First published in the very first issue of Racing Pigeon Pictorial, January 1970, Alf Baker wrote a series of articles about his methods and birds.
How time flies when you become a pigeon fancier. It only seems like yesterday when I built my first loft in 1926 at the age of 12. You long for the racing season to start with the old birds and when that’s over you look for the young-bird racing. In the winter months you can’t wait for the spring to come to pair up and so this goes on year after year. I have lived pigeons all my life and the time has gone all too quickly.
Incidentally my first loft was built with glass cases, imported from Belgium, at 1s. 6d. each from the glass shop at the top of my road. There at 14 I learned my trade as a leaded light maker and glazier. Inside the loft I put the Belgian strain which I have today – the Stassarts. At that time Mons Stassart was the best fancier in Belgium and to me his were the best type of pigeons, not too big, hens especially on the small size, a nice length with good head and eye. What I mean by a good head is an intelligent head. Last but by no means least good feather – the keel well covered and the touch like velvet. I have never seen a good family of pigeons that handle coarse with dry feather. I know you can help this with a little linseed oil but if it is not there to start with you are wasting your time.
The eye colour of the Stassart family was mostly violet or dark brown. The question of the eye was put to Mons Stassart. He openly replied he had not the time to study it but he said most of his best pigeons had the purple eye – what we now term the violet eye. My father and a friend, Ginger Taylor – also a good pigeon man – upon my advice wrote to Mons Stassart for six youngsters.
Number One: Red hen, sire 24.2327046 red chequer cock ‘Balladin’, sire ‘Ali’, dam ‘Andrenople’.
Number Two: Blue cock, sire 27.2309914 ‘Izard’, sire ‘Baladin’ x ‘Florence’.
Number Three: Blue cock 32.2400536 ‘Job’, sire ‘Icare’, dam ‘Gazelle’.
Number Four: Blue chequer hen, sire 31.2405030 ‘Ibrahim’, from ‘Debineur’ from ‘Banknote’ x ‘Bayadarr’ (brother and sister).
Number Five: Red hen, half-sister to ‘Icare’ from ‘Dent-de-Loup’.
Number Six: Blue chequer cock, sire ‘Flying Fox’ from ‘Baladin’ and ‘Babette’.
As you can see, most of them had the blood of Stassart’s best pigeon, ‘Baladin’. He won more francs than any pigeon up to Mons Stassart’s death. He was not a good handler and always had ruffled feather at the back of his neck. After he was retired from racing he was missing from the loft over Mons Stassart’s restaurant. For five days this caused great alarm and Stassart said he must have gone down the chimney-pots. So he had all the bricks taken away from the fireplaces and on the fifth one they had taken down there he was, none the worse for experience. This must have been a great relief and proves what a great fancier he must have been. He employed two men: one did all the training, the other looked after the loft, but Stassart selected his birds for the races. The six youngsters mentioned were never let out and bred winners at eight years old. This proves that it makes no difference when birds are penned up for breeding. I cannot understand why fanciers pay good money for birds only to lose them off the top or killed by wires. I like to see my money in the loft and when you have plenty from them after four or five years then chance them out.
Before I left school at 14 I used to do two jobs, one at a dairy scrubbing milk cans for which I got 1s 6d. Next door was a grocery shop where I used to take orders out on a bike, for this I got 1s, 14lb of pigeon food 1s 6d and 1s to my mother. I can hear her now trying to get me in out of the rain, she used to say: ‘You will get your death of cold standing out there looking at those pigeons.’ She would also say: ‘I can’t see what you see in looking all that time with your nose up against the wire,’ but ali the time I was learning and I am sure this is where I have got my pigeon knowledge, through watching and studying every individual pigeon plus I am sure I was gifted with stock sense. This you must have to be successful with any livestock. At school my main subject was nature study, I never got less than 47 out of 50 and was often called in front of the class to speak on the subject. I used to sit for hours and watch the kingfisher and other wild birds on the river-bank near my home and often got a clip on the ear for being away too long.
When I left school I joined the Sunday Morning Club, not affiliated to the NHU, with a half-mile radius. Nearly every house kept pigeons and we used to send three hundred birds right through to Perth. No clock, catch and run to where someone was waiting to verify the birds by the ring number which was entered in a book before the race. The birdage fee was 3d a bird; most of the short races were done by lorry, for races over 150 miles we used passenger train overnight. I always remember my first thrill, I had the only bird on the day from Perth – a red hen. In 1929, the next year, she was the only bird on the day from the same race point, 9.15 at night, pouring down with rain. She was so wet she looked like a dark chequer. The parents were bought at a Sunday morning auction sale in one of the member’s back gardens for 2s 6d the pair. I don’t think he ever got in the prize money, under the circumstances he kept his pigeons they were lucky to get home but I knew there was something I liked about them and I thought if I looked after them I could do better. This proved my theory right, I could have sold them back to him for much more than I paid but I am sure he still would not have done any good.
