Local man shares fascinating hobby
By Colin Anderson
Photos Courtesy of Rick Morris
While most of us might see pigeons as a troublesome bird hovering over our parks and homes, Rick Morris sees them as athletes, pets and part of the family. “They’re actually quite clean birds, and we’ve been living in close proximity with them for thousands of years,” he said.
Egyptians housed and cared for an almost immeasurable amount of pigeons during the dynasty, and nobility across Europe also used the birds as a status symbol and as message transporters. More than two dozen carrier pigeons have received wartime medals for their efforts during the First World War in transporting messages that helped save hundreds of lives. While our ability to communicate has changed vastly, champion bloodlines are still highly sought out—now for racing purposes.
A resident of Gig Harbor for nearly 15 years, Rick remembers growing up in Southern California and being introduced to the sport of pigeon racing around the age of 9. “The anticipation of waiting and then watching them fly home was a lot of adrenaline; I was hooked,” he said.
Rick has always been fascinated by birds, but as a tradesman typically working 60 hours per week, he didn’t have time to fully commit to training birds. Now retired, he has the hours, and caring and training his flock is now part of each day. Rick has approximately 20 to 40 birds at any given time. They are given very comfortable lofts in his backyard where chickens, dogs and cats also roam. “Nobody messes with anybody back here,” laughed Rick.
During the breeding season, the birds reproduce every 28 days. Rick handles the newborns from birth, so they grow very accustomed to him while also building great trust. What makes pigeons so unique in the vast world of ornithology is their extremely strong instinct to return home, even from unthinkable distances. By creating a safe loft where they are well taken care of, fed, and free of predators, Rick creates a home base where the birds will always return to.
Training begins around six to eight weeks old. Rick will take the new bird or birds about a mile from his home and release them. At first it takes a little time, but when the birds begin to beat Rick back home, it’s time to go further, this time about 5 to 10 miles out. When they’ve conquered that distance, Rick will next drive them upward of 100 miles from his home and release them. “Eventually they will beat me home from there, and that’s pretty amazing,” he said.
The pigeon’s instinct to return home is boosted by their uncanny abilities to navigate by using the earth’s magnetic field, sense different pressures and hear frequencies that humans do not. Much like a team of athletes or a family group, Rick says his flock is often jockeying for position, and each bird has a unique personality. “I had a 17-year-old bird named Mr. Wilson. He ran the place, would always be first in the cage. They will line up in order for the bath. It’s really fascinating,” he said.
Much like greyhound and thoroughbred horse racing, a big part of training is keeping the birds healthy. When they are at their peak, Rick is ready to race. While it might be a bit under the radar, these events draw many participants and big money. Rick has seen racing pigeons with desired bloodlines sell into six figures and prize pools swell to $60,000 or more.
In order to race, an aerial distance scan is done to ensure each participant’s birds are flying the same distance back to their respective homes. Each bird is fitted with a band, and each band is an entry fee. The birds are released simultaneously, often a thousand or more, and whichever birds make it home the quickest take home the biggest prizes. Races can be anywhere from 100 to 400 miles, and the birds are traveling at speeds of more than 65 miles per hour, with the fastest ever clocked at a whopping 92mph. “The adrenaline of waiting, then seeing them fly right into their loft, and when you remove a band, it’s just awesome,” said Rick.
Being a unique community, Rick says some of the nicest people he’s ever met have been pigeon people, while simultaneously stating that there are some extremely competitive bird owners as well. There are 700 clubs across the country including the Tacoma Pigeon Club, which has been in operation since 1934.
When not racing, Rick is discovering additional opportunities for his birds to make their mark. More people are taking notice of the beauty of a bird release for special occasions like opening days, business grand openings, birthdays or weddings. While it can be costly, Rick believes that this is a unique hobby that can be enjoyed by many if they are willing to put in the time.
“If you are into hounds or horses, it’s a sport like that, but all in the safety and comfort of your own backyard.”