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Piet De Weerd
Dirk Zoland, Piet De Weerd and Henk De Weerd
The History of a Legendary Personality in the International Pigeon Fancy
by Dirk Zoland
Part 2 of Two Parts. For Part 1 click here.
De Weerd: A conductor needs a certain amount of time before he is able to direct his orchestra. That is not easy, and it explains why there are great conductors and less great conductors. The example of the strip of wood is somewhat simplistic. Let us take yet another example. Pour a liter of water into a bucket. Anyone who can tell exactly how much is there must be experienced. When building up a bloodline, you have to start by acquiring pigeons. And what, do you think, would be the best purchase? A national winner which came back on foot. My experience has taught me that it is in this group that we find the best breeding stock. When one plans to "create" middle-distance pigeons, they can be paired with "sprinters." It is easy to breathe speed into the birds. But when it comes to knowing what the pigeon has in its head, that is another matter. Some people believe they can read it in the pigeon's eye. For myself, I can only state that anyone who pairs two pigeons with large pupils is barking up the wrong tree. He may well produce a worthwhile youngster, but not one in ten or even one in twenty.
So, no large pupils?
No. You should base your choice on pigeons with small pupils and a lot of color in the iris. However, if you rely solely on this and do not accept the verdict of the race basket, your decline will not be long in coming. Your loft will be full of Rubens and Rembrandts, but they will barely be able to cross the street. The race basket can never be left out of the selection process.
What qualities do you look for in the musculature?
You have to start with extremes. An "extreme" pigeon is handsome and big. It is good to look at, but it has no reactions and seems to be wooden. It is not the right type. If you breed from this, you will not get one good youngster in a hundred. It is quite worthless.
Can you compare a pigeon's muscles with those of a human being?
Our muscles must be exercised. Athletes train extensively. Pigeons, on the other hand, do not have a great need to train.
That is true, even for long-distance pigeons. If they have had little preparatory flight, they can still carry off a top prize even in difficult weather. But they will have drunk a lot. That is important. They must drink a great deal because they will beat their wings sometimes up to a quarter of a million times. That cannot be done without fluids, and we cannot do anything about it. A "wet" pigeon shows that it can manage its water well, I suppose.
What do you mean by a "wet" pigeon?
A pigeon does not perspire; it has no sweat glands. A "wet" pigeon is moist to the touch. The opposite of a moist pigeon is a dry one. This may be related to the blood line. The latter are birds which should be eliminated without hesitation. Pigeons can also become dry in a damp habitat where various diseases prevail. I learned this from Henk. In his view, moist pigeons are to be found in dry lofts and "dry" ones in damp lofts. Henk de Weerd added: "A pigeon is genetically either moist or dry, but this condition also depends on its state of health. It is not easy to distinguish the causes. We do not find many dry pigeons, since they get lost very quickly as a result of the deficiency in their physical condition. If you find your pigeons too dry in your loft, you should not race them. If they are moist, you can go ahead. Overcrowded lofts with a shortage of air are very bad. That is where you find dry pigeons. Their plumage is of poor quality. Good lofts house moist pigeons with smooth plumage; their relative humidity is 50 percent to 60 percent. These are the best. In terms of physical condition, there is a great difference between dry and moist, but few fanciers are able to make the distinction."
Could you please tell us about the technique for pairing?
You should preferably start with the best cocks. I have only one string to my bow, since I have always been interested in long distance racing. So I would suggest that you obtain a "long distance driver" as I advised Hermes. Then buy some hens whose parents are ten to twelve years old, but not yearlings. You will always have better success than with young from two yearlings.
Have you ever formed pairs by saying "Here is the cock I need, and here is the hen that suits him"?
Yes, of course, but it is based on an appraisal. Lots of fanciers have come to me with thirty or so pigeons, and most have been doing badly. They did not know how to go about making up breeding pairs. This is true in almost ten cases out of ten. Quite a lot of fanciers buy good pigeons but get nothing out of them. As a result, they cull them after two or three years. Why is this, do you think? Because you have to know how to make the "right" pairing. You need quite a lot of luck, too, and you should not think that it is all easy. A few days ago, my son Henk was telling me about "Argentina," a hen which produced some good youngsters late in life. This was nothing to do with "Argentina" but solely due to the fact that we had not been able to find the partner which suited her.
What do you look at when you pair pigeons?
