An afternoon with Jim
by P.J. Matthews
Jim Smith races with the Gympie Racing Pigeon Club and is also the Owner/Manager of the Queensland 10000.
I started racing in 1962 in Terrey Hills, Sydney and at the time, I was a student at SPX College at Chatswood which had a City Council yard behind the school. A mate of mine used to accompany me on road picker captures in the Council Yards after school. That is how we got started into pigeons, and we used to take them on the train on tosses up to Hornsby. From there both Keith and Arthur Jones, from Sutherland Shire, moved in up the hill from where I lived. Another acquaintance I met was an English chap who used to catch the same bus to his work as we took to get to school. He had a young workmate whose father had pigeons. The father passed away suddenly and the next thing I knew I had a large box full of racing pigeons, and that is how I got started in the sport.
We progressed from backyard kids’ stuff to finally joining Manly-Warringah Racing Pigeon Club. There were three or four of us, Stevie Symons, Stevie Mawson and Laurie Atkins and myself were the four young guys in the club at that stage. Peter Paes was only a youngster at the time and John Hanson wasn’t much older, so it was a very young the club with some very old flyers as well, such as Sam Cussworth and Joe Simoggi. Joe was an Olympic rower who came to Sydney competing for Czechoslovakia, and I assume he stayed here. We were a pretty good club comprising of about 20 members and I flew there until about 1967, when I decided that adventure called, and I hit the road. It wasn’t until 1982 when I sailed my yacht up to North Queensland where I went to work on Hamilton Island, but I decided that wasn’t for me, so I sailed on to Townsville and decided to buy a house in Railway Estate. I noticed that there were pigeons at the end of the street and also down at the Port Road. They turned out to belong to old Steve Radley, Steve put me in the right direction, and that’s how things got me started here in Queensland.
After about a year’s break old George Williams turned up one afternoon with a basket full of pigeons and said: – “Here you go son, see what you can do with these!” So, away I went from there. I stayed in Townsville for 13 years, and raced up there and eventually became the President of the Townsville club. I packed up in 1994 and came down to Gympie, and I have been here ever since.
I race with the local club here, and in the meantime I have supported the various one loft races. In 2007, Bruce Kehlet was carting our birds on the Sunshine Coast, which is how I first met Bruce. Anyway, I had been going into the Mallee classic for a few years and ended up winning the Gold Cup down there. I went down to pick up my birds after the race, and Barry Trewin asked me whether I would be interested in running a One Loft race as he was going to Papua New Guinea. I thought, “Why not?” It was something I could do in semi-retirement as I wasn’t doing as much work as I used to in the business. After Bruce and yourself (Peter Matthews) turned up and gave me a lot of encouragement, I made my mind up and started building the loft and things went on from there. Bruce would come up on the weekends to see how I was going and he made suggestions as to how I should approach things to make the One Loft race work smoothly. Subsequently, we got the Queensland 10,000 up and running in 2008 and the rest is history really it started from humble beginnings and has gone from strength to strength. I can say that since hosting the Queensland 10,000, I have learnt a lot about people and also pigeons and there is not a lot about either that can really shock me anymore. (Both of us break down laughing at this last comment.)
Let me talk about the Gympie Racing Pigeon Club. It was started by Alan Trim’s father in 1962, along with Jack Telford, who is a long time gone now. We have a good, friendly little club and we don’t fly for sheep stations. We have a lot of fun and it is a great club just to relax and get on with pigeon racing without all the politics and all the rest of it that you hear of in big-city clubs. We just keep it simple. We fly out to 600 miles every year, and last year we went out to the western route which was a bit of a disaster. By the second last race most of us were out of the competition, but Des Lovell decided to fly the last races with the Bundaberg club and to his credit, got birds from both race points.
