The search for Perth’s ‘perfect pigeon’

Racing pigeons in Joe Olszowy’s loft waiting to be released. Photo: Gera Kazakov CC BY ND

“The first thing you want your pigeons to do when they come home from a race is go ‘whack’ straight in [to the loft],” says Joe Olszowy, president of the Riverton Pigeon Racing Club.

He had one pigeon he called the “bitch.” Instead of flying straight back into the loft and completing the race, the “bitch” would meander out the front, losing him precious time. Olszowy only started getting the results he wanted from the bird once he started sending it on longer races. It was a long-distance pigeon, and it wasn’t using up its energy.   

Welcome to the world of pigeon racing, a sport kept alive here in Perth by a small but dedicated community of self-proclaimed “pigeon fanciers.” A pigeon race is simple: pigeons are driven out to a remote location on a truck, they are all released at once, and whichever pigeon makes it home the fastest is crowned the race winner. Special sensors installed in the fanciers’ lofts will automatically clock the birds’ time upon arrival, marking the end of the race. This is done by a GPS tracker all racing pigeons must wear. However, what is complicated about the sport, is finding the so-called “perfect pigeon” which will win a fancier the most races.

A discreet sport, pigeon racing in Australia predates World War One. Perth’s season starts on the last Sunday of May every year and runs for 20 weeks. Races take place all across the state, and can either be short distance “sprint” races which start 150km from the lofts, or longer 1000km races in which a pigeon’s endurance is well and truly tested. The longer races are usually held towards the end of the season.

Perth’s fanciers congregate in 12 clubs spread across the metropolitan area and keep between 80 to 300 pigeons in lofts at their homes.  

Joe Olszowy with one of his many pigeons next his “landing pad” –  the spot which marks the end of the race. Photo: Gera Kazakov CC BY ND
Alongside a GPS tracker, all racing pigeons have a life tag, with its details to help return the bird to its owner if lost then found. Photo: Gera Kazakov CC BY ND.

Riverton Pigeon Racing Club president Joe Olszowy has about 200 pigeons in his loft, located in the quiet backstreets of Thornlie. Olszowy has spent his whole life with a love of birds. He started breeding canaries, before moving into racing pigeons in 2011. For him, the most prestigious race to win is a long distance 1000km race. He believes the best fanciers or pigeon won’t win every race – but the 1000km race is a different story.

“The best pigeon always wins the 1000km race,” stresses Olszowy.

Olszowy has spent the last 11 years breeding hundreds of pigeons trying to find the elusive “perfect pigeon.” He has his theories about what the bird should be. The pigeon doesn’t have to win every race. He warns of getting caught up in the hype of one that only wins a single race. Those pigeons he approaches with caution.

Instead, to Olszowy, consistency is key. He sternly explains the pigeon should come back in good time. “Not a week or two later, but in good time. They’re good pigeons,” he says.

Olszowy preparing a bird bath outside his loft while his pigeons wait patiently. Photo: Gera Kazakov CC BY ND

Pigeon racing is centred around the pigeon’s in-built homing ability. Dr Colin Walker, a member of the Australian College of Veterinary Surgeons and avid pigeon racer, explains that the birds have a gland in their beak which allows them to use the earth’s magnetic field to always find their way home. Dr Walker says this ability works even in overcast or foggy conditions, as well as when the pigeon is blinded.

Racing pigeons themselves are born out of exhibition pigeons, however only one of the 350 different breeds are good for racing, according to Dr Walker. All racing pigeons are born from a champion in one way or another, he says, due to the demand of other fanciers wanting to breed a champion bird.

Newcomer Jermaine Victorino believes that having a pigeon with a strong pedigree and a family history of winning is what will help him find his “perfect pigeon.”

“Some of the old fanciers here say that ‘oh we don’t need pedigree, they just need proper handling.’ That’s their opinion, but as a young bloke, as a new fancier here, for me that’s not accurate,” he says.

Victorino also believes that 1000km races are the best to win. For him, all other races are just a warmup for his pigeons. He keeps around 90 pigeons in his loft hidden just off the main streets in Victoria Park. Victorino only joined Perth’s pigeon racing community in 2021, and has been busy training his pigeons for their upcoming first season.

Jermaine Victorino in front of his loft. Photo: Gera Kazakov CC BY ND
Victorino is yet to name any of his birds, saying he will “once they prove themselves.” Photo: Gera Kazakov CC BY ND

Victorino spent his youth with pigeons in the Philippines. He got his start racing during his college days, after his neighbour introduced him to the sport, and has been hooked ever since. He had to give up his pigeons when he moved to Australia, but he couldn’t stay away from the sport for long. 

