Who are the people behind ...

Who are the people behind the three names in the title of this article? Jef is the father, whilst Luc and Nadia are his son and daughter. Together they form one of the most elite Belgian partnerships of all time. But let me begin their story at the beginning, the years preceding World War II.

One of the top fliers in the area was a certain Edmond De Belder, racing his team of Fonne Ceulemans pigeons. Jassen enthusiasts will know that Ceulemans were foundations birds of that dynasty. Times were hard during the long years of war, but when peace finally arrived, Edmond had managed to keep his eight best, so was off to a good start straight away.
In 1947, Gerard Houben, a long time fancier, constructed new brick lofts, but, as before, won little. In 1949 on his demobilisation, his son Jef became his partner. They decided to base their lofts on Fonne Ceulemans pigeons and who better to get them from but Edmond de Belder, as Gerard had married his daughter? Two other important introductions were the ‘Maalder’ from Maalder Vloeberghs of Itegem and the ‘Mast Duivin’ from Marcel Busschots of Berlaar.

One of their best vitesse racers, winning from Quiévrains (105km) to Dourdan (350km), was 6400508–60, named ‘Goede Blauwe’. In 1966 he won 2nd Provincial Ace Pigeon with over 20,000 lofts competing for that title. He became one of the most important descendants of the Fonne Ceulemans pigeons.
In the sixties the decision was taken to move over to demi-fond racing and introductions were made. Stan Raeymakers owned a very good racing hen 4101869-64, but, in 1966, she was shot whilst exercising round home. Stan had received good pigeons from his friends the Houbens, so gave them the chequer hen, which they named ‘Geschote Duivin’. Another Raeymaker important was ‘Oude Licht Stan’ 6753915-69. Now the ‘Goede Blauwe’had a full brother named ‘Radio’ and his son ‘Jonge Radio’ was paired with the ‘Oude Licht Stan’.They became one of the Houbens best ever breeding pairs. One of their sons ‘De Goede Zwarte’ 6446661-72 was entered in thirteen races as a yearling, his positions being 1st, 1st, 1st, 4th, 5th, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 16th, 39th. Altogether he won 11 x 1st prizes before being put to stock.

In 1967 ‘Goede Blauwe’ was mated with the ‘Oude Zwarte’ hen 6096361-62. From this pairing came one of the mainstays of the present day family. 6648969-67 ‘The Baron’.
If you say ‘Baron’, you say Houben. One son ‘Jonge Baron’6420332-70 won in 1975 – 1st Ace Pigeon long distance pigeon Province of Antwerp with its 20,000 plus lofts, racing from as far as Tulle (690km).

In 1974, exchanges were made with Frans Stoces of Winterslag and in the eighties from Karel Hufkens of Geel, Jos Van Loo of Hallaar, two Houben line hens back from Louis De Weerd of Kessel and, very importantly, a daughter of Gommaire Verbruggen’s ‘Kletskop’. One of the Frans Stoces pigeons, 5282987-74 named ‘Linkerpoot’ was mated with 6687672-74 the ‘Geschelpte 672’, a daughter of Jonge Radio. One of their offspring, 6508375-76 ‘T. Goed Duivinneke’ turned out to be one of their best ever hens. She won numerous prizes, including in 1976 as a young bird 26th National Bourges (480km) from 20,926 birds. In 1977, after taking 2 x 1sts from Noyon (210km), she took 282nd National from Bourges 9,005 birds. In 1978, after yet another Noyon 1st, she was 35th National Bourges 11,223 birds. ‘T. Goed Duivinneke’was a very good racer but an even better breeder, being mother of ‘Madonna’, 8th National Bourges 10,408 birds and 46th National Bourges 11,046 birds, ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Sissi’, ‘Marco’, ‘Lola’, ‘Tinneke’, and ‘Duncan’.

