They call Brian Lintern “Cactus”.. the pigeon man, but he hasn’t always been one.
This spritely 80-year-old remembers his brother-in-law Geoff Stock having plenty of these feathered racers at the back of his 4-Square Store in Port Elliot, and when he sold up in 1971 he talked Cactus into making a loft to house them on his Back Valley farm.
“People said we were mad,” Cactus said. “I built this nice loft for the pigeons, but when I opened the door they all flew back to the 4-Square store and I was on the roofs of houses that night with my torch picking them up again. Yeah, we were mad.”
The funny thing is, within four years he was president of the Victor Harbor Homing Club and has been ever since. The story was revived at the club’s night-of-nights a few months ago, but it’s now the Southern Fleurieu Racing Pigeon Club because the membership of seven includes Grant Leverington from Normanville and Greg Harris from Goolwa with Phillip Carter, Michael Jarman, Eric Joy, Ken Moyle and Cactus from Victor Harbor.
The night was extra special for our man because, yet again, Cactus received the Bird of the Year Award for his blue checker hen. No names with these Columba livia domesticas, just numbers, and #21222 did him proud. She won four races, from Hawker, Parachilna, Marla, and then from Coober Pedy by three and a quarter hours. That’s 2000km in a fortnight, and in between a 100km toss (flight) from Tailem Bend.
For most of us this is all something from a different world. Racing birds with no names; letting them free at ungodly hours of the morn, and accepting that on a good day a third of them will not make it home. The hawks especially prey on them.
According to Cactus, there is a lot of satisfaction in racing birds. “If I send them from Marla or Coober Pedy, they fly more than 1000kms and they land right here in my backyard on that little platform,” he said.
“They’re an amazing bird; I love them. Some have never been to those places before yet they find their way home. I’ve worked in the Grosvenor Hotel (Ocean Street) for most of my life and most of the blokes the other side of the bar can never find their way home around the corner (he laughs).
“If the birds don’t get home a majority die of starvation because they don’t know how to look after themselves in the open; they rely on having their food in a dish at home. Some get tired on the way home so they stop, and a lot get found by people who contact the association and we get them back. I’ve got one here from Victoria that I have to send home.
“With the northern races, if you get an easterly wind it can send the birds down the wrong side of the (Spencer) gulf and they slide down to Port Lincoln. They don’t seem to want to come across the ocean.”
They often race from places that may seem obscure to most, like Carrieton, Cowangie, Moulamein, and from better-known towns like Redhill, Lameroo and Karoonda. Cactus, who usually has about 80 birds racing in one season from April-October, plus another 40 breeders, adds on another 80km on the these trips because his birds fly back to his Hayborough home.
There are about 300 members of the SA Homing Pigeon Association across the state, but according to Cactus years ago the numbers were more than double.
“A lot of the older people are getting out and the younger ones aren’t interested,” Cactus said. “It’s a dying sport, but I think what will happen soon is that instead of everyone having their own loft like mine, there will be a master loft and everyone will house their birds there. They’ll race from the one place, paying so much per bird which will save them a lot of money.
“Pigeon racing is nearly a full-time job; if you want to get the best out of them you need to spend a lot of time with them. “This time of the year they’re breeding, and I’ll start letting the new ones out once a day. Next month it will be twice a day, and in April I will start training them… you put about 25 of them in a hamper, throw them in the back of the ute and my first toss (letting them loose) is out at Currency Creek. You slowly work up to a 100km training toss and then race them.”
It can be an expensive sport too. Pigeons mainly eat peas at $19 per 10kg bag and wheat at $14. Cactus said his birds consumed about a ton and a quarter of each, and he didn’t want to work out the maths. “I don’t want to know how much,” he said. “Mum (wife Barbara) loses some of her canary seed now and again because I also like to give them some fresh stuff.”
It seems Barbara finally got over Cactus building that loft on the Back Valley farm, and helps him a fair bit with his pigeons. Their four kids have never been interested in them, so it’s hardly going to become a family tradition.
Like #21222, and of course, as we all know #30416, these champion pigeons are in a breed of their own. So too is their owner/trainer Brian, the man we call Cactus, a nickname which he says goes back to when he was just five years old.
“It comes from my first day at school, Mid-Inman Primary,” Cactus recalled. “There was this big kid named Bruce Slade, who was in grade six and he seemed six foot six, and he gave me my initiation to school. He picked me up and took me around the back of the school and dumped me in the middle of this big rose bush.
“The teacher had to get me out and my mother spent three weeks pulling thorns out. Bruce and I became great mates and we laughed about it until he passed away six years ago.”
And there begged the obvious question; with so many birds in the loft, what do you do with all the pigeon-poo? Cactus said: “Come over here (to the garden)… have you ever seen any tomatoes that are bigger, redder and jucier than these?” Amazing. They say that when you eat them you always find your way home.
If you are interested in finding more about pigeon racing contact Cactus: 8552 1300.