Anyway, the competition is very keen in the Gympie club (even though there are only seven members) and everyone seems to have a shot at the prize list and the competition is extremely fierce. One only has to slip up, and that is the end of you and you find yourself back at the bottom of the list. We fly around 40 birds per member each week and the club allows toss birds to go as well if you so wish. It is quite an enjoyable experience flying in the club because we are all good mates, and we all get along very well.
Most of the time we prefer to fly north, for the convenience really and I used to like doing the carting of the birds. I like driving and I like getting back up into the country that I know as I have friends in Bowen, Mackay and Townsville and enjoy dropping in to see these friends when I am up that way. It is good to get out of the backyard which I usually need to do after the completion of the Queensland 10,000 One loft series. Running one of these events is quite intense and I am under a lot of mental strain from continually watching the birds, the weather, and the health, along with the daily management. Then there is the anguish of the raptor attacks which also takes its toll on me.
Stock birds: –
I am really not ruthless with stock birds and I keep them safe to the end of their lives, one bird I had was 25 years old when he died. It was as old as my daughter and I actually won the race from Gympie back to Townsville with it in 1990. He remained in comfort here until last year when he passed away. Even though I hadn’t bred out of him for some years because of his age.
When I started the Queensland 10,000 I noticed that my stock loft didn’t get the attention that it had done in previous years due to the commitment time required to run the Queensland 1000. Subsequently, I paid the price because a lot of my old bloodlines stopped producing and I hadn’t made provision for replacing them. So, I lost a lot of my bloodlines, but fortunately, I gave Des Lovell birds approximately 10 years ago when he returned to the sport. I bred him a team of youngsters to start racing again, and now he’s beating me with my own pigeon’s. These are the Gits Barkers, Harrisons and the old Townsville blood. Des continually comes over here and tells me how good they are going for him, just to rub it in I guess. He tells me frequently about the influence of the old red cock that I gifted him many years ago.
Other than that I have some 05 Janssen’s which I obtained 10 years ago from Larry Pearson of Rockhampton. I find them extremely good off the west as they are well suited to the conditions here and they fly very well from the hard races of around 450 miles. The rest are predominantly Van Loons and the Red Fox Janssen’s which I obtained from Bernadette Heffernan of Brisbane. These originated from her father who was getting on in age. They flew their birds here in the One Loft Race where I got to know them and subsequently, they offered me the choice of pigeons they had at their lofts when they were selling up their home at Highgate Hill. I purchased the Red Fox blood and have not been disappointed and have been very impressed with them as they fly well to the conditions here. The Van Loons are unstoppable under the right conditions and the right distance and all these families seem to get me through year after year.
Feeding and Training: –
I just use a standard race mix from Valentine Plains Produce from Biloela. It is called a light race mix. To this, I add corn, safflower and linseed. Early in the week, I up the protein, and at the end of the week, I reverse it to boost up the carbohydrates. I break the mixture down with barley early in the week and take it out from Wednesday on. The birds that stay home get put straight onto the 1/3 barley feed because they are not doing much work whilst the others are away racing. As I said, I put the peas into them in the early part of the week to repair damaged muscle and then tend to carbohydrate load them from Wednesday right through to basketing. On Monday and Tuesday, they would have equal parts corn and safflower with the peas. I have no problem feeding a lot of corn as it gets very cold up here and doesn’t seem to bother them as my results show. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about using too much corn in the latter part of the season when it is extremely hot, but I have used corn with great success over the years and I won’t be changing now is my results show that it works. I am totally convinced it is the ultimate energy feed and seems to work okay for me so I won’t be changing.
Approximately six weeks before we start racing I commence tossing the birds, starting at about three or 4 km across the paddock. Then I take them out gradually to 120 km, once I start racing the tossing eases off as I concentrate on the One Loft birds. Basically, it is just too much work for me to basket up two teams of birds, especially with the large numbers of the One Loft Race team. So, the race birds just work around the box and go to the race point once every three weeks, and that sees them out until things ease up for me a little bit. After the One Loft race, I can then get a little bit more tossing into them for the end of the season’s longer races. At times, I toss them on the second week of the third-week rotation, but apart from that, they just do their training every afternoon around the loft. I let them out with the One Loft birds to exercise and anything that goes down to the wrong loft gets the thong and they soon learn to home to the correct loft.
