Race In The Wild
Homing Pigeons

By Laura Stakelum • Photography by Brian W. McDonald • Sept/Oct 2016

A pigeon isn’t a bird usually known for its noble or daring deeds. Perhaps the time has come to change that perception.

Homing pigeons have been utilized throughout history for a variety of tasks. In World War I, they sent messages. Within the past 40 years, they had a shot at carrying lab samples between European hospitals. Today, they monitor air pollution in London. And here in the Wiregrass, they provide an entertaining hobby for Headland, Alabama, resident John Ross Helms.

“I grew up here in Headland, and it’s an agricultural town, and I’ve just always been interested in animals,” Helms tells. He was just 12 years old when he started catching common pigeons. Within a year, he received his first order of pedigree homing pigeons from Kentucky. “Homing pigeons are different from common pigeons that you see flying around. They are more muscular and are able to fly long distances,” he explains. “When I got the pigeons, that was something I could get and keep and do something with them—being involved in raising and training them.” “I grew up here in Headland, and it’s an agricultural town, and I’ve just always been interested in animals,” Helms tells. He was just 12 years old when he started catching common pigeons. Within a year, he received his first order of pedigree homing pigeons from Kentucky. “Homing pigeons are different from common pigeons that you see flying around. They are more muscular and are able to fly long distances,” he explains. “When I got the pigeons, that was something I could get and keep and do something with them—being involved in raising and training them.”

Friends cared for his birds when he went off to college, but after Helms got married, he became interested in racing the pigeons. It started by him taking his birds to the beach and sending messages home from Panama City, Florida. He joined the Wiregrass Pigeon Racing Club in 1980, a year after this charter of the American Racing Pigeon Union started. Since then, he has only missed one year of racing—the year he moved. But he was quickly back at it, training his birds to come home to a new place. “It’s like golf or anything else—it’s a hobby,” Helms says. “Whether you’re a once-a-day player or once-a-week player, you get out of it what you put into it.”

And Helms puts a lot into it. Each year, he raises a new group of young, which are usually ready to race at 6 months old. He typically has 50 to 60 birds on his younger racing team, and 25 to 30 on his older team, as younger and older birds compete during different seasons. “More things can happen to younger birds during training—they don’t go right into the pen and a hawk gets them, they run into wires, they make more mistakes simply because they don’t know how to handle themselves in the wild. If they race, and bad weather happens, some don’t know how to go down and get water and fly the next day,” he tells ...  [subscribe to read full article and see more photos]

“The last race I did was 500 miles,” he says. “I sent eight birds out and got four back that same day and four back the next day.”