Tending to his flock of 80 homing pigeons keeps Peterson’s days full
When Rick Peterson, who trained horses for 40 years, had a stroke five years ago, he knew he would have to find another avocation.
He also knew he needed to stay active, so he learned how to race pigeons.
Peterson, who lives on Jay Road near Highway 57, keeps about 80 homing pigeons in a loft behind his house.
“This keeps me active and keeps me going because I know I need to,” Peterson said. “I spend well over 40 hours a week out there making sure everything is just right.”
Peterson bought his first set of homing pigeons, which are much different than a common feral pigeon, in 2008 and started racing them.
He takes part in about 30 competitions a year, with half of his birds in the younger division (six months to 1 year old), and the rest in the older division. Once a bird is about 6 or 7 years old, he or she is retired, Peterson said.
About half of Peterson’s pigeons are used for breeding. The others are racing birds. For races, they are taken by Peterson to Fond du Lac, where he is a member of the Fond du Lac Pigeon Club, then driven hundreds of miles and released.
Much like Monarch butterflies and migratory birds, the pigeons somewhat miraculously almost always find their way home.
“I start training them when they’re only a few months old by taking them out 10 or 20 miles and just releasing them,” Peterson said. “They know where to come back to because there will be a meal and fresh water waiting for them.
“Part of it is instinct, but if you don’t keep their home in an immaculate state, why would they want to come back? That’s when you lose birds.”
That’s not something owners can take lightly. Some birds cost upwards of $1,500 to $2,000, Peterson said.
The birds are given food and water twice a day, and the loft is cleaned from top to bottom twice a month.
When racing, each bird is tagged with a metal band that has an identification number. Once the pigeon arrives at its loft, a computer registers its speed in yards per minute. The handheld computer then must be taken to Fond du Lac, where officials register the times for each bird.
Most lofts are within 50 miles of each other. Peterson says he competes with people who live between Two Rivers and Milwaukee in most races.
He also handles some birds for out-of-state owners, who share the prize money if their birds place high enough.
Peterson’s birds travel 100 to 600 miles during races. He said a short race of 125 miles will take a bird 2-1/2 to three hours to complete, depending on the weather. On longer races, birds will take breaks for water and rest.
“They know I’ll be sitting there waiting for them to get back,” Peterson said. “If you don’t take care of them, you’ll lose a lot of money because it’s not cheap.”
Birds can spread disease easily, and Peterson must be cognizant of any sign that his birds are sick.
“They’re like my kids and I can tell just by looking at them if something is wrong,” he said. “If they need water, their eyes will close real slowly. If they have a canker sore in their mouth, they’ll open and close it a lot.
“And if they’re sick, they don’t fly.”
Competitions are held from May through September or October. The birds are “on a break now,” Peterson said, adding he will start the breeding process in February. It takes 21 days for a bird to hatch.
It’s a system that has produced myriad of top finishers for Peterson, who is one of the best racers in the club.
There’s a problem, though.
Peterson’s house is for sale. If he must move, his racing pigeons may have to be given away.
“They won’t know to come loft at the new place because they’re used to the old place,” he said. “Thankfully, I’ll be able to keep the breeding pigeons, but it will be a little like starting over.”
He said he plans to continue racing pigeons as long as he can because he’s fallen in love with the competition.
“I tried this for awhile as a kid, but I didn’t do well at all,” Peterson said. “I learned my lessons then, and I’m better off for it.”
Image Information: RICK PETERSON HAS about 80 pigeons in a loft behind his home on Jay Road that he races around the Midwest during the spring and summer. The birds are taken by semi tractor-trailer to locations as far as 600 miles away from their home and manage to find their way back in a day or two. Birds begin training when they are just a few months old and start racing at six months. Photo by Sam Arendt