I do not pay particular attention to the "model pigeon." I have put together many pigeons that others would not have paired, and especially those which have short breastbones and long tails. This is the kind of pigeon that the race basket also picks out. Most fanciers do not like this type. They prefer to mate these pigeons with a partner with a long breastbone and a short tail. The majority of long distance pigeons I have known had this characteristic. It is gospel truth, but no one wants to believe it. You also have to make a distinction between long distance-between 600 and 900 km-and extra long distance where the pigeons spends a night away from the loft. There are always exceptions which confirm the rule. "Klare" ("Light-colored"), belonging to Desmet-Mathijs, was one of these. It had long wings, its breastbone was not short, and its tail was not long. All the same, of the long distance pigeons I have been able to examine, 70 percent had a short breastbone. I have always paid the closest attention to this. I know that in Belgium, as in Holland, most pigeons are of medium size. I cannot come to a definite conclusion about middle distance, because I have not seen many pigeons of this type. It is said that they are larger, but I do not believe so.
And yet fanciers' preference tends to be for large pigeons.
In my view, this is because of lack of experience. I have seen a few good middle distance pigeons, including those of Horemans, who was the best Belgian at the time, and his birds were not large. Nor are Stichelbaut pigeons. They have less weight to carry. All the good long distance pigeons which have been through my hands over the last twenty-five years were of medium size. I do not know of any long distance champion which was a big pigeon.
Do you watch out for any other details when you are pairing pigeons?
I look out for a small pupil with a lot of color in the eye, and I do not like the ring around the pupil to be too pronounced. But if a pigeon with this pronounced ring flies well, there is nothing to be said against it. However, do not pair two pigeons of this type, and certainly not for a second generation, for you would ruin everything. I don't know why, but that's the way it is.
Do you take the pigeon's age into account?
No. A three-year-old bird is no better as a breeder than a ten year old. There is no difference. Since the eye improves with age, one is tempted to believe that the pigeon is a better one. Consequently, it is easier to judge a ten-year-old pigeon. That is where one of the main difficulties in selection lies. Take the eye of a two- or three-year-old pigeon. It is around this age that the eye asserts itself best. This is a point on which those who base their assessment on the eye make a mistake. They sometimes compare the eye of a five-year-old with that of a yearling, which cannot be perfect. The eye of a five-year-old serves as a yardstick for the selector. When he looks at it, he sometimes wonders why this pigeon has been kept for so long. Because it's a good pigeon, of course!
So you can never be certain?
I still cannot. And I have never met a selector who claimed to be certain about a pigeon. I do not claim that these do not exist, but I do not know any.
"I hold the pigeon in my right hand..."
"...and I place my left thumb on its back."
Pulling the pigeon's beak, Piet De Weerd tests the pigeon's vitality
there are selectors who claim to guarantee their pairings, aren't there?
For myself, I can guarantee you that that is absolute rubbish. I have already said, and I say it again, that there probably are people who are better able than I to judge by eye, but not by using their left hand.
So your left hand is the main one?
I hold the pigeon in my right hand, and I feel it with my left. My right hand is useless. With it I cannot tell the difference between a crow, a duck or a pigeon.
Your sense of touch resides in your left hand. Do all your fingers play a part?
I work with three fingers, and my experience is based on fifty years of practice.
To describe Piet de Weerd's technique, we quote what he said in "Coursiers du Ciel":
"Take the pigeon in your right hand and hold its feet between your index and middle finger. The thumb rests on the rump and touches the tips of the index and middle finger. In this way, the wings are restrained without the pigeon noticing. Then the work of the left hand can start. In passing, I should mention that you must work intensively on the tips of the fingers of your left hand in order to increase their sensitivity. Place the thumb of your left hand on the pigeon's back and close your hand so that the four fingers rest in a straight line on its chest. The skill resides in 'feeling' through the feathers by exerting not too light a pressure while your thumb, kept on the pigeon's back, acts as a fulcrum. Five important points are: (1) The quality of the muscles (contraction and quality of the muscular tissue); (2) The potential for storing reserves (endurance); (3) The muscular mass (power); (4) The blood supply to the muscular tissue; and (5) The pigeon's vitality in general. These five aspects must not be judged separately. If one of them is present it may be supposed that the others are too." [End of the extract from "Coursiers du Ciel"]
Were your many sortings and selections always successful?