In 1971, a chequer cock 6378018-71 was born, son of ‘Blue Janssen’ 6520367-66, and ‘Goede Lichte’ 6140875-64, a 100% Fonne Ceulemans pigeon. As a young bird in 1964 the ‘Goede Lichte’ hen won 3rd Noyon, 607 birds, 14th Noyon, 546 birds, 1st Noyon, 153 birds and 1st Noyon, 528 birds. The son, 6378018, named ‘Artiest’, raced for six seasons, winning 5 x 1sts and numerous other prizes. When put to stock he turned out to be an phenomenon, producing fifteen sons and daughters which became mainstays in the stock loft, including ‘Fantast’, ‘Prinseske’, ‘Boomke’, ‘Jonge Artiest’, ‘Mustang’, ‘Derby’, ‘Farrel’, and ‘Mireilla’. These pigeons and their offspring won 1st Nationals, 1st Provincials, Ace Bird Championships and a host of other prizes. ‘Artiest’ was the base of all the best birds in the eighties and one of the best breeders of all time.

In 1982, amongst that year’s youngsters, were a cock and hen, both bred from old stock cocks. The cock was ‘Jonge Artiest’. His sire was the ‘Artiest’ then eleven years old. His dam was ‘Fwst’ 6145268-78, a daughter of ‘Jonge Radio’ and ‘Oude Licht Stan’. The hen was named ‘Sissi’. Her sire was ‘Jonge Baron’ and her dam ‘T. Goed Duivinneke’. In view of her breeding, ‘Sissi’ was never raced but mated with the ‘Jonge Artiest’. Four youngsters were bred by this pair of yearlings, ‘Viking’, ‘Sony’, ‘Hiro’ and ‘Stella’, more of which later. ‘Jonge Artiest’ was put on the road and race for three years, 1982, 1983 and 1984. Included in his prizes were, 1st (120 birds), 1st (139), 1st (145), 1st (150), 1st (153), 1st (362) and 1st (390), 2nd (146 birds), 2nd (337), 2nd (593). But it was his pairing with ‘Sissi’ that led to his name becoming world famous. The two of them became one of the world’s best breeding pairs. Their three most famous offspring are ‘Sony’, ‘Viking’, ‘Stella’.

Amongst Sony’s wins were 1st Etampes (835 birds), 1st Etampes (1,015 birds), 1st Bourges (534 birds), 1st Bourges (987 birds), 2nd Tours (570 birds), 2nd Orléans (570 birds), 9th National Bourges (8,393), 25th Provincial Orléans (3,692 birds), 80th National Bourges (14,042), 6th National Bourges (11,206) and 4th Provincial Orléans (4,076 birds). Amongst titles won were 1st Ace Pigeon De Reisduif 1985, 2nd National Ace Pigeon Demi-Fond K.B.D.B., 1985 and 2nd Ace Pigeon De Reisduif 1987. He won the 1,000/1,000 pools 22 times. In the three years racing his prize money totaled 830,610 francs.

‘Stella’ 6163029-85 raced for four years. Amongst her wins were 1st Dourdan (182 birds), 4th Dourdan (1,406), 2nd Dourdan (1,229), 1st Etampes (854), 2nd Etampes (526), 1st Orléans (570), 3rd Orléans (4,076), 9th National Bourges (8,869) and 29th National Bourges (11,206). Altogether she won half a million francs in prize money. What a terrible day it must have been for the Houben family when she failed to return from the Bourges National race of 1988. Jef Houbens describes her as a fantastic hen, a marvelous racer but an even better breeder. Children from ‘Jonge Artiest’ and ‘Sissi’, count amongst their National wins, 1st, 6th, 8th, 9th, 9th, 11th and 29th Bourges, 2nd Limoges (640 km) and many other top places. Grandchildren have taken 3rd, 7th, 10th, 10th, 15th, 18th and 20th from Bourges, and 5th, 5th, 6th, 6th, 8th National Limoges.

My wish is that this short history of the Houben strain and some of its important breeders will provide a background to the story of that never to be forgotten day, when I knocked at the door of 12, Heibergstraat in Itegem, in the company of my good friends John Allen and Albert Witty. It was Jef Houben himself who answered the door and took us down the passage into the dining room to introduce us to his wife Evelyne and son and daughter Luc and Nadia. Jef’s understanding of English is limited, but Luc speaks it like a native.
What a remarkable sight met our eyes, the room being somewhat like a cross between a museum, a photographer’s studio and a trophy shop, walls were covered with diplomas and photographs, whilst tables, shelves and cabinets displayed trophies, ornaments and other prizes. We could have spent a couple of hours alone, looking at the story of part of the Houben’s success. Jef, noting the looks of amazement on our faces, led us through to the lounge, which, to our great surprise was even more full of memorabilia than the other room. “How many trophies are ther?” I askes. “About 250, I think” was the reply. “We had more, but my mother got tired of dusting so many that she got rid of a lot.”