I don’t muck around with home remedies and all my medications are vet supplied. I find that home treatments are okay, but not if you are going to be competitive. I cannot afford to make any mistakes with the One Loft Race birds as I don’t like to lose any pigeons through any negligence of mine. I take their health extremely seriously. I am always on my toes watching, as a matter of fact there are a few birds there now which I have separated which are a bit light on it, and that worries me, but they’re coming good and they will go back into the One Loft Race when they are back in top health.
Initially, they are coming from all over Australia, but I have found that they can hide ailments, especially when they put into a strange loft and have to compete for food and a perch, which can stress them and you can see some take a backward step. Anything that doesn’t come down for a feed I immediately take a special interest in.
Birds of Prey: –
I don’t think any pigeons get used to falcons and there are plenty out here and are very prevalent here at the moment. Even though I haven’t lost any birds yet as I have two-year-olds in with the youngsters to teach them. I find the falcons a real problem, but when the birds get really fit they can easily fly away from them to avoid the predators. The worst ones are the goshawks who play on the bird’s minds, especially if they hang off the loft front. You do not know when they are going to strike or what they are going to do, especially in the evening when we are trying to bring the birds in.
But I think there is not much difference in the performances between two-year-olds and young birds. I don’t have a problem with either. I have had some hens in the loft that race very well right out to the 600 miles two years in a row. Conversely, I’ve had yearlings that do the same thing, it just depends on the bird on the day really, whether the conditions are right for it or not. I found the two-year-olds are obviously fully developed and do not take as much work to get fit. They survive on their instincts which they have honed in their first race season, whereas the youngsters have to put more energy and effort into it to survive. I don’t rely on two-year-olds in the early races and just send them as part of the team and mix them with the youngsters.
In the past, I used to put 20 cocks aside and race them every week. One year I won the Bribie Island (50 miles) race from the south and then we switched to the north. One particular cock won this first race and also the last race from Townsville (600 miles) from the north as well. That was an extremely good year when I gave my race team my entire attention, but as you know the last few years with the One Loft Race, I haven’t really put a lot of effort into club racing. I have been doing what I have been doing for the last 20 years which it always got me through to the end. My theory is to race the birds every three weeks to keep them stress-free and rested. As history shows, that a fresh bird is always better than a tired bird. Depending on what direction you go, generally speaking, there are really no easy races anymore, and most races the birds have the wind on the nose now and never have the luxury of a tail wind to help them along, and on top of that, there are always plenty of raptors.
I would have to say that 2015 on the west route was one of the hardest years we have ever had. I think that it may be because of the drought and there were no abundant water supplies out there. The word is out there that a lot of it would be contaminated from the gas fields. Another thing that has been brought to our attention is that birds are getting scorched by the invisible flame when they fly over the lighted gas pipes, which vent the wells. I know there have been birds picked up, either dead or injured from the power stations and gas wells, and returned with all their flight feathers completely scorched off, leaving only the shaft of the quill. With this in mind, I would be very interested to hear how the Queensland Racing Pigeon Federation go this year when they do fly the western direction. It has been a whole new scenario for us here at Gympie and we were wondering why our losses were so significant on the west in 2015. Normally the west is a more moderate direction for us to fly. I’m told that Toowoomba and Dalby also had a hell of a time last season and I would be extremely keen to see how the Brisbane birds go in that direction in 2016 with the new dangers now awaiting the pigeons.