I experienced practically no failures. In the beginning, in Belgium, I mainly sorted sprint pigeons. I never had a total failure. Of course, I made mistakes, but not many. I rely on the pigeon's vitality, its aggressiveness, its eyes, etc. I have always asked to see the parents of the birds to be examined, and did so too for pigeons I wished to buy. I also asked if they had brothers and sisters. In this way I learned a lot of interesting things before I had to part with my money. That wasn't the case with Meulemans' "Piet." I knew only that its mother was a Janssen and its sire a Van den Bosch. It wasn't a first class pigeon. Desmet-Mathijs had a lot of similar ones. They only had good pigeons.
What do you know about pigeons for racing, and what do we need to know in order to race successfully?
I know that what I feel with my fingertips is only about 10 percent. In the past, when I regularly sorted 500 pigeons in a day, it was winter and the pigeons were in poor condition. After many years of experience, I was able to do it with my eyes closed. When you visit a loft where there are twenty chequered pigeons, you cannot see the differences at first, although they may be enormous. I used to say to myself, "There may be two good ones among the twenty." It was in this spirit that I started out in 1930. I very quickly learned the importance of vitality and aggressiveness. You can measure a pigeon's aggressiveness by pulling it by the beak. If it does not react, it is ninety percent certain that it is worthless. I do not know why it does react, but it is certainly not from fear. I see stubbornness in it. You cannot do anything with a pigeon which does not react. That's my answer to your first question. These days, everyone does the same. I can say that I taught them to do so, just as I learnt it myself. The pigeon must also struggle. That used to be put down to irritability. The Oomens brothers thought so too. But it has nothing in common with irritability. It only shows that the pigeon realises what is happening to it and objects to it. Aggressiveness seems to be hereditary. Vitality and aggressiveness are very important, and they represent the survival instinct. At first the pigeon remains calm, before it tells you, "I don't want any more of this!" You can find good pigeons among these. If you only sort by eyesight for twenty-five years, you will have fine eyes and pigeons which cannot fly from here to there. People forget too often to select when they are considering cross-breeding or in-breeding. The principal selector is still the race basket. It corrects mistakes. That is how Piet de Weerd sees the question of selection.
Piet de Weerd and the Janssen brothers
[Reporter's note: I have already said that the chapter devoted to the Janssen brothers in Piet de Weerd's book "Coursiers du Ciel" ("Racehorses of the Heavens") led to a great increase in the demand for Janssen pigeons. A number of knowledgeable fanciers were, of course, well aware of the qualities of the Janssen birds, and bought them regularly. We should note, in passing, that the pace of life forty years ago was not the same as it is now at the end of the century. How many people owned cars then? How many people could afford a long train journey in order to go and pay a lot of money for the pigeons they wanted to bring back from Arendonk? There was a great deal of talk of them in specialized magazines and in books devoted to the pigeon fancy. My first visit to the Janssen brothers was in the seventies and I still have a very vivid recollection of the cup of coffee which Irma poured for me. I was most impressed by "Merckx", which I had the opportunity of handling. At that moment the section devoted to the Janssen brothers in Piet de Weerd's book sprang back into my mind. So what is more natural than to wish to ask our friend Piet a few questions on this subject?]
The typical Janssen pigeon has evolved significantly over the last 30 to 50 years. What is the reason for this, Piet?
When the larger type of pigeon was in vogue, the Janssens wanted to keep up with the fashion and they did what was necessary to achieve this. I don't know whether what I am telling you is wholly accurate, so I won't dwell on it. But "Merckx" was not a large pigeon. "19", on the other hand, was of quite a good size. In my opinion "Merckx" was by no means inferior to the best Janssen pigeons of the fifties. "Bange" ("The timid one"), the best of them all, was built on a small scale.
So "Bange" was a small bird?
It was a silky blue pigeon, and the smallest of them all. It was "Bange's" eyes which made the greatest impression on me. It was a good racer, but we should not forget that the Janssens only took part in Quievrain and Noyon races.
What are the principal qualities of the Janssen pigeons, Piet?
They were very good at passing on their hereditary qualities.
Better than other pigeons?