Introductions were made between John, Albert and myself and Jef’s wife Evelyne and his son and daughter Luc and Nadia. Only a few weeks ago I noticed an advertisement in our fancy press for Houben and Son pigeons. That is incorrect. Gerard and son Jef raced in partnership as Houben and Son. Gerard died in 1980, aged 82, but Jef carried on racing under the partnership name until 1990, when with union permission it was changed to Jef, Luc and Nadia Houben. However, the management is a family affair. During the racing season, every morning by six o’clock Evelyn, Nadia, Robert, Cindy and Luc are cleaning out the lofts for which they are responsible. Evelyne has always enjoyed racing hens, but then, she also came from a family of fanciers.
As a young man, Jef worked for a diamond merchant, Rie Schroyens, as a diamond cutter. When in boss’s daughter Evelyne, aged sixteen, arrived to work in the factory, Jef immediately fell for her, but had to wait several years before they married. In the seventies he fell victim to pigeon fancier’s lung. She became indispensable, as later on did the other members of the family.

Back to our visit. Jef left the room, to returning bearing four pigeons, one in each hand, one under an arm and one in his overall pocket. “Here are four sons of Jonge Artiest and Sissi, all four now being in the breeding loft.” First to hand was ‘Nicki’ who broke both legs as a yearling. He bred a 6th National Limoges pigeon, (640km) with 16,132 competing birds. A chequer ‘King’ bred a hen to take 22nd National La Souterraine, 15,104 birds, whilst ‘Sony’ came next. A 1983 bred chequer cock, he won many prizes from Orléans (321 km) to Bourges (477km). In 1985, he became 1st Ace Pigeon Halve Fond De Reisduif and 2nd National Ace Pigeon Halve Fond K.B.D.B. A son was 3rd National Bourges, 14,783 birds.

Jef said, “I’m going to bring Jonge Artiest and Sissi.” When handing the former over to me he added, ”This is the best pigeon I have owned in over 40 years of keeping pigeons.” ‘Jonge Artiest’ 6380170-82 is a blue bar cock, son of ‘Artiest’ and ‘Furst’. So there I was, holing one of Belgium’s most famous pigeons. What a thrill it was to hold a champion, a pigeon with a host of racing performances but, more importantly still, a champion breeder. To describe him, is to describe the type of pigeon typical to the Houben strain, of average size or slightly less so, with extremely rich and abundant feathering and an noble head with expressive eyes. Jef says that they are tame, quiet pigeons, very attached to their nest boxes and of a determined character. A good wing and strong muscles are obvious necessities, with eyes fairly important for breeding. Here Luc chipped in, “What you can not see, of feel, is the most important thing of all, brains! The main thing my father looks to is the basket. It alone decides whether a pigeon is good or bad. No-one in this world can say, by examining external qualities, that a pigeon is good or bad. Only that basket will prove whether your thoughts are right or wrong.” Sissi 6380346-82, a dark chequer hen, was passed across. I’d just handled what Jef said was his best ever pigeon, but this hen, in my hands felt even better. All I could say was, “If Jonge Artiest is your best ever pigeon, Sissi must surely be your second best.” Jef said noting.

What an incredible morning we spent, talking to this ace fancier and such a pleasant man he is. We must have handled fifty pigeons, all brought down from the lofts by Jef himself. But it was Evelyne who called a halt to the proceedings, insisting that we stay for dinner. What an education and pleasure it was to sit round the table talking pigeons. Luc showed us a photograph of the scene outside the Houben house, one Bourges National day. A crowd of over 300 people awaited arrivals in the street outside, may of them sitting on collapsible chairs they had brought along. Members of the family were moving amongst them, distributing soft drinks and bottled beers.
Jef disappeared from sight, returning with more pigeons, which he continued to do for some considerable time. My notebook was almost full, as we must have handled a hundred and it is no exaggeration to say that they were as alike as the proverbial peas in a pod. We felt highly privileged to have handled them.

