Edmonton

Meet Alberta's urban pigeons and the people who fancy them

Despite a reputation for being dirty birds plenty of Albertans are the happy owners of pigeons for competition, show and companionship.

You could say pigeons lovers are coo-coo about their feathered friends

Duong Bach has a brood of more than 60 racing pigeons in his south Edmonton backyard. (CBC)

Duong Bach carefully removes a plump grey pigeon from its cage and lets it fly into the woods in a rural area of central Alberta.

Bach will wait anxiously for the bird to return home to his backyard coop in south Edmonton, using an electronic tracker wrapped around its red claw to track the bird on its 150-kilometre flight home.

Bach keeps more than 60 homing pigeons in the backyard of his home on a quiet residential street in the Hodgson neighbourhood.

Duong Bach raises and trains racing pigeons from his Edmonton home. 1:32

Despite a reputation for being dirty birds or "rat birds," Bach said plenty of Albertans happily own pigeons of the racing or fancy variety.

Some people aren't fans of his pet pigeons but that is often due to a lack of understanding, he said.

"They don't know what a racing pigeon is. They think it's a wild bird that poops all the time," he said. "If you want a competitive racer, the bird has to be in good health and you don't let them out on a full stomach.

"There is a lot of things involved. It's not like you just let the bird out and hope that it flies home."

Pigeons are perfectly legal in Edmonton. You are allowed to keep up to 75 of the birds, as long as you get a licence to do so. 

Duong Bach and some of his hatchlings. He will begin training the birds as racers in a few months. (CBC)

Edmonton Bylaw 13145, better known as the city's Animal Licensing and Control bylaw, devotes a whole section to owning pigeons.

The birds must be kept in an acceptable aviary and are only allowed outside for "supervised exercise" or "when returning from a supervised race or training flight." They cannot travel in a flock of more than 20 pigeons and there is a curfew stipulating when birds must be caged.

The city doesn't have an exact tally on the number of pigeons but said a total of 56 pigeon licences have been issued and each permit good for up to 75 birds.

Keith Scott, co-ordinator with the community standards peace officer section, said when he started working in the city's bylaw department 11 years ago, he was surprised to hear of the pigeon bylaw.

"I always thought they were just a pest but there are a group of people that still fly the pigeons in races, and those are the pigeons we're dealing with mostly," Scott said. 

However, the birds rarely ruffle any feathers with city residents,  Scott said. The rare complaint lodged to the city is usually because birds are breaking curfew rules stated within the bylaw, he said.

Training a champion

Bach —  a stay-at-home dad and former lab technician — is a longtime member of Capital City Racing Pigeon Association, one of two major clubs dedicated to racing pigeons in Edmonton.

The club holds a handful of timed races each year, derbies where the owner of the fastest bird is rewarded with a pot of a few hundred dollars and, of course, bragging rights.  

Bach said homing pigeons, known for their innate instinct to return home to the nest, can fly staggering distances at breakneck speeds, braving wild predators, power lines and difficult weather.

It's more adrenaline than anything, that anticipation of the bird coming home.- Duong Bach. 

Alberta homing pigeons can race up to 800 kilometres during the summer season, travelling at an average speed of 72 km/h in a race.

Like any athlete, a racing pigeon requires a meticulous training regime.

Bach begins training his birds when they are only a couple of months old and slowly builds up their strength and endurance by taking them further and further from home.

It takes dedication to raise a champion flyer but the thrill of the race makes it all worth it, Bach said.

"The anticipation, when you're sitting at home looking at the clock, thinking where is my bird? Where is my bird? It's more adrenaline than anything, that anticipation of the bird coming home."

But it's not just racing pigeons that populate the city. Fancy pigeons are also a popular choice.

Not like anything you'll see on the street

The show birds are more ornamental than athletic, revered for their strong bloodlines and strange features.

Similar to top-quality show dogs, fancy pigeons have pedigree and are bred for specific traits relating to size, shape, colour and behaviour.

All pigeons are descendants of the standard rock pigeon, the plump, short-legged, small headed birds that are most commonly seen in urban and rural areas. But the fancy varieties are like nothing you would see in the wild or on the street. 

Jerry Vandermeer, 81, and his brother operate a large pigeon breeding house in Sherwood Park which is home to more than 200 birds.

The business goes back a "long ways" for his family, Vandermeer said. He was introduced to the hobby by his father who began breeding pigeons in Holland before the family immigrated to Canada in 1952.

The family barn is home to a variety of fancy breeds including fantails, characterized by their turkey-like fan-shaped tail, and Norwich cropper pigeons, with their ability to inflate their chests like a balloon.

"All birds are nice," he said.

"We've got fantails and archangels from Germany, and we've got medinas from Italy and we have pigmy pouters from England. Every country has a fancy bird more or less." 

Vandermeer and his brother travel to livestock exhibits all over North America, earning countless "Best in Show"  accolades for their prize birds.

The frilback, known for sporting a distinct set of curls, is among dozens of varieties of fancy pigeon. (CBC)

Not every Alberta pigeon lover is breeding on such a large scale. Brenda Nelson, 53, keeps five pigeons in the yard of her acreage, down a winding lane just a few kilometres west of the Village at Pigeon Lake.

She occasionally sells her birds to fellow fancy pigeon owners in Edmonton and thinks the birds are actually better suited for urban life than the more typical cats and dogs.

Nelson said the Alberta pigeon community is "surprisingly big," but she came upon the birds by accident.

'An exotic pet' 

Her husband Mark always wanted to have pet birds so they built some outdoor aviaries on their property and started shopping around. They spotted fancy pigeons for the first time at an "odd and unusual" animal auction and were enthralled.

"So we tried them and quite liked them," she said. "They're just a simple, easy pet to have."

Brenda Nelson has a handful of frillback pigeons on her acreage outside Pigeon Lake. (CBC)

She has already has quite the collection of odd pets including a pair of five-horned sheep, a donkey and a llama, and the her "permed" birds — called  frillback pigeons — seemed the perfect fit. 

"These auctions are just crazy, you never know what you're going to come home with. They'll sell you anything from camels to emus to wallabies." 

Covered in curled feathers with heavily tufted feet, frillbacks look like they've just been at the hairdresser.

"They're just more of an exotic pet," she said. "They make really pretty sounds when you're sitting out on the deck. You know, they coo. But they're more of a pet to look at than a pet to cuddle.

"You don't bring them into the bed at night. Although we did that with a chicken once and never again." 

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca