Fly Away Home
Only a birdbrain would know Bob Woodruff's racing pigeons can fly 90 mph
Patti Sells | News-Telegram Feature Editor

Bob Woodruff built the pigeon loft that houses his 12 racing pigeons, a new hobby he has picked up since his retirement from IBA Dairy Supply.

Staff Photo by Angela Pitts

Curious passerbys traveling down Church Street need wonder no longer about the small, white edifice on the side lawn of Wesley House Apartments.

It's a pigeon loft, of all things.

And not just for any old pigeons. They are the racing pigeons of Bob Woodruff, a member of Loft of the Pines Pigeon Racing Club.

"It's a fabulous hobby — a lot of fun for an old man," said Woodruff, 77, who is in his second year of racing. "It's exciting to watch for them to fly in."

Woodruff  had been preparing for his first 200-mile race, set for Sept. 23, from Vicksburg, Miss., approximately 278 miles away. However, predictions of high wind and rain canceled the event.

"Weather, rain, tail winds and head winds are all key factors in a race," he explained.

A total of 350 birds would have started from the release station around 7:30 a.m. Saturday, according to Woodruff, and headed for a number of finish lines throughout Northeast Texas.

"A good bird would make it back by about 2 p.m.," he said. "They're all mixed together and released in a bunch, all flying in one direction. At some point in time they have to break out and leave the flock and head for home."

The distances from the release station to each individual pigeon loft are calculated by special surveyors that compute the flying distances down to 1,000th of a mile or kilometer. When the birds reach their loft, they land on a sensor pad that records their exact time of landing.

Each bird has two bands; one with a national organization ID number they receive at birth, and a second racing band with a computer chip in it. The pigeon loft houses a scanning device and clock that tells exactly what time they get back, and Global Positioning System equipment plots coordinates from the release point, computes total miles and average speed, calculating which bird wins the race. Ergo, the first bird to make it home is not neccassarily the winner of the race, according to Woodruff.

The formula used is distance divided by time equals speed. With an exact flight distance and flying time, the birds average speed can be precisely calculated. 

Some racing pigeons have been clocked at speeds of up to 92.5 miles per hour. 

"They've (other birds) been beating me pretty bad," laughed Woodruff, who only recently joined the club. "New members don't get the real good birds, of course. But it's still exciting to watch for them to come home."

As a member of the racing club, he was given 34 of the 4- to 5-week-old birds to raise and train.

The birds start out by flying around the loft they've been raised in. Soon they will start routing, which means they may venture off for an hour or so, according to Woodruff. Later, he will start road training or  "tossing,"  carrying them off further and further from the loft each time. A single "toss" is a distance of anywhere from 40 to 80 miles.

"Nobody really knows how they do it," said Woodruff. "It's just instinct. There are all kinds of university studies and theories, but really, we just don't know how they do it. It's very intriguing."

The racing pigeon is providing data that may some day help explain their species' innate abilities. Since 1967, Cornell University in New York has been conducting experiments with racing pigeons, hoping to better understand their homing ability. Research from around the globe reveals that nature has blessed them with senses far more sophisticated than that of humans. It is believed that the birds use a combination of senses to find their way home. 

Research has also determined that pigeons can see over a 26-mile distance and hear from hundreds of miles. A pigeon beats its wings up to 10 times per second, while maintaining a heart rate of 600 beats per minute up to 16 hours without rest.

"They are no match for stamina, and they're very clever," said Woodruff. "It's hard not to bond with them and get attached to them. You have to learn not to name them and make pets of them. You kind of learn to detach yourself, 'cause sure enough, you lose them."

According to Woodruff, he's down to 12 birds. One returned Friday, Sept., 21, after being gone for more than five weeks.

"I'm just a novice with lots to learn about breeding and raising good racing birds." he said.  "I wish I had started doing this earlier in life. If a fellow ever gets involved with raising them and racing them, they'll love it.

"One thing’s for sure — they make a good conversation piece."

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