You may not see pigeon racing on ESPN, but don't tell anyone involved that it's not a sport.
Part training elite athletes and part having a pet, pigeon racing has been around for centuries. The homing pigeon has long been utilized for messaging and was used extensively in both World Wars. In the ancient Olympics, pigeons were used to inform villages of the winners of the events.
Adam Kuhn has been raising pigeons since he was a kid in Chicago. He began racing pigeons this past year and is the secretary for the 20th Century Racing Pigeon Club based in Woodstock.
"It’s definitely a sport," Kuhn said. "It's fun, but you have to love pigeons."
Competitions determine how fast a pigeon can make it from a common release point back to his home loft. Electronic sensors are placed on the birds and record their time and rate of speed. Races can be anywhere from 100 to 500 miles in length and include hundreds of birds.
Pigeons can fly 50 to 60 mph and faster depending on wind speed and direction.
To anyone who has chased a runaway cat or dog, having a pet that automatically returns home definitely has some appeal.
"It's fascinating to watch them fly," 20th Century President Bruce Vogrinc said. "And fascinating to have a tame bird come back."
Vogrinc was introduced to pigeon racing by his father and has continued the tradition. He said one of the best parts for him and his wife is seeing their birds return home.
"It's a sport, but it's also a love. We love the pet aspect." Vogrinc said. "We just enjoy watching them come in. To know they went 400 miles is exciting."
Vogrinc said you definitely get attached to the birds. He said he can whistle at his birds during a training exercise and they will come back to him to eat.
"They all have different personalities," Vogrinc said. "Some are very affectionate. Others are a little bit more flighty."
The most important part of training is simply keeping the pigeons healthy, Vogrinc said. Exercise is also important. He often drives to Rockford to release his birds for training runs.
New racers get shorter training runs before their first race but nothing close to a race distance.
"They love to fly," Vogrinc said. "Their first race they go 100 miles and they've never been that far."
For a pigeon with a good racing pedigree, the price can be many thousands of dollars. Comparatively, a normal pair of pigeons can be bought for around $25.
There are two seasons for pigeon racing. The old or experienced pigeons race in the spring, starting in April for 10 weeks. The rookies race in the fall, starting in August.
The club is actively seeking new members, especially younger ones. They are also looking to partner with 4H clubs and help kids get started in the sport.
"Our sport is getting smaller and smaller every year because our members are dying off," Kuhn said. "I encourage anybody to race and have fun in the sport."
For information about 20th Century or pigeon racing, contact Kuhn at 815-769-8515 or Vogrinc at 815-793-8031.
• Rob Smith is a sports writer for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.