I have often been asked what percentage I place on the pigeon or the fancier, I place more on the fancier – something like 60%; the rest the pigeon, plus a little bit of luck. After all, it’s the fancier that makes the pigeon not the pigeon its fancier. The luck you need to miss the obstacles they have to contend with: guns, wires, etc, more now with the amount of television aerials there are and these I am sure take a big toll of our birds when racing and the young birds running out.
It’s true you hear of a fancier coming into the sport and buying a few young birds from a successful loft and winning straight away. I knew of such a fancier in London who bought six young birds from a good loft and for three years swept the board with them. When he eventually lost them he was not heard of again. He had not got the knack for pairing them up and had little or no stock sense. He asked me down to see what was wrong and the first thing I noticed he was feeding tic beans whilst rearing young birds. This I told him I thought was wrong as I never use tic beans especially for rearing. Also they were almost white, meaning they were only just threshed. I don’t suppose I have used ten hundredweight of tic beans all the years I have kept pigeons but I will leave that for the time being and deal with it when on the feeding processes.
My whole life is based on pigeons. I met my wife when I was 14 years old – I was taking some pigeons in a basket to the railway station for a training toss and two girls wanted to see them in the basket, one was most interested and wanted to see my loft. When I had put the birds on the rail they both came home to see the pigeons; my mother made some tea and after about two hours they left. The next evening my sister told me there was a girl at the door wanting to see me, and when I went to the door it was one of my visitors from the day before. I took her into the garden and asked my mother to make some tea and my mother jokingly said: ‘Are you sure she wants to see the pigeons and not you?’.
We soon became very friendly even as such I gave her a pair of pigeons which she kept in a big bird aviary. She used to let the cock out with a note in its ring then he would come to me and I would read the note and replace it with another one. After the cock found his hen was not there I would let him out and he would go back to her. Then one night she came home from work and her brother had got them boiling in a pot! This caused a right rumpus – what I was going to do to him was nobody’s business. But it all blew over; I never gave her any more, but we were still good friends and the friendship grew and we were married in 1933 and I still say that was my lucky day when I took my pigeons for a toss. She knew pigeons were my life and she has done everything to help me and I am sure she is part of the reason for my success.
We rented an upstairs flat, three rooms and an attic and it meant going downstairs through a kitchen to the garden so pigeons were out of the question. So the birds were kept at my parents. My dad was a heavy drinker and was more times drunk than sober, my mother told me she was always chasing cats off the loft and begged me to take them before the cats had them. So home I went and built a large aviary inside the attic where I lived and took four pairs, six blues, one blue chequer and a red hen – a daughter of ‘Baladin’. I kept them in the aviary for nearly a year.
I remember coming back from viewing the house where I now live and when my wife asked me where the bathroom was I honestly could not tell her. I was not interested about the rooms, all I wanted to see was the garden and that was just what I wanted for my pigeons. So we took the house and the first thing I did was build a loft. This I think is equal to purchasing good pigeons but I will deal with this separately later on.
In 1935 I bred two pairs of youngsters from each pair – from these I kept eight, the others I did not like so were disposed of. The next year I joined the Wood Green Homing Society as a novice. I had won plenty of Sunday morning races, as I told them, but they still insisted I was a novice as I had not won a race under NHU rules. If they were satisfied so was I, and I bred 16 youngsters that year as I told them I would be flying young birds. I used to long for the meeting nights to hear the old fanciers talking pigeons and I must say I was a good listener as in those days some of the best pigeon men in London were members of the Wood Green Homing Society. The ‘daddy’ of them all was the President, Harry Drayton, known in the bird world as ‘Spratty’ Drayton. You could take him a chaffinch in a cage and when it sung he could tell you where you had caught it. He had Redpolls that he let out for a fly and returned to their aviary.
We soon became good friends as we were both great bird lovers. He was getting on for sixty then but I learned a lot from him and he was a hard man to beat with pigeons. He is the only man I know who had one of his pigeons stuffed in a glass case on the sideboard. He always said she was one of the best pigeons he had known. She won from Banff three years running, being the only bird on the day, and one of two the next year. When he spoke about her his eyes used to water. That’s the type of pigeon man he was and why he was hard to beat. When he died it was a sad loss to the sport, especially to the Wood Green Club as he was a great president and leader. I was a greatly honoured man when I was asked to take his place.
Getting back to the 16 youngsters these were hopper fed on Tasmanian peas plus a little maize and a titbit of rice, lentils and hemp whenever I went into the loft. I always made sure that the hoppers were filled up at night so they could have all they wanted before I let them out. They used to be gone before I could get outside the loft and go running for three or four hours. When they dropped they would all be inside the loft within a minute where I would give them a small feed of the titbit. A fortnight before racing I took them every morning where I was working, about ten miles. At the weekend I put them on the rail to 30 miles. On the job where I was working there were five pigeon men including ‘Spratty’ Drayton. After six times arriving there with my pigeons four of them said I would sicken them of the basket, but not old ‘Spratty’ who said you cannot give youngsters too much training before racing and this I agree with, not at ten miles. I’ll tell you about the result of this race next time.
TO BE CONTINUED