Racing is for the birds in Holt

HOLT, Fla., May 15, 2023—On a quiet Saturday morning in Holt, Al Muller is sitting in a lawn chair, sipping a cup of coffee and watching the skies over his home, waiting.

Then, without fanfare, he sees it, popping up over the trees.

One of his racing pigeons has returned home from a long-distance race.

At that point, the serenity of the morning is broken as pigeon owners begin texting back and forth, checking race times against each other.

“Everybody’s on the phone checking to see which pigeon has the fastest time,” says Muller.

Al Muller holds a racing pigeon.

Muller is one of 19 members of the New Gulf Coast Racing Pigeon Club based in Pensacola that includes members from Holt, Crestview, DeFuniak Springs, Milton, Pensacola and Baldwin County, Ala. The clubhouse is in Pensacola and members meet on Saturday afternoons.

Racing pigeons since he was about 16 years old, Muller, 72, is enthusiastic about the sport.

“It’s fun,” he says.

Modern pigeon racing has its beginning in Belgium during the 19th century. Pigeon racing was first introduced to the United States about 1875 in Philadelphia with regular racing beginning around 1878.

Known by many names—homing, messenger, carrier—the racing pigeon is a more athletic bird than those found perched on park statues.

Owners liken their birds to thoroughbred racehorses.

“Pigeons are known as thoroughbreds of the sky. If horse racing is known as the sport of kings, pigeon racing is the sport of princes…or less,” Muller says with a smile.

However, in the “Kentucky Derby,” “Preakness” or “Belmont” of racing pigeons, birds can cost hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars.

Case in point: one 2-year-old racing pigeon named “New Kim” from Belgium sold in November 2020 for a record-breaking $1.9 million to an anonymous bidder in China. The hen will not race, but will be used for breeding.

Muller admits that spending $1.9 million for one bird “is a little nuts.”

While big-time pigeon racing is about large payoffs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, locally, it’s more low key.

“It’s really more for fun,” says Muller. “We keep everything friendly.”

He says he tries to keep about 40 to 50 racing pigeons of various ages in the bird loft on his property. Lifespan is 15 to 20 or more years.

“Pigeons leave the nest at about four weeks and are banded at five days old,” he says. The band, made of plastic-coated aluminum, is unique to the bird, much like a social security number.

In addition to the band, racing pigeons carry a radio frequency identification, or RFID, chip on the opposite leg. This records their flying times when racing.

When racing, pigeons are transported to a prearranged point and released en masse. The impulse to return to the roost is “overpowering,” says Muller. “They usually come home, or they die.”

Once released, the birds fly until they return home. “Pigeons can fly 50 miles per hour non-stop—no food, no drink,” he says. And it’s not the first bird home that wins the race, it’s the fastest, as recorded by the RFID chip.

Muller begins conditioning his birds for duration races by releasing them for periods of time to fly around his home. This allows them to begin strengthening their wings. He increases the release times as the start of the racing season creeps closer.

The first race in October is a short distance of around 100 miles from Greenville, Ala. Distances get longer as the season continues through to January to build up to a 350-mile race at the end of the racing season.

On race day, pigeons are released miles from their home loft, the distance determined by the race. Owners typically put all their birds in the first race of the season to see what kind of racing shape they are in, according to Muller.

One of the largest pigeon races in the state was the Florida Pigeon Derby this past February with a $1.4 million payout spread over first to 100th place. The 2,549 birds from 515 lofts flew in the 387-mile race.

While nowhere near as big a race as the Derby, Muller and his club-member friends still get excited when the pigeons race.

Once the birds are released, it’s a waiting game to see who can claim bragging rights.

Pigeon facts

  • “Pigeon” is French for “dove”
  • Pigeons mate for life
  • Both male and female pigeons produce milk to feed their young
  • Pigeon racing is an international sport
  • Biggest race: South Africa
  • Hardest race: Thailand One Loft Race
  • Fastest recorded pigeon: 98 mph during a 3-hour journey
  • Fastest racing pigeon: thoroughbred homing pigeon
  • Distance traveled in one day: up to 700 miles

The New Gulf Coast Racing Pigeon Club is looking for new members. Contact Al Muller at 850-255-5616 for more information.

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