Yes, but if I want to talk about this I have to compare them with other pigeons. The Janssen birds were no better than the Horemans' ones. If anything, they had somewhat less in the way of qualities. Every pigeon from the St. Vincent strain of Horemans' birds was capable of winning first prizes. I am also thinking of Hector Desmet. Hector Desmet's best pigeons were Horemans. When I handled the Janssen birds I used to feel that they could not do more than 1,000 km. Perhaps they might with a following wind-but in those circumstances everyone could succeed, and even the drinking bowl would find its way back to the loft. My fingers tell me if a pigeon is not built for very great distances. I noticed that when I examined the Janssen pigeons.
Do you have to have Janssen pigeons if you want to succeed in the sport?
Yes, if we are talking about Janssen pigeons which have raced well elsewhere. I understand the situation in the Netherlands perfectly. In the Zwolle region there is the Koopman father and son partnership. They do not have to deal with strong competition, but they have done very well with Janssens. Owners in Dordrecht and Rotterdam also race well with their pigeons. I do not know all these people well, but I do know that they were not up against strong competition. But they had the same success when they raced elsewhere, even in Rotterdam.
Good Janssen birds fly well everywhere. Nevertheless, you must not overlook the fact that pigeons are often presented as Janssen birds though they have no blood from the Arendonk strain in their veins.
I do not share my son Henk's view on this matter. Henk is very much in favor of cross breeding. I am well aware of his thoughts on the matter-I wrote about this in detail in my book. If you cross two strains, each of which is inbred, you will be successful initially. But in order to get there you have to start by establishing an inbred blood line, otherwise you have nothing with which to experiment. That is where the problem lies. I recommend Janssen birds. There are many in Holland. On the other hand, in West Flanders nobody wants to know about them.
Is this due to arrogance? Or jealousy?
I have spent so long in West Flanders that I am virtually one of them. The Santes brothers, from Oudenaarde, have raced successfully all their lives without, however, being supreme champions. They appear regularly at the top of national prize lists. According to them, they have had Janssen pigeons for thirty years and Janssen blood still runs in the veins of their pigeons. I do not claim that their Janssens are not good pigeons, but I would bet that there must be at least ten Dutch fanciers who race better with Janssen birds. In fact, there are more Janssen pigeons than anywhere else in Holland. In our area, if you do not own any Janssen birds you would do better to stay at home. In any event, this certainly applies to 300 km races. This is their best distance.
What about Louis, Piet?
Louis is a wise man. When you visit him, he starts off by rolling a cigarette. He is said to be crafty, and capable of taking your money literally out of your pocket. I cannot agree totally with this. You have to be aware that Louis has always been the one to look after the business. Irma used to deal with the correspondence. On one occasion I went to Arendonk with Heinemann and Merkel, the former Director-General of the German Federation. Heinemann was a dictator. He spoke in a loud voice. "What are we doing here?" he asked. "What interest have I in pigeons which just fly from Quievrain?" I replied: "Yes, but they take those who put their trust in them right to the top." The Germans wanted to buy "Bleu 48" ("Blue 48"), a totally unknown pigeon which was, quite frankly, ugly. Nothing special, then, but it had already sired some extraordinary birds with a small hen, "Belle Claire de 51" ("Light colored Beauty of 51"), if I am not mistaken. I advised Heinemann to try his luck and buy the pair. Louis reacted by rolling another cigarette. "Mr. Heinemann," he said, "Your car is parked in front of the door but even if you left it there we should not give up these pigeons. I can always do my shopping on my bicycle."
That was not a particularly businesslike approach, was it?
No, but it was a question of two pigeons which had proved themselves as a pair. You could usually buy any bird in Arendonk. It was just a matter of paying the price. I also remember the days when Janssen birds cost next to nothing. Henk de Weerd interrupted and asked ironically, "So why did we not buy anything at that time?" I did not know then that other bloodlines which were considerably better were less sought after than Janssens. Who could have predicted this at that time? No one! Heinemann did not want them. And yet everyone who has acquired Janssen birds and has looked after them well has been able to reap good benefits in the end. I believe that the largest amounts spent on buying Janssen pigeons have been spent in the last five years.
But enough of the Janssens. What does Van den Broucke mean to you, Piet?
