Liz Beukema lets her team of racing pigeons out to range or fly around on her home near New Richmond, Wis. It is crucial the birds get wing time for their racing success.
Liz Beukema lets her team of racing pigeons out to range or fly around on her home near New Richmond, Wis. It is crucial the birds get wing time for their racing success. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
    NEW RICHMOND, Wis. – Liz Beukema enjoys cows, but she really likes pretty birds that fly fast. Liz enjoys the sport of racing pigeons, a hobby that grew from her son’s birthday request for a white owl.
    The request was answered by his grandpa who sent him a white pigeon instead.
    “Garrett was 9, and the idea was he could start a business of releasing white pigeons at weddings,” Liz said. “It didn’t quite work out like that.”
    Liz is originally from Rhode Island where she grew up showing Ayrshires. Today, Liz and her husband, Paul, and children Garrett, Haley and Lillian live on a farm near New Richmond, Wis. Liz runs a plant nursery, and they raise Guernsey and Ayrshire show heifers along with the racing pigeons. Their milking cows are housed at nearby farms.
    The Beukemas became connected with a successful pigeon breeder that had a loft of nearly 2,500 pigeons in northwestern Wisconsin.
    “It was amazing and crazy,” Liz said. “We didn’t know anything about pigeons.”
    The Beukemas acquired a few pigeons and joined a racing club. For the next two years, Liz’s involvement was limited to transportation. As the pair began learning more about Garrett’s hobby, the bug of competitiveness soon bit Liz as well, and she entered into an agreement with her son to begin her own racing team.
    “In every nest, the pigeons lay two eggs,” Liz said. “We decided that Garrett would get first pick of the nest, and I would take the second bird. I was driving anyway; I figured I should have some skin in the game.”
    Today, Liz and Garrett have about 200 birds in their loft between their racing teams and their breeding stock.
    “It’s just like with any other animal,” Liz said. “We take the best and breed it with the best to try and get better. We breed performance to performance; there is really no better indicator.”
    Developing a team of racing pigeons takes time and dedication much like any enterprise involving the exhibition of animals.
     “They eat better than we do and have a specialized diet,” Liz said. “When they come home from a race, they get a really high-protein, recovery meal. The next day they get a depurative that is a mixture of garlic, honey, barley and safflower, and it helps clean their blood after the race. Then they have three days of high protein to help rebuild muscles and keep the feathers healthy. They get baths with different bath salts, and they love anise oil.”
    Pigeon racing involves two racing seasons each year: old bird season, which are yearlings and older; and young bird season for all birds born during that year. The Beukemas participate in 14 old birds’ races each year and fly their birds up to 600 miles per race. They put their young birds in about eight races, racing up to 350 miles.
    Birds born after Jan. 1 are eligible to compete in the young bird races. The week after Christmas, the racing club sends electronic identification bands for the upcoming year. The bands must be placed on the birds at about 7 days of age. At the same time, a microchip is applied to the opposite leg. The microchip works with an electronic clock on the window of their loft with a GPS point that is registered with the club to determine finish times for the races.
    “We take the birds to a meeting spot where they will get checked in for the race and put into crates and put on the transporter,” Liz said. “Everyone’s birds for the race are on that transporter, so there will be 1,500 to 2,500 birds on that trailer when it leaves the Twin Cities. Typically, the transporter goes south along I-35, and they race north. With the weather patterns here, that’s the safest for the birds to fly. When they reach the designated distance, the doors to the entire trailer come out at exactly the same second to release all of the birds at the same time, so every bird has the opportunity to be the first one out and has the opportunity to be smart enough not to stick around with its buddies.”
    At the finish of the race, once the birds cross the GPS reader in their home loft, their return time is locked into the clock. The point of release and the location of the GPS point of the loft are used to calculate the speed the bird flew at in yards per minute.
    “On a 100-mile race, I fly 116 miles, but there are people that fly 140 miles,” Liz said. “So if my bird clocks in at 9 [hours], and they have a bird clock in at 9:45, they can still beat me based on speed calculated.”
    Training the pigeons involves loft flying. The birds are allowed to fly as they choose, and then they are called back to the loft where their feed is waiting.
    “When they come home from a race, they don’t go straight to the window to the GPS reader,” Liz said. “They’ll sit on the roof and start preening their feathers. We need them to come when they are called so we can get them across the GPS scanner. We’ve lost anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes because the birds don’t come down off the roof. Every single second counts. We were just in a race recently that was won by 9 seconds. First prize was $5,000 and second prize was $2,000. That 9 seconds cost someone $3,000. We took fifth place. It was the best we’d ever done.”
    The Beukemas use the meats of sunflower seeds to reward their birds.
    “They are brilliant animals,” Liz said. “They are ranked the fifth smartest animal there is. The Coast Guard used them for search and rescue, and there are birds that have won medals of valor. They are so intelligent, and that is what allows them to learn to break away from the crowd.”
    When the birds are racing, Liz calculates when the birds should start arriving home. They wait for the birds to arrive so they can begin calling them in. The driver of the transport sends a group text message with the time of release, and wind and weather conditions at the point of release.
    Other people’s birds have come home with the Beukemas’ pigeons. Because of the electronic identification, Liz can help those birds return to their proper home. Sometimes, the Beukemas will also have birds that do not come home from a race.
    “I always say they fall in love on a silo and never came home,” Liz said. “But there are predators, like hawks, out there and things can happen.”
    Training starts once the birds are weaned at about 30 days old. Liz said the first place they see the sun is the place they will forever associate with home. The birds are trained daily. Some days they are allowed to fly on their own from the loft. Other days, the Beukemas load them up similar to a race and drive them a certain distance to release them, requiring the birds to fly home.  
    “Racing is really the ultimate in faith,” Liz said. “You put a bird in a cage, send it a couple of hundred miles and sitting there praying it comes home again. All the work you’ve done, up until the point of the race is what matters. You can have great genetics and great birds with a mediocre handler; or, you can have mediocre birds with a fantastic handler and get the bird to perform. It’s a test of environment versus genetics.”