A self-proclaimed newbie to pigeon racing in Perth, he’s excited for his first proper season. Victorino imported his pigeons from over east, paying $1,500 per bird – excluding shipping. And while he says pigeon racing attracts big money back in his home country, he explains that here in Perth there is little money to be made in the sport.

“When you race here, you only win $800,” Victorino laughs. He’s quick to point out all the costs associated with pigeon racing – the price of feed, getting sensors, and GPS trackers for the pigeons. It’s not lost on him how those costs quicky add up and total more than $1000.

“If you’re going to race pigeons, you’re going to need a lot of money,” says Victorino.

Victorino tends to his small loft in Victoria Park. Photo: Gera Kazakov CC BY ND

Olszowy is much more succinct when asked what a fancier wins in a pigeon race.

“Nothing,” he says.

The most Olszowy ever won is $2500 in a year. He says he once got $1000 for coming second, and believes there is some potential to make some good money. But he warns about becoming too caught up in the prospect of making a quick buck.    

“If you think you’re going to make a living out of racing pigeons and winning prize money, forget it,” says Olszowy. 

Pigeon racing in Asia and Europe attracts big money, with winners and bird traders all walking away with six figure sums of cash. However, Olszowy and Victorino believe that kind of money will never make it to Perth.

But what did make it here instead is the deadly viruses which kill pigeons. Rotavirus and Paromyxovirus (PMV) have both swept through the Australian pigeon racing community.

Dr Walker is Victoria’s racing pigeon vet, and has been at ground zero at the devasting viruses which hinder fancier’s from finding the “perfect pigeon.” Rotavirus targets the pigeon’s liver, causing weight loss, vomiting and diarrhoea. PMV affects the bird’s kidneys, and it’s the deadlier of the two. Dr Walker helped develop vaccines for both viruses. 

Before the PMV vaccine was developed, the virus had a 100 percent mortality rate.

Dr Walker says PMV tore through the “loft zero” in Australia, with the virus killing 120 of the fancier’s birds in the first four days. He says the remaining four pigeons died four days later. Because of these viruses, all pigeons must be vaccinated before the racing season starts – another expensive endeavour – with the vaccine for Rotavirus setting fanciers back $450, while PMV is another $200.  

Deadly viruses aside, to current fanciers the biggest threat facing the sport is its future. The next generation just isn’t interested in racing pigeons.

Fanciers from Riverton Pigeon Racing Club tally their results from a test race before the season kicks off. Photo: Gera Kazakov CC BY ND
One of the differing clocking machines fanciers will use to determine a pigeon’s results. Photo: Gera Kazakov CC BY ND

Every fancier will have their own theories as to why. Olszowy believes it’s the smaller block sizes that are currently on offer in the market, leaving no room in a backyard for a pigeon loft. Victorino thinks kids are just too preoccupied with their gadgets to appreciate the beauty of pigeons and the sport.

However, a solution both agree on is the introduction of one-loft racing. Currently, pigeon racers here in Perth race from their backyards, located all across the city. Olszowy and Victorino admit that this gives some fanciers an unfair advantage over others.

This advantage often relates to the starting point of the race. If the race begins north of Perth, flyers living in Wanneroo or Joondalup are going to have an edge over their southern-river counterparts. The current attempts to mitigate this come in the form of a speed tracker, with the race winner having the fastest bird in the air, not the fastest time to return back to the loft.

Yet Olszowy and Victorino believe the inclusion of one-loft racing would not only create equal advantage to all fanciers due to the birds all returning to the same location, it would also allow the new generation somewhere to store their pigeons other than their tiny backyards.

However, one-loft racing might just provide a feeding ground for the biggest thorn in every pigeon fancier’s side: the mighty falcon. Every fancier is aware how falcons will prey on the humble racing pigeon as they attempt to make it back home, and a one-loft pigeon facility might become a falcon’s buffet if the fanciers aren’t careful.  

So, in a sport with deadly viruses, heavy costs, little financial reward and deadly predators preying on the competitors, why do Victorino and the other fanciers continue to try and find the “perfect pigeon?”

“Because it makes you happy,” he simply replies.  

And when questioned what is the “perfect pigeon,” Dr Walker, pigeon vet, laughed, before asking:

“Does it exist?”

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