When I left Van Tuyn I went to Van den Broucke. I met him for the first time in 1950 when I was working for a paper. Van den Broucke's father was in the flax trade. Flax is a very speculative product. I mean by this that you can make a small fortune one year and lose your shirt the next. Van den Broucke had advertised in our paper, saying that he would like to meet someone who could teach him about the fancy. I got in touch with him and told him: "I cannot take it on myself to do what you are asking, but I can do a lot of other things." He understood, and said: "How much would it cost me to become the champion of Belgium?" I answered, without beating about the bush, "50,000 frs." This was reported in all the journals at the time. I added: "If you give me the opportunity to buy six pigeons for you, you will be able to hold your head up in three years time." No sooner said than done. Three years later he had begun to compete spectacularly against the best-Cattrysse, Delbar, etc. We had a pigeon called "Nero." His results in the national races were as follows: 1st from Perigueux, 2nd from Vannes, and 3rd from Libourne. Those are worth quoting, aren't they? I was not able to see these successes as I was always selecting pigeons, but I stayed close to Van den Broucke out of respect for his honesty. He never tried to conceal that I had made him what he had become. Success of this kind raised the question, how had it been achieved and by whom? He never missed the opportunity to mention my name. When he expressed his satisfaction to anyone who was prepared to listen, this only increased my good reputation. For all the years that I was by his side, it was said that Van den Broucke did not know how to hold a pigeon in his hands! Van den Broucke wanted good pigeons in order to be able to stand alongside Norman, the Count of Villegas, and a whole string of other personalities in the pigeon fancy. He could only achieve this by reaching the top level. He relied one hundred percent on me for his success in races. I never took advantage of the situation. I never took the liberty of telling him that he was not doing things right, or that he should act in some other way. I was never involved in the sale of his pigeons, although he would have liked me to write articles about his loft. But I made it clear to him that I could not publish articles about our own pigeons.
In the fifties you worked for Van Tuyn. After that, have you relied solely on the selection of pigeons to provide for yourself, or have you done anything else?
I have made my living only from selecting pigeons…all over the world.
So selection and the writing of articles on the pigeon fancy have been able to meet all your needs?
Exactly. Those were, in fact, the most difficult years for me. I was writing for eighteen publications-using carbon paper-and I was published as far afield as Johannesburg. I had two fairly bright sons. One has become a lawyer and the other a vet. College courses are expensive. A vet with whom I was working offered me a small piece of land in Breda. We built a clinic on it. When Henk qualified as a vet I had some 2,000 clients and he was able to become interested in pigeons from the start. I subsequently visited various major clients. That enabled us to bring the number up to 5,000 in a very short time.
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Piet with the Janssen brothers and two members
of the German Federation
The connoisseur's eye
do you think of the pigeon fancy today?
I believe that long distance races will save the day, both in Belgium and in the Netherlands. The situation in Germany is different, not least because Berlin and Munich cannot compete together. Quievrain and sprint racing will also survive for a long time. The hard core will remain solid. I do not think that we have yet been reduced to this hard core. With 60,000 members in Belgium we are probably still a long way from that point, but we shall reach it when membership drops to 40,000.
What about China, to speak of another area of development?
Henk has been there, and he tells me that every year 50,000 new members come along. But what kind of members are they? Henk says that they wait everywhere. A train comes into the station and a good thousand people get aboard. It's a noisy train, spitting out foul-smelling smoke. There are more people on the roof than inside. They could carry a small basket, but not a large one. That is what mainland China is like. In Taiwan the situation is quite different. There are high mountains in the center of the country, and the greatest distance for a race is not more than 250 km. They only race young pigeons, and do so for high stakes. If liberation is planned for 8:00 a.m. and a typhoon arrives, no problem-the liberation goes ahead! In that case the race becomes a lottery.
So what does the future hold for the fancy in Taiwan under these conditions?
I wonder…I already knew the Janssen pigeons in 1938. I saw them in the fifties, during the heyday of old "Bange." That is probably when they were at their best. Stichelbaut had the best all-rounders, which were able to excel over any distance. In the beginning Stichelbaut paired brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, a half brother and a half sister. All the good owners in West Flanders had the Stichelbaut pigeons, even the Catrysses and the Devriendts. Stichelbaut practiced in-breeding for many years, mainly with brothers and sisters. He did this through fear of introducing foreign blood into his line. The only time he accepted the concept of cross breeding, the results were negative. The Janssens were of the same opinion and acted in the same way. Fear of upsetting their bloodline prevented them from introducing other strains. That is the reality. I knew the Janssen brothers well before the war, when they were small scale sprint racers. It was only later that we were to discover just how great the qualities of their pigeons were.
