Toronto·Metro Morning

Think pigeons are 'rats with wings?' This 11-year-old from Toronto wants to change your mind

Charlotte Cassell is on a mission to prove people wrong about pigeons. The 11-year-started racing the birds two years ago. Now she has 20 pigeons that race each weekend against up to 1,000 other birds.

Charlotte Cassell hopes she and her bird Lucifer can be rising stars in the sport

Charlotte Cassell is an 11-year-old pigeon racer in Toronto. (Samantha Lui/CBC)

Pigeons don't always have the best reputation in Toronto, but 11-year-old Charlotte Cassell hopes her sport can help inspire people to give them a second chance. 

Charlotte has been racing the birds for two years. It all started after a pigeon her father owned found its way to their home after disappearing in 2008. For weeks after, she would go out and take care of it. 

"It was so fascinating that this cute little bird had made it after 12 years," Charlotte said in an interview with CBC Metro Morning host Ismaila Alfa.

Charlotte Cassell is an 11-year-old pigeon racer in Toronto.

After that encounter, she started researching the birds and learned about the sport of pigeon racing. 

Now she has 20 pigeons that race each weekend against up to 1,000 other birds. This past weekend in Englehart, Ont., 553 kilometres north of Toronto, she achieved her best result ever, with one of her birds placing ninth. 

Charlotte shows CBC Metro Morning host Ismaila Alfa her pigeon coop. (Samantha Lui/CBC)

"When you see them turning from tiny ants onto the landing board, and especially when they drop in, it's the most thrilling part of it all," she said. 

On Friday nights during the season, pigeons are loaded into bird baskets at their respective clubs and driven to destinations where they will be released on Saturday morning. 

Pigeons are 'very understanding'

In Toronto, Charlotte will wait for her birds to fly home, something she says they're trained to do from a very young age. Younger birds start by travelling short distances and go farther as they get older. 

Most pigeons will compete for four years before they retire as it is much harder to train older birds. 

Lucifer, Charlotte's star racer. is pictured here. (Samantha Lui/CBC)

But not all pigeons are cut out for racing. Charlotte says birds with colourful plumage normally don't do well because their visibility makes them easy targets for predators like hawks. 

Despite this, a pigeon named Lucifer has become one of the stars of Charlotte's flock, winning races even though she's a "grizzle," meaning her feathers have a mixed black and white pattern that stands out.

"Lucifer is a very tough pigeon," Charlotte told Metro Morning

"She has a lot of life inside of her ... She will push through a lot of stuff." 

While many people in Toronto often refer to street pigeons as "rats with wings," Charlotte says she hopes to teach people to look at them differently. 

"There's a lot more to them than the book cover. They're very understanding, especially when you're feeling down," she said. 

"Especially when my pigeons get sick, it looks like they are crying. So when you help them up, and you give them what they want, they start dancing around and they're so happy about it."