Wanganui's Jim Pullins is somewhat of a high flyer in New Zealand pigeon racing circles.
While pigeon racing is far from a mainstream sport in New Zealand, the ex-pat Northern Irishman is one of its most ardent fanciers.
Pullins arrived in New Zealand from Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1972 as an 18-year-old teenager settling in Wanganui. Almost a decade later - in 1983 - Pullins was able to realise his childhood passion to race birds.
"I'd grown up at home keeping pigeons as pets, but I could barely afford to feed than let alone race them, but after I'd settled here in Wanganui I decided to give it a go and I've been racing them ever since about 1983," Pullins said yesterday.
His home-built loft behind his Putiki Drive home houses about 28 young racing birds each year and half a dozen older breeding birds.
"Some of the birds I have are sent to me from people around the country as youngsters and I train them up and race them. If one of their birds win what they call an 'out of area race' we share the winnings."
As youngsters each bird is fitted with a leg ring and in Pullins case feature the letters WG, a designation given Wanganui racers, and a number signifying the year of birth.
Once racing the birds are timed from when they return from a start point and re-enter their loft to determine placings. Their leg rings are scanned by a computerised chip at the loft entrance and recorded. The first three birds home can be entered to win prize money.
"The New Zealand racing season is about to start soon and the first race is from Taumarunui. From there it usually takes them about 75 minutes to get home depending on weather. The longer races start from Stewart Island or sometimes Three Kings Island in the north. They've been known to get home from Stewart Island in a day, although it usually takes them the best part of two days, again depending on weather," Pullins said.
Each racing loft in the country employs Lands and Survey to measure their distance from pre-determined "break points" throughout the country and times are calculated using a mathematical equation found in the rules of pigeon racing.
Toward the end of each year there is a nationwide race for young birds with a winning purse of around $2000. Pullins has won three of the last four, including last year's event.
"Feeding them the best stuff is the key. I feed my birds a mix of mainly barley and maize, although the breeding birds get partridge peas, a wildflower seed full of protein."
Pullins is one of around a dozen people in Wanganui with pigeons, although not all race.
"We are an adjunct of the St Johns Club and they are really helpful, but not all in Wanganui race their birds. Some are kept as pets or reared to eat. I race all mine, but they'd make lovely eating because they only get the best of feed and are fit."
Once trained to call their loft home, race training begins. and like any athlete fitness is a must.
"Just the other day [Monday] I took mine up to Raetihi and released them - they were all well home by the time I got back. That's part of their training in readiness for the Taumarunui race coming up."
Monday will be remembered for its extremely high winds, yet Pullins said that would not have bothered his flock.
"They can fly in worse weather than that although it does slow them down if the wind is on their nose," Pullins said.
Birds can race until they are up to six or seven years old depending on how many events they have entered. Pigeons live until 14 or 15 years, although Pullins prefers to cull his flock annually, retaining only the best of the racing birds and breeders.
While he can individually identify most of his flock, he does not name them.
"The only ones named are those who don't return home or won't enter the loft at the end of a race and I can't repeat what I call them. Most birds take on the temperament of their owners, so mine are as mad as meat axes, but it doesn't seem to affect their speed," he joked.