The feral pigeon (or rock dove) is one of the most annoying features of cities around the world including Sydney.

Pigeons were introduced to Australia in the late 19th century. The first to arrive were probably domesticated homing or racing pigeons, also known as carrier or courier pigeons.

Champion racing pigeon, 1930s (Sam Hood, DG ON4/3455, State Library of NSW)

Pigeons have an innate (but mysterious) ability to navigate their way home over vast distances – sometimes of up to 1000 kilometres! This ability is known as the ‘homing’ instinct. Pigeons also have a very strong roosting habit and are very hard to move once they find a place to nest. While this is useful for training homing pigeons, it is not so great for maintaining public buildings in the city – pigeons have a habit of defacing anything they land upon with their droppings as they nest.

A number of homing pigeon societies were formed in Sydney in the late 19th century. These included the Sydney Homing Pigeon Society in 1880 and the Petersham and Leichhardt Fancy and Homing Pigeon Society by 1890. The first society was the Columbarian Club started in the early 1870s. Founding members included John Wright, Samuel Hordern and William Allerton. This later became the NSW Poultry, Pigeon and Canary Society, but the owners of racing pigeons decided to go it alone, and the rival Sydney Homing Pigeon Society was born.

Short and long distance flying matches were held monthly. When racing matches started, pigeons were sent to destinations in separate baskets and released at intervals of ten minutes apart. The rules were changed because some birds had unfair advantages with the weather, and instead the birds were ‘liberated’ at the same time so that they could compete under equal weather conditions.

The aim of these pigeon fancier societies was to improve the breeding quality of racing and homing pigeons, which played an important role in communications, especially in war times.

When the Sydney Homing Pigeon Society began in 1880, breeding homing pigeons was an elite hobby. This was largely due to the cost – the most sought after pigeons were Antwerp Carriers. Pigeon fanciers had to import the best parent stock from Belgium.

The club’s headquarters were at Cunningham Street in Haymarket on the same block as Hordern’s Palace Emporium. Department store magnate Samuel Horden was an enthusiastic breeder of pedigreed homing pigeons. He corresponded with Northrop Barker, the Belgium-based world-renowned pigeon fancier, and regularly imported special breeds from him.

Jack Farmer of Leichhardt training pigeons in PNG during World War 2 (Australian War Memorial)

But pigeons soon became a problem. For example, the first reports of ‘pigeon trouble’ at Sydney Town Hall were reported in 1903. Attempts to prevent pigeons from nesting on the town hall’s facade were many and varied. These included preventative measures such as wiring up parts of the stone work, painting the ledges with a slippery varnish and filling in crevices with concrete to stop their roosting habits. Other methods included baiting and trapping, soaking wheat with whiskey to make the pigeons drunk, spraying the pigeons with a harmless irritant, placing stuffed owls and effigies of hawks in strategic positions on the ledges, or electrified wires. At the Australian Museum, roosting pigeons were shot dead!

In the 1950s, female feral pigeons of a doubtful breed nesting at Sydney Town Hall were accused of luring pedigreed racing pigeons off their racing courses.

But despite the bad reputation of pigeons generally, their pedigreed counterparts did play an important role in providing covert communications during World War 1 and 2.

Today, breeding and training racing and homing pigeons is a dying art. No longer an elite pursuit, it is regarded as the ‘poor man’s greyhound’.