Piet, are there any "breeds" of pigeon? I have in mind Fabry, Desmet-Mathijs, Stichelbaut, Jan Aarden and Janssen. Can we call these "breeds"?
That is an interesting topic to discuss, and I shall be glad to talk about it. The Janssen brothers did have a "breed" because they offered to those fanciers who had done well with their pigeons to bring them back and pair them with the Arendonk birds. That is no longer the case nowadays. But that was how they acted, unlike others. Delbar bought pigeons all over the place and called them "Delbar" birds. Owners have turned up at the Janssen loft with pigeons selected from their own bloodlines. That is how the white feathers originated. I think that that started in the early fifties. There were a good hundred fanciers in Holland who raced with Janssen birds. Once when I had made up a breeding pair at Fabry's loft, I suggested to him that he should go to see the Janssen brothers with his son as they had good pigeons. They went there, and could hardly believe their eyes. They bought a pigeon, and Fabry proposed: "Let us give you a good pigeon too." This resulted in a Janssen-Fabry crossing. I can still remember "19", a bird with white feathers which came from a crossing of this type. Until then I had never seen a white feather in Janssen pigeons, although I had not been there very often. In any case, it came from a fancier who had raced successfully. This may explain why the Janssens have been able to stay at the top of the tree for such a long time. They have re-introduced pigeons of their own bloodline which had undergone a severe selection process elsewhere. I cannot prove my theory, but I believe that this is how it must be explained.
Some unconnected thoughts
Reporter's note: This brings me to the end of my long interview with Piet de Weerd, that legendary personality of the world wide pigeon fancy. During our discussion we touched on many topics, each as interesting as the others. I am going to finish with these unconnected thoughts.
What does "the connoisseur's eye" mean, Piet?
It is said that I have a connoisseur's eye. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I said to my son Henk that the supremacy of Ajax in Amsterdam was over, since I had seen 120,000 spectators on the terraces in Barcelona and 30,000 at the Ajax ground. Barcelona has the means to buy good players. Ajax had five or six-and sold them! Then along came van Gaal as coach. He was a good N.C.O., with lots of qualities, although one was missing: he does not know how to select. Now that is precisely the essential quality for a coach. He must be able to choose an eighteen-year-old youngster and turn him into a champion. But van Gaal left a player worth 35 million florins on the touch line! A P.E. teacher could do as well. And if he also has a sergeant major's temperament, he too could become a coach. Germany has coaches like this. They know how to lead their troops-but as for taking on an eighteen year old because they will turn him into a star….However, that is something that I can do! I have the temerity to tell people that a proposed purchase is worthless, and I suggest another, much better, one. That is what the connoisseur's eye is.
We often speak of breeds. Can a small fancier establish one?
No, and I shall explain why. In the old days, in the time of Bricoux, you could get hold of a good pigeon for next to nothing in your street. When Bricoux came into the limelight you had to look farther afield, but it was always possible to find something good since twenty or so fanciers in the area would own Bricoux birds. The Dutch came from much greater distances to buy them, and they were followed by the Japanese. They had money, and they were tricked. The person selling would bring out any old duck from his loft and certify that it was "a good one." There is no greater lie in the world than the pedigree of a pigeon. If the Japanese had bought young pigeons for a thousand francs in the market in Lierre, they would have done better. They soon realized that they were making a mistake, since their own pigeons were far better. They became more cunning and started buying the ring numbers listed on the prize lists, preferably of national races. That started to obtain winners for them. They were paying higher prices, but for real pigeons. A Japanese by the name of Kodama races in Limbourg in the Netherlands. I do not know him. He buys for himself or for some rich compatriots, I do not know exactly. One day when a Dutch fancier won the Perpignan race, Kodama rushed off to see him and the pigeon was sold even before its photograph had been taken. That happens quite often. And that answers your question regarding the creation of a breed. If Hermes wants to apply himself he can succeed. He does not sell his pigeons for money. I can also tell you that the Houbens must have a breed suitable for 300 km. I have known them for forty years. Houben races well over 300 and 400 km., etc. I assume that these people are professionals. They have no need to sell their pigeons and they have become millionaires because they have made the choice between the pigeons they have to keep and those which they can let go.
Does that mean that it was easier to establish a breed in the past, when one bought fewer pigeons? Since they sell many birds nowadays, the "big names" must also call on pigeons from other sources.
