Local man raises, races pigeons
For pigeon racing enthusiasts like Marysville's Roald Haugen, nothing's better than watching one of your birds fly home and win a race at the same time
Mark Mulligan/The Herald
Roald Haugen holds one of the homing pigeons he uses to breed racing pigeons at his home in Marysville recently. Haugen has been racing pigeons since 1953 when he started as a young boy.
Mark Mulligan/The Herald
Four of Roald Haugen's racing pigeons fly above his Marysville home.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald Roald Haugen watches a group of six male homing pigeons fly out of their coop (?can I call this a coop?) where they live at Haugen's home in Marysville Wednesday afternoon. Haugen has been racing pigeons since 1953 when he started as a young boy. Photo taken 042909
Mark Mulligan / The Herald Roald Haugen holds a three-day-old homing pigeon at his Marysville Wednesday afternoon. Haugen has been racing pigeons since 1953 when he started as a young boy. Photo taken 042909
Today, more than a half-century later, Haugen lives in Marysville and is long retired from his career as an installer of commercial fire-protection systems. But over the years he never outgrew his love for racing pigeons.
"I've just always been fascinated by it," said the 69-year-old Haugen. "These are amazing animals. They'll come home from anywhere. They'll fly through anything. And they'll die trying to get home."
Years ago, when his kids were in high school, Haugen began feeling guilty about the time he was spending with his birds. He ended up selling his flock.
"And I was miserable," he admitted. "My wife finally said, 'Shoot, get the birds back. I liked you better then.'"
And these days he's as passionate as ever. "I haven't been able to shake it," he said with a smile. "I just enjoy seeing (the pigeons) come home."
Pigeon racing might not be as popular as football or basketball, but there are enthusiasts all around the United States and elsewhere in the world, particularly Europe, South Africa and Australia. There are several clubs in and around Snohomish County, where members share their love for raising and racing homing pigeons.
"If you like sports, this has all the thrills," said Herb Cartmell, who is president of Woodinville's Sno-King Racing Pigeon Club and is also a board member of the American Racing Pigeon Union. "It's the best game in town, it really is."
Like thoroughbred race horses, pigeons -- the specific breed is Racing Homer -- can be bred and trained, and top animals are sold for their breeding potential, sometimes for many thousands of dollars.
Haugen, who has about 40 birds, is more of a hobbyist than an entrepreneur. He occasionally buys pigeons, but more often he raises his own. Trying to find the right breeding mix is part of the sport's appeal, he said.
"I know each one of them, and each year I'll switch the breeding around," he said. "You're trying to improve the blood all the time. If you get one excellent flyer out of six babies a year, that's good. And if you get a (good male and female) pair, you want to keep that pair together."
The most gratifying thing "is seeing your breeding come to fruition," he added.
In a typical year, Haugen estimates he spends only a few hundred dollars on his hobby, and much of that is the fuel cost for the truck to transport the pigeons to races.
"We call it the poor man's horse racing," he said with a chuckle.
Haugen is a member of the Everett Racing Pigeon Club, which has around a dozen members from Snohomish and Island counties. One of the club members is the elder statesmen of pigeon racing in western Washington, 89-year-old Elwin Anderson of Everett, who has been competing and winning longer than many of his rivals have been alive.
"He is still tearing up these guys out here with his pigeons," Cartmell said.
Races are held through the spring and summer, with an old bird season for pigeons upwards of one year, followed by a young bird season for the youngsters. The day before a race, a truck travels from home to home to pick up caged pigeons and take them to the starting point, which is usually somewhere in southwest Washington or Oregon.
The next day there is a countdown to zero, at which point the cages fly open simultaneously and the birds depart en masse. They start out in a large flock, but eventually start to separate, each one flying to its home destination.
Hours later, they begin arriving. Each bird has a distinguishing leg band and they are timed to the second with special equipment. Because of the varying distances to different homes -- and those distances are measured by GPS to one-thousandth of a mile -- winners are determined not by elapsed time, but by speed.
And not every pigeon arrives on schedule. On occasion, birds get injured and even lost.
"Some days the bell just doesn't ring for them," Haugen said. "They just don't figure it out, for whatever reason. But they'll come home days, weeks and even months later."
A pigeon racer, Cartmell said, "gets to be the team's general manager, doctor, trainer and coach. You have to train these birds, like you would any athlete. And you have to keep them healthy, so you have to make sure they get enough diet, rest and exercise. So you put a lot of work into these birds.
"And you expect them all to come home, but sometimes things happen," he said. "There are obstacles and there are risks, but it's a great thrill to watch a bird come home from 200 miles away."
Want to race?
For information about pigeon racing contact Herb Cartmell, president of Woodinville’s Sno-King Racing Pigeon Club and a board member of the American Racing Pigeon Union, at 425-486-4725. Cartmell can also be contacted for information about the SkyPilot program, which is affiliated with the 4-H of Snohomish County. Youngsters 8-18 receive kits of around 10 pigeons, and are instructed in the care, training and showing of their birds.
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