where pigeons were bred, nurtured and trained.
“Our pigeons got better as we got better,” said Rod. “And all too soon we entered the grown-up world of having to work for a living, girls, and beer in that order, usually but not always, in that order. But the pigeons remained. Most of us drifted into partnerships with older fanciers before setting up on our own.
“As people started making more money from the sport it started to become more professional. Nowadays it’s big money and it’s like owning a greyhound.
“You send them all over the world to race, but you don’t go with them, so it’s not as hands-on as it was when I started. The biggest of which is held in Sun City, South Africa, where the winner will win one million dollars.”
He added: “People drive across to Europe to pick up different breeds. There was a Belgian pigeon that went for £100,000.”
Now 73, Rod lives in East Boldon and is retired. As well as racing pigeons he worked for 42 years as a medical lab technician for Newcastle University and now he spends his time bird watching all over the world.
Although he still keeps and breeds pigeons he no longer races them, he said: “It’s changed now, money has spoilt it.
“Anyone coming into the sport now needs a mentor. It’s really progressed, you need to know everything about the birds from metabolism to nutrition to the feathers.
“There are also a number of different breeding techniques to improve your birds’ chances of winning races.
“It’s deterred the young ones as the different techniques are hard to master and the advent of computers and PlayStations, virtual reality games have provided the youth with an alternative to the all-consuming, 24 hour a day, seven days a week, year-round task of keeping and racing pigeons.
“It’s a 365 -day hobby, it becomes your life. You’re going out at 4.30am and coming back late – I never saw my kids grow up.”
Prior to 1904, pigeon racing in the North East was pretty much as and when, it had turned into a workingman’s sport with 80 clubs all going their own ways.
The Up North Combine was founded in 1905 as a racing body and the administrative North of England Homing Union was formed in 1919, to see to that side of things.
The peak years were the 70s and 80s, declining steadily as the heavy industries, mines, shipyards, steel works etc. declined.
The North East is still a pretty strong area for fancying. The area from Saltburn up to Berwick is 100-miles long and 30-miles wide.
In Sunderland there are two federations covering different areas, the Sunderland and District Federation has more than 40 members and covers Southwick, Farringdon and Town End Farm.
The Sunderland Premier Federation has 80 members and covers Castletown, Deptford, Ford and Plains Farm.
Club races begin at 80 miles and progress down to the south coast, but for distance racers like Rod it’s the Bourges Blue Riband event from France that they want to win.
Rod has won it several times in the past and it’s one his proudest achievements, alongside winning the Up North Combine event which is very difficult to win.
At Bourges the pigeons are covering 570 miles to get home, they can usually do it in a day with good weather conditions.
He added: “I keep my birds. I would not be without them – they are part of the family. But some people dispose of them once they are too old. I’ve had one live to 21, but the oldest I’ve heard of was 28.
He added: “They always come home even if it takes years – I had a bird turn up after nine years. They just get lost sometimes, but they always know where home is.
“It’s really exciting when your bird wins though, it’s a real thrill.”