FOR a pigeon breeder, it’s the ultimate feather in the cap: to win the Australian National Pigeon Show.
Phil Young, from New Norfolk in Tasmania, has been breeding pigeons for nearly 40 years, yet so far the victory has remained elusive.
“I’ve got a four-door dressing table in the garage that is full of trophies and ribbons from agricultural shows around Tasmania and Australia,” says the 68-year-old, who is the president of the Royal Hobart Show pigeon and poultry committee.
“The Melbourne Cup is the pinnacle of racing and for our sport, the Australian National Pigeon Show is the big one.
“But no, I’ve never won it.”
Heaven knows he has tried hard enough.
Starting with a breeding pair 38 years ago, Phil now has 250 pigeons in six breeds, kept on his residential block in lofts in four aviaries, measuring 25m long and 6m wide.
“It’s like an alarm clock in the morning with the cooing,” Phil says.
“There can be a fair bit of noise, but we’ve got very good neighbours — they used to show parrots so they understand.”
Every morning and night Phil feeds his brood a special grain mix (costing $100 a week), as well as a protein mix for special birds, and estimates he spends at least two hours a day tending to their needs.
In the lead up to competition day, however, he and his wife, Sue, can spend much of the day preparing the birds.
“If we’re going to the Nationals we prepare for a month beforehand. My wife can be in the yard up to midnight shampooing the birds, especially the tail feathers, then drying them with a hairdryer.
“We put powder in their feathers to sweeten them up a bit and make them soft.
“We use clippers on their feet and a nail file on their beaks.
“Some of them enjoy it. The most flighty are the magpies, they don’t want to work with you. But the dragoons or the tumblers really concentrate and do everything to help. Of course the more you handle a bird, the more they work with you.”
The Youngs have 15 breeding pairs of magpie pigeons, 20 pairs of British show racers, 10 pairs of dragoons, six of English carriers, seven Australian performing tumblers and five British racers.
Phil, who is also a judge at agricultural shows and the president of Tasmania’s Meander Valley Pigeon Club, says there are characteristics in each breed that make a winning bird.
Similar to the cattle or sheep show ring at agricultural shows, pigeons lose points based on conformation — bones, feathers, beaks, eyes and body shape are all scrutinised to establish best in breed.
This year, the National Pigeon Show in Melbourne (next year it’s in Adelaide) saw 57 exhibitors show 379 pigeons.
“It’s a very friendly atmosphere in competition,” says Phil, who this year has attended 11 events.
“You want to win. Everyone wants to be the top exhibitor, but it never gets too competitive.”
He says time and expenses add up when travelling to events, with pigeons by law needing to be transported in special cargo containers, especially when flying.
“The Australian National Pigeon Association has worked with Qantas to make it easier for breeders to move their birds,” Phil says, adding that he has a special covered trailer and van when driving.
He says the beauty of attending events is also buying cocks or hens from competitors to try to improve his breeding genetics. Phil breeds year-round, with eggs taking 21 days to hatch a squeaker (a baby pigeon).
Each year Phil sells up to 80 of his own birds, ranging from $10 to $100.
“The most I’ve ever seen a pigeon sell for was $1000. It was a top bird and the breeder just wanted it.”
Even though he breeds racing pigeons and is a member of a homing society, Phil has never become involved in the sport, mainly because he lives further than the 10km radius from the Hobart club – a required distance so pigeons can fly home.
Phil grew up in Tasmania and worked in the railways out of Launceston and Hobart before spending the next 40 years as a harness racing trainer.
He’s still the president of the Tasmanian Pacing Club and helps his stepsons train their trotters.
“I got into pigeons because it took some of the stress away from harness training,” Phil says.
“A friend of mine gave me a pair of breeding pigeons and I was hooked. The bug started from there.
“The sport is very social.
“Everyone makes you feel warm and welcome.
“If you get down, you go out to the pigeons. I appreciate them and it’s also a buzz to win.”
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