In the old days the good pigeons were to be found in small lofts. When the Japanese buy the pigeon which has won from Barcelona, they also want its brothers and sisters.
Do you still follow the major international races?
Yes, I spend a lot of time doing this. We enter a lot of results in the computer at our clinic. Many fanciers who distinguish themselves in long distance races live in Limbourg. The Kuypers brothers were at the top of the tree for some time; but Braakhuis was the best. He has achieved some unique results. Not a single Belgian fancier was able to do so before him. However, the roots of his downfall are to be found in his beginnings. He staked a great deal on a hen which was not worth it. She certainly produced a few young pigeons which were worthwhile in the first generation, but that was because of the cock, a Jan Aarden bird which had come directly from Steenbergen. Braakhuis obtained nearly a million florins for these pigeons. Success does not last when you sell pigeons like these. He sold the national winner for 300,000 florins. You do not need many more to reach a million. His "74" cock triumphed from Dax, two hours and twenty minutes ahead of the rest!
Why do you always talk about long-distance pigeons but never middle-distance or sprint pigeons?
I know what I am talking about. Easily 200,000 sprint pigeons have passed through my hands. There are a hundred or so lofts in Belgium which do well in sprint races. But that does not mean a lot. There are indeed a few who win money over these distances, such as Houben and one or two others in his region, and Maurice Voets of Kessel, to name a couple. I have never been interested in these pigeons because they no longer return home when the race distances start to get longer. They are not "complete" pigeons. Long-distance pigeons, on the other hand, have everything. Speed is one thing they may lack, but it can be introduced. Note than when you are establishing a "breed", bringing in speed also develops the homing instinct. Every pigeon possesses this. It is more difficult to introduce stamina. You have to be crafty to manage this. The complete pigeon is the long-distance pigeon, and the "pedestrian" is the best of the kind. I acquired some for Hermes. He asked me, "What can I do with these?" I replied that he should build his breed on these "pedestrians". Not only did I buy three cocks for him, but we also went to Steenbergen to purchase ten long-distance pigeons. Not the young of good racers, but their siblings, because I had no money. A pigeons which has been victorious will always be the best buy. When Henk joined me we did on occasion buy the winning bird. The 1987 Barcelona race was the most stressful that I have ever known. The 1949 race was even more severe. Berlengee carried off that one, and after three days only eighteen pigeons had returned home. When we bought "Samurai" in 1994, a thousand pigeons had returned on the second day. "Sherpa", on the other hand, arrived on the second day with only 350 pigeons and four days later all the prizes had still not been won. It often turns out that pigeons of this class prove themselves to be poor breeders, but when there is one which is an exception to the rule…. I was able to buy ten good long-distance pigeons which were written about in all the books. They all came in among the first ten birds in national races.
How do you define what you call a "pedestrian"?
Let me explain. Kipp from Althornbach had some of my pigeons. Four came back from Perpignan at night, and all were amongst the first ten in the international race. These are what I meant by "pedestrians".
So "pedestrians" are pigeons which find their way home in any circumstances?
Especially during a heat wave. That is the worst thing that a pigeon can come up against. Rain and wind are less formidable problems. When you see Belgian pigeons giving away a 200 km. advantage to an Amsterdam fancier, whose bird beats them at 700 m.p.m., I have to conclude that "their pigeons are something in Amsterdam." And they are Jan Aardens birds from Steenbergen!
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Ko Nipius, Joep van Dongen and
Piet De Weerd
was the first time that you mentioned "pedestrians"?
I was with Hermes and he begged me: "Save us from such slow pigeons!" I replied that we should still start with "pedestrians", and he agreed. Hermes has won international first prizes at times when no other pigeon from his region won a top prize. I repeat that "pedestrians" are pigeons which fly in front in heat waves, with a head wind and when there is no rain. A pigeon has a great need for water. In Kenya a tree "drinks" 300 liters of water a day. What do you think are the liquid requirements of a pigeon flying in high temperatures? Other factors which we cannot foresee also come into play. A pigeon can be caught by a cat. An average pigeon does just as well as the others in rainy or cloudy weather, when it is not hot. I have bought average pigeons which came in in the top ten of a national race, including one hen which beat 30,000 competitors. I was unable to do anything with it-it was worthless!
Do you need a special "type" in order to race well?
No, I do not think so.
