It is pigeon racing season in southern India as enthusiasts are preparing their birds and gearing up for the final race. For many people the sport is a way of life. Vasudevan Sridharan reports from Chennai.
In the southern Indian city of Chennai, the pigeon racing season is reaching its climax. For pigeon keepers – or fanciers as they are known – it is a very important time of year. The wings of thousands of pigeons are routinely tested, the birds are watered and fed nutritious meals at regular intervals and much ground-work is laid for a race taking place in the skies.
Chennai is home to nearly half of India's 7,000-strong fanciers, making it the "Mecca of pigeon racing."
Between January and April, fanciers put their pigeons to participate in races of varying lengths ranging from 200 to 1,400 kilometers (120 - 870 miles). The former maximum race length of 1,850 kilometers (1,140 miles) was removed after animal rights groups expressed concern over the health of the birds.
As the race for the final category is set to begin, all eyes are on the upcoming event. The winning birds will be sought after for breeding and the first bird to reach home earns its keeper a prize and the respect of his fellow fanciers.
A close-knit community of fanciers raising pigeons has been breaking many barriers in the last two decades as the sport, a passion for thousands of people in South Asia, gradually emerged from a hobby to a cultural phenomenon.
More than two dozen clubs have cropped up in recent years providing platforms for the fanciers to exchange knowledge, updates and race against each other.
Pigeon racing, also popular in some parts of Europe, first appeared in the Indian cities Kolkata and Bengaluru in the 1940s and 1970s. In Chennai the sport gained popularity in the 1980s.
The Indian Racing Pigeon Association (IRPA) is the official body that conducts races and is recognized internationally. Several other smaller clubs also organize races on their own.
IRPA's president, Ivan Philips, told DW that there has been steady growth in interest towards rearing pigeons for sporting purposes in India in the past decade. The number of pigeon fanciers grows between 10 percent and 20 percent every year, he said.
Philips says there are plans to conduct racing events twice a year, divided between younger and older birds.
"We have our own pigeon racing Olympics, which is conducted every two years," he said.
"The next one is set to take place in Poland next year. We also have a two-day world congress for pigeon fanciers during which we discuss and share the latest developments in the sport from other countries. We decide on the future of pigeon racing in our countries for the next two years during the conference," said Philips.
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A growing cultural phenomenon
Fanciers have refined their methods over the years, including making birds' diets more nutritious, applying superior breeding techniques and using technology in training.
Once seen as a hobby of the working class, pigeon racing has gradually managed to climb up the social hierarchy in India. People like doctors, lawyers, businessmen, engineers and lawmakers are becoming involved.
"There was a time in Chennai when pigeon racing was largely associated only with auto-rickshaw drivers and daily wage workers," said Philips.
Many fanciers, who are mostly men, also involve their families in the sport and share their passion with loved ones. Many enthusiasts inherited the sport from previous generations.
There is little chance to make money with pigeon racing and the sport is a labor of love. Even the cash prizes awarded at the racing events are roughly worth 5,000 Indian rupees (€62), whereas the monthly expenses of about 100 birds would cost more than that.
Surprisingly, there is no rampant gambling or foul play such as the introduction of growth stimulators in birds in the loosely organized sport, barring few instances of malpractices.
In comparison, there have been many cases of violation in sports like horse racing.
One of the major challenges faced by the lovers of pigeon racing sport is the government's reluctance to formalize the sport, which would foster a regulated system.
A passion for pigeons
Mohanakrishnan, an ardent pigeon fancier whose bird won the long-distance race in 2017, is gearing up to send three of his coveted birds on an arduous 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) voyage sometime in the next few days. He rears as many as 150 pigeons at the moment and ends up spending up to 8,000 Indian rupees (€100) monthly.
Explaining his feeding methods, Mohanakrishnan, an engineer who goes by a single name, told DW "I feed corn, groundnut, white corn, varieties of wheat, horse gram, candle millet, finger millet to all the birds regularly. Every morning, I also give oil feeds so as to strengthen the birds allowing them to fly longer distances."
When asked about the training regime for the birds, he said the preparations begin soon after what is known as the "molting period" – typically between July and September – during which the pigeons shed their feathers for fresh ones. The first month after molting is crucial to make the birds' wings stronger and hone their skills.
After monitoring flying abilities, Mohanakrishnan said homing pigeons are then made to fly at regular intervals between five and 120 kilometers (three – 75 miles) to boost their capability and sharpen their homing skills.
Over a 15-year lifespan, pigeons are their racing peak for four to five years. After this the best are kept as "stock birds" to strengthen the gene-pool of the next generation.
Mohanakrishnan added that an experienced fancier could determine whether a particular bird is worthy of racing by looking at its eyes, wing patterns, body, feathers and legs, but cautioned there is always a chance of making a mistaken guess.
Birds can also be lost due to several factors both during the training and racing phases – but this risk can be minimized if the fanciers take necessary precautionary measures, added Mohanakrishnan.