Finally we persuaded Jef to sit down at the table to answer questions through the medium of Luc. “When do you mate your birds?” – “All of them stock, yearlings and racers, at the end of November. After rearing their young, they are separated to be remated on the 1st April. The racers rear one youngster only” – “What do you consider to be the most important factor in successful racing.” – “Apart from the fact that you must have good pigeons, feeding is paramount. Here it is carried out by Jef alone, who feeds all pigeons using a spoon. (If that spoon is mislaid, mayhem ensues and all the family will look for it). The amounts given depend on the season. This individual feeding takes two hours. In winter we use 50% sport mixture and 50% barley. For breeding, a breeding mixture. For moulting, a moulting mixture. For racing a PLX special racing mixture. Young birds are fed depurative at the beginning of the week leading to normal at the week’s end.” – “What about extras.” – “We use Doctor Norbert Peeters’ products also De Scheemaeckers electrolytes and Naturavit.”

“What about medicines?” – “We believe in medical supervision, only using cures when necessary. Droppings are examined regularly, under a microscope. (Luc is expert at this) If a pigeon returns late, it is isolated and carefully watched. We have never found wormd to be a problem. Coccidiosis is no problem either. Our lofts are thoroughly cleaned out twice daily, with a vacuum cleaner in daily use. Do this and you will avoid coccidiosis. We vaccinate against pox and paramyxo. Against canker we use Ridzol –S or similar.”

“What do you look for in a pigeon?”- “Like you have just seen. Pigeons of average size or slightly less, silky feathering, noble heads, expressive eyes and tameness.”
“What about lofts?” – “They must be kept dry. There must be good ventilation but no draughts. It is very important, especially during the racing season, that the temperature difference between day and night is not too big. A loft must not be hot during the day and cold at night.”

“What advice would you give to new starters?” – “Do not start with too many different strains, such as getting a couple of birds from fifteen different fanciers. Ten pigeons from three fanciers is better. Change the breeding pairs every year to find that special pair. Always look for something better. Never buy from a fancier who only wins with youngsters. It is important to go to those who race old birds well year after year.” – “Anything else?” – “Yes you must have luck and never thing you know everything about your pigeons. Our wonderful racing hen ‘Stella’ won big prizes for three years. In 1988 she was 3rd Provincial Orléans from over 4,000 pigeons. We got her ready for the Bourges National, flown three weeks later. She was sent in super form. On marking night I said to the family, ‘If I could do so, I’d sell the house and bet all the money on her.’ We never saw her again!”

It is impossible for me to detail even the Houben’s top prizes since they commenced mid-distance racing in 1960. They fill a book as do the names of fanciers the world over who have won top prizes with Houben pigeons. Bourges (480km) is their favourite race-point. Since 1968, they have been, on over fifty occasions, in the first hundred on the National result. 1991 was a great year, when their ‘Chipy’ won 1st Bourges National 7,848 birds, whilst Robin took the 11th prize. The story behind this marvelous performance is that in 1990, ‘Jonge Artiest’ was mated to a different hen, ‘T. Kletskopje’. Two cocks were born, to be named ‘Chipy’ and ‘Robin’, the two mentioned above. Prior to their Bourges wins, ‘Chipy’had been 238th National La Souterraine 11,859 birds and ‘Robin’ 219th National La Souterraine 15,249 birds. That same year, 1991, Houbens were winners of The Golden Duif Championship and 1st Overall champions De Belgische Duivensport. In 1992, they were 3rd Overall Champions of Antwerp Province with its 17,000 lofts. In 1993, they were 2nd in that same competitions and 20nd in the Versele-Lage Championship. The two best Houben racers at the present time are ‘Jonge Kapitein’ and ‘Mistral’.

Our visit was over. We made our farewells to the Houben family and regretfully took our leave. That evening, sitting in the hotel lounge, we talked over the visit. We agreed that we had been in the company of one of Belgium’s all time greats, one whose life had been devoted to pigeons. He might sell pigeons, at high prices, all over the world. He wins many top prizes and championships. He is famous. Those things however, do not top the list of Jef Houben’s priorities and of course those of Evelyne, Luc and Nadia.