So they could be big or small birds? Is either possible?
The reason why there are so many big pigeons is that fanciers like them. They would not keep the same size if they relied on the verdict of the race basket. There are also many medium-sized pigeons. I think they are by far the best. I can quote a striking example regarding the various types. We sold some pigeons to Mexico, slightly above average in size. As long as their buyers stuck to races under 200 km., the sizes remained the same. Once the races lengthened to 700 or 800 km.-at an altitude of 3,000 meters-the pigeons became smaller and the biggest ones failed to return home. That is why I am resuming production of a light weight type which is not too big.
Can we deduce that the direction of the flight paths can influence the "type" of pigeon?
I do not know. In the Netherlands we race on a south to north line.
In Germany, pigeons are different depending upon whether they are raced from the southwest, the east, or the southeast. Those racing on a southwesterly or easterly bearing are rather large, while those racing on the southeasterly bearing are somewhat smaller. I have noticed that the race basket has also caused a transformation in the Belgian pigeon as the years have gone by.
"All that is very true, and confirms experience in Mexico and Hawaii," emphasizes Henk. "The race basket 'makes' the pigeon."
Do weather conditions create types of pigeons?
I have noticed that long-distance pigeons taking part in international races are medium sized, neither small nor large. Henk: "If we lived in a constantly hot environment, we should see the development of a clearly defined type of pigeon, but since our climate is more than variable, we always come across winners of all sizes and the 'type' cannot evolve quickly." There are pigeons which come out in front with a tail wind, and others when there is a head wind. In the long term, they should evolve, but since our weather varies from week to week they all have the opportunity of distinguishing themselves and it is difficult to see how a new type could develop. Things are quite different in Mexico, and if we were to race at the North Pole the type would evolve just as significantly there. Here, we race from a southwesterly direction. I have handled many national winners. In 1935 I came across a large sized one, but this was an exception. In Joseph Van Den Broucke's region there lived a fancier who had pigeons as large as chickens. Someone who has not judgement of, let us say, "sporting class", likes handsome, large birds. If he then happens to have a bird which gets good results but does not look so good, he decides to pair it with a larger bird, and in this way lays the foundation stone of his downfall. Believe my long experience….
Are there any secrets in the pigeon fancy, Piet?
I am not aware of any.
Could the secret be the homing instinct, the pigeon's compass?
Of course, this is the tool of the pigeon's trade, but we cannot see it. There are people who know more than I do on this topic, including Van de Velde of Oudenburg. When he was shown a basket of pigeons, he was apparently able to pick out the best three. This became a legend, but for no reason. It was said that with pigeons like those Van de Velde would be able to create a breed. He did not do so, but they brought him in a lot of money. Of course, he had the touch which enabled him to pick out the best birds, but so do I. If you look at Van de Velde's career, as I have done, you will see that he has always worked with champion birds and in this case it is easy to form successful breeding pairs.
How should you breed pigeons, Piet? By cross breeding, by bloodline, or by inbreeding?
If you want to cross breed, do as Vanhee did and buy a large number of pigeons every year. Vanhee was a good fancier all the time he reinforced his stock with purchases, but his star faded when he stopped buying. Stichelbaut, a small scale fancier, owned a hen and two of its sons. He used to get fine results, and those who were able to dip into his bloodline did so too. All the time that these people kept their Stichelbaut birds in the same bloodline, they were able to stay at the top of the tree. Stichelbaut stayed there for ten years, and I can quote at least ten owners who did as well with his pigeons. The Descamps-Van Hasten partnership only had Stichelbaut pigeons. If you are asking which pigeons were my favorites, I must reply the Jan Aarden ones, since this is my breed. I built it up in Steenbergen, with the help of ten fanciers who committed their best birds to it, although the basis was always Aarden birds. Nevertheless I believe that the Stichelbaut pigeons were the best of all. They were healthy pigeons.
Reporter Dirk Zoland's note: That is the end of my interview with a legendary figure of the worldwide pigeon fancy. Piet de Weerd is always overflowing with energy. Anyone who has the opportunity of meeting him one day should seize it with both hands. He impresses with his presence, his expression and his gestures. Every one of his words should be weighed carefully, since they bear witness to unequalled wisdom and experience gained during his long odyssey through the pigeon fancy.
[Note: This is the second part of a two-part article. For Part 1, click here.]
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