Joseph Erwin races pigeons. He knows you might find that a little strange.

"People always have a bit of an attitude towards pigeon people," Erwin said. "Sort of like the hunchback working in the bell tower. He was always the pigeon guy 400 years ago."

But Erwin is no Quasimoto — he's just passionate about a sport he loves. So much so that he's part of of the Hamilton Central Pigeon Racing Club.

'I just race the cock birds. I use the hens as motivation.'—Joseph Erwin, pigeon racer

There are about 40 members in the club that competitively race out of Hamilton each summer. Sometimes it's club bouts, other times they race against one of the other 101 pigeon racing clubs in Canada.

He calls himself Hamilton Central's "resident champion." In 2010, he received a Canadian Racing Pigeon Presidents Award for volunteering and helping out new racers.

It's not a sport a lot of people know about and one that even fewer really understand. Because of this, Erwin said he had to keep quiet about his love for pigeons as a kid.

"You didn't want to tick any neighbours off. You just tried to do it under stealth," Erwin said. "You have pigeons until you're 14...then you discover internal combustion engines and women."

But the lure of the bird wasn't something he could easily forget.

"By the time you get married and buy a house, the first thought you have is 'I'm getting back into pigeons.'"

Part of the flock

Race time is pure excitement — knowing hundreds of your competitors are hurtling through the sky, heading back home. But there's other more tranquil moments, too.

"The biggest rush from the entire sport is when I go out at night to my loft," Erwin said. "It's my refuge."

He spends many evenings in his pigeon loft, where he keeps his flock — roughly 120 birds. He'll sit with his racers, talk to them, and then release them into the night sky.

"That's the best thing, letting them out," he said. "Then sitting back on a picnic table and watching them fly."

The race

  • Races begin at the club, where each bird is entered into the race via electronic scanning.
  • They're placed into race crates to wait for a driver who will pick them all up in a giant truck.
  • The driver will take the birds to a central release point, and set them free all at once.
  • They'll then fly back to their individual lofts.
  • When the pigeon returns to the loft, he's scanned.
  • Coordinates of the release point are calculated with with the coordinates of the loft.
  • That's measured alongside time of release and finish time.
  • Through all this, a metres per minute speed is obtained.
  • The winner is the bird that covers his distance quickest.

And they always come back?

"Well, provided the hawks don't get them."

Training day

Unlike many sports, a pigeon race can have over 2,000 competitors at any given time. Competition is fierce.

Erwin said it takes exemplary breeding stock, bird quality and motivation to breed a champion racing pigeon.

"You break the pigeons down, just like an athlete," he said.

But Erwin doesn't race his hen pigeons. "I just race the cock birds," he said. "I use the hens as motivation."

Seems odd, but it works. The birds in his flock are paired off together each season to mate. After the chicks hatch, the hens are taken away from the male birds.

This is called widowhood. The male pigeons get to see their hens on Friday night for a couple of minutes after the race. "That motivation will bring those pigeons home 15 minutes faster, every time," Erwin added.

Birds of feather, flocking together

It seems the female pigeons are an integral part of racing success. Erwin said his wife is just as integral to his success.

"My wife loves that I'm so passionate about something," Erwin said. "In most long-lasting marriages either one of both of the spouses have a real passion for something, other than each other."

"Just…not another woman," he laughed.

No worries there — Erwin's true passion is pigeons. And he couldn't be happier about it.

"Pigeons make me feel like a kid inside," he said. "Pigeons keep me young."