Pigeon racing is a sport in which pigeons are removed by an agreed distance from their home coop and then released at a predetermined time. The arrival of each bird at its home coop is carefully recorded. The times for each of the birds in the race are then compared to determine the order in which they reached their homes, and a winner is declared on that basis.
Homing pigeons are used in these races because they are the ones that have been developed by selective breeding to be able to navigate back to their homes from places that they have never visited before. (Homing pigeons should be clearly distinguished from the ornamental breed called carrier pigeons. Carrier pigeons, as they exist today, are poor fliers.)
As with many other sports, the gaming behavior involved is not only exciting for participants and spectators, but it also serves a very real purpose. Homing pigeons were originally bred to carry messages at high speeds over long distances. Since the birds can only carry the weight of a few sheets of cigarette paper, and since preparation for sending messages involves transporting the messenger pigeons overland from their home loft to wherever the messages will originate from, the messages generally had to be short and important. Emergency messages pertaining to catastrophes and to warfare were therefore the primary use to which pigeon flight was devoted.
In order to breed messenger pigeons that were both fast and dependable, it was necessary to carry them long distances from home, release them at a recorded time, and calculate the speed with which they returned. Some pigeons would fail to return, and they would automatically be eliminated from the breeding program.
The procedures necessary for improving the breed of homing pigeons are almost identical to the procedures needed for a race. All that need be added is a collection of competitors and a prize. The homing pigeon gets improved at the same time the pigeon racers and observers are entertained. Some care is needed to assure that birds are released at the same time, and that arrival times are properly verified.
Pigeons are banded both for ease in recording and maintaining geneologies and also so that homing pigeons that become lost during a race and get found by helpful people can be returned to its owner.