The west direction that I’m talking about is the Windorah route, where they come across Roma, Charleville and Chinchilla. A friend of mine from Dalby actually got birds home with their feathers singed as well, presumably, they were close to the flame and were the ones that did not see it, and flew on the fringes of the flames and were not incinerated as others were and were never seen again. I have been told by Toowoomba flyers that there have been reports of whole flocks of galahs flying through the naked invisible flame, they were immediately incinerated and plummet, dead on the other side of the flame. If the greenies or animal activists ever got onto that information it would be published and would incense the general public as did the greyhound expose.
Separate the sexes: –
I don’t bother separating the sexes as I find they are much happier together and if by any chance the hens started laying eggs, they would be worked even harder to take their mind off mating. The only reason that they get clucky is that they have internal fat around their sex organs. That is my job to make sure they don’t have this fat and I never seem to have any problem during the racing season with this because I keep them busy. As for the cocks, after August, they seem to get a bit boisterous, but under my method, there are usually not that many left anyway. If they become a pain in the arse, I have an old saying “If they crow, they go!” I usually find the cocks that continually glide are useless and they find themselves going each week to prove me wrong. I find the only way I can keep them fit is by putting them on the road and if I don’t they are real trouble around the loft, so I sort them out very quickly.
All the survivors at the end of the year are rested and sent back the following year if they haven’t proven themselves previously. Up here in Gympie we find that there is safety in numbers and if they are any good they will still be there at the end of the season. I usually find birds that survive have previously flown the year before. These are the ones you will clock from a really tough 600-mile race point. I have even clocked the Red Fox Janssen’s from Townsville. One particular hen that I’m talking about was always there all year and I clocked her from the final race, even though the race closed on Friday, she was there at first light on a Saturday morning. I was fairly happy with that as a lot of so-called distance blood didn’t make it.
I haven’t really mucked around with Widowhood as we are not flying for sheep stations up here, I follow the KISS system (Keep it Simple, Stupid). I have been looking around at a lot of lofts in Queensland and can’t believe how most are so enclosed like closed in boxes. It is not as though we live in a very cold environment that would warrant this sort of husbandry. I go into these lofts and I can’t breathe, so what is it like for the birds hey? They would be permanently on respiratory treatments to race when it is simply a case of not enough fresh air. So, in answer to your question on the efficiency of my mesh floors is best answered by my race results, and my own lung health. Even with a frost, it’s never cold or continually damp enough here in Queensland, that the birds are ever affected by it. That’s why they have insulated feathers, for if you think about it the birds can regulate their body temperature much better than we can. The biggest problem with humans training animals is that we think only in the human perspective. We don’t know that nature has already made allowances for the birds, who in their natural state would be just as happy sitting under the eaves of a roof somewhere, and survive quite easily. Nature has provided them with all the survival tools and all we have to do is let them use them in a loft that protects them. We are the only ones that make their lives difficult by housing them in an environment that we believe would best suit us, but it does not necessarily suit them.
My ideal stock loft is one without any solid walls except maybe only where the prevailing winds may blow. I’d have a wind break there! Keep the fresh air flowing! A good loft would be four walls of wire built deep inside a large shed. The old timers had dirt-floored lofts and open lofts, and here we are today with enclosed lofts and we spend hundreds of dollars on medications. These old blokes never had a sick pigeon and their birds all looked a million bucks. Do you know the modern homes are that germ-free it has made us one of the sickest nations in the world? I can think back to the 40’s when we didn’t have a lot of modern conveniences. Do you remember the old ice chest, also our baker dropped the bread off from his horse and cart and we were a lot healthier in my opinion. Some may say the doctors didn’t know how to diagnose the diseases then, the major diseases were still around and still killing people as they are today. We are still doing battle with a whooping cough epidemic, and today nothing has changed. As kids, we played in the dirt, now the youngsters play on an IPad in sterile rooms with air cleaners killing bacteria on a 24/7 basis.
Anyway, that is my observations, some may take it or leave it. I have been continually racing over the last forty years and use those principles. My results at all distances simply speak for themselves, so I can’t be too far wrong!