Xu Jun wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. and drives hundreds of miles away from his Bayside apartment with at least 70 pigeons, then lets them find their way home. He’s training his birds, known as homing pigeons, for a competition in September.
“When I was young I liked to have pigeons,” Jun said in Mandarin, speaking through translator Lisa Zhang. “It’s always been an interest of mine.”
Jun participates in various races across the northeast and he began the hobby three years ago. The World Center Memorial Race, the one Jun is currently preparing for, is hosted by the Bronx Homing Pigeon Club and takes place in late September. Each of Jun’s 101 pigeons has an individual number tag so that the race organizers can make sure nobody cheats. The organizers of the race will take Jun’s birds, along with hundreds of other contestants’ birds, to an undisclosed area where they are released. Contestants are judged based on how fast their flock comes home, according to Jun.
Jun’s birds live in a wooden nest, known as a loft, in a College Point bus repair shop. The loft serves as their home and final destination in races. Jun works for the shop and during the lulls in his work schedule he cleans the loft and feeds the birds.
Homing pigeons have two racing seasons. The first is in late September when the birds are less than a year old. The second season is in the spring and the birds are typically older by this point in their racing careers.
With the first race season approaching, Jun has been training his pigeons by taking them further and further out in New Jersey every week and then releasing them in the wild, where they will usually take several hours to fly back home.
“I just like pigeons. It’s a very simple thing for me and I enjoy it,” Jun said. That day he was particularly pleased with his birds’ athletic performance; he released 73 and all of them returned, an outcome that doesn’t always happen.
“There’s kind of a neat tradition to pigeon homing,” said Deone Roberts, who works for the American Racing Pigeon Union, an organization that’s affiliated with hundreds of pigeon clubs across the country.
“The bird’s simply enjoying flying and going home,” she said. “[The pigeon] wants to go home and be with his mate and their offspring. It makes good fun.”
Using pigeons for racing has been around in America since the late 1800s, according to Roberts’ organization. The birds, a common sight in New York City, were also used during WWII to transmit messages across enemy lines.