Over the last several years, Liz Beukema and her 15-year-old son Garrett have spent many early mornings together in their backyard, on the road in their family car and at ice cream shops throughout the St. Croix Valley. Those long hours have been spent bonding over their mutual love for pigeons, which the pair race and breed at their home southeast of New Richmond.
“My grandfather sent me pigeons for my birthday (when I turned 8), since I was really into Harry Potter and I wanted an owl to bring me my mail,” Garrett said. “I really enjoyed racing and everything that went with it. That got me into the breeding side of things.”
At the age of 9, Garrett was releasing pigeons at weddings, but he only got into breeding pigeons in 2012.
“Quite by accident, I was taking a class through Extension and met a lady from Frederic, Wis., and we got chatting … and she and her husband are racing pigeon breeders. It turns out they are one of the premiere breeders in the world and they are right in our backyard,” Liz said.
The Frederic couple invited Garrett up to their facility and gifted him seven pigeons to start up his breeding operations and racing team. Garrett joined a local pigeon racing club in 2012. He started racing pigeons in 2013, with Liz following her son into the racing world in 2014. According to Liz, pigeon racing is one of the oldest sports in the world and is big in Europe, which is where most of the racing pigeons come from.
“It has been pretty fun and interesting to find which of our birds produce the best offspring. It has taken a lot of time to do that since you can’t just judge how well a pair will do based on how their offspring do one year. You have to put that pair back together again the next year. If they produce good babies then again, you know that pair is good together, so we will continue to breed that pair,” Garrett said.
In total, the Beukemas have 200 pigeons, including show varieties, which Garrett shows for 4-H. They have a 70-bird young team and 51 birds on their old bird team. Garrett has shown both Racing Homer and several breeds of fancy show pigeons at the last six St. Croix County Fairs, while his little sister, Lillian, has shown her Valencian Figurita pigeons at the fair the last two years. Garrett has won Grand Champion pigeon for two years at the Wisconsin State Fair.
“We knew that Garrett was hooked on birds when we took him to Harry Potter World and, while our daughters were going nuts about everything around them, Garrett pointed out a recessive red, which is kind of rare, to me,” Liz said. “We knew he had it bad then.”
According to Liz, her whole family has the bird bug, given that her father is a peacock breeder in upstate New York and her brother breeds heritage breed chickens in Vermont.
“Pigeons are absolutely amazing animals and are one of the top 10 smartest animals in the world. When they lay eggs, they co-parent, which means the males and females each sit on the eggs to incubate them the same amount of time,” Liz said. “The males and females also take equal part in feeding the young. We say humans could learn a lot from pigeons. They even go and feed other babies if they are left alone and are crying. It is just really crazy to watch their behavior.”
According to the Beukemas, there are short distance and long distance racing pigeons, since races can be anywhere from 100 to 600 miles in length. There are two seasons of racing: young birds — which are birds that have hatched that year — which are generally flown in races of no more than 300 miles, and old birds — which are over 1 year in age. The old bird season goes from April to July, while the young bird season starts shortly after old bird season ends.
“Your birds that excel at 200 miles aren’t necessarily going to be the birds that are going to excel at 600 miles. People breed for different distances, with certain strains, body types and wing shapes that are good for long distances and some that are good for sprints, or short distances,” Liz said. “For those short races for the young birds, you don’t really need a distance bird for that. You want a sprinter that is going to mature quickly and perform in its first year.”
Finding their rhythm
With several years of racing and breeding under their belts, Liz and Garrett said they are finally hitting their stride in the sport, with Garrett currently owning the top three champion birds on the Wisconsin side of the river in the Heartland Federation.
There are three tiers of competition in pigeon racing for the Beukemas, including their local club, the Indianhead Combine, which includes all of the Wisconsin clubs; and the Heartland Federation, which combines the Minnesota and Wisconsin results. Race winners have the best average speed (measured in yards per minute) rather than the pigeon that makes it home quickest, given that the owners all live in different areas and the birds have different distances to cover to get home. The results are then calculated starting at sundown the second day.
“It is fun, it is a whole community of people and it is a great family sport,” Liz said. “The whole family is out here wanting to know if mom or Garrett won. Garrett and I spent so much time together in the car and the loft.
“Five or six years into it, we are still trying to implement everything new we are learning every day and making sure that it works into our system. So it does take some time for things to come to fruition and to see the success.”
The Beukemas started to see success after switching to an all natural system for their birds last year, which includes more natural supplements and probiotics between races and less medication. The change resulted in the pair having one of their best seasons to date in both the old and young bird categories.
“All of these years up to this point, we have been working to find a system that we liked and worked for us. And now we have found that system and we have been doing really well,” Garrett said.
In addition to owning the top three champion birds on the Wisconsin side of the river, Garrett is also winning quite handily in the average speed category, which includes races under 300 miles. The next closest speed average behind him is 38 minutes behind him, Liz said. He also has a handy lead in champion bird, which is not a position the pair have ever found themselves in before.
“We are not only trying to finish out the season well, but we are also trying to keep that bird and the team average up the rest of the season. We are planning which races we are going to choose and which birds we are going to send on the team every week,” Liz said. “We have never had to strategize like this before since we have never won this much before.”
A typical day for Garrett and his mother during the school year sees the two of them getting up at 5 a.m. or earlier to get the birds into crates so Liz can take them to work with her and let them fly home from there. On some days, Liz can driver farther out and release them to give them more of a challenge.
On the day of a race, the pigeons are released all at once half an hour after sunrise the next morning. The owners then wait for their birds to return the next morning.
“It is kind of like a marathon where you do a 12-mile run one day and then go and do a 20-mile run the next. We don’t ever drive 300 miles to train, but we go to Ellsworth a lot, which is 22 miles from here. It is 37 from Prescott and 12 from my office. We kind of work them through a training regiment,” Liz said. “And it has to be sunny for them to fly so we have to watch the weather to plan out the rest of the week.”
Garrett plans to continue racing and breeding pigeons until he heads to college. After he gets out of college, he plans to take the sport back up as soon as he can and sees himself racing and breeding pigeons with his own children in the future.
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