Autumn 1995 (3.3)
Pages 28, 38
"Birds of Peace"
Keeping Pigeons in Azerbaijan
by Judith Scott
For many modern city dwellers, the word "pigeon" conjures up images of dirty, disgusting, disease-spreading creatures. But that's not the story you'll get from pigeon fanciers. Those who spend their leisure raising the birds develop a deep affection for them and insist that human beings have much to learn by imitating these "Birds of Peace."
In Azerbaijan, like many other places in the world, keeping pigeons is a favorite pastime. The tradition dates back centuries and probably millennia. These days in Baku, it's still not hard to find fanciers among the narrow, winding thoroughfares of the old "Inner City", the part of town surrounded by citadel walls, built in the ninth century. Look for small sheds in alleys, backyards, and courtyards. One of the most popular places to raise them is on the flat rooftops of houses and apartments. (You'll probably have to climb up a rickety, old ladder above a second or third story to get the best view. And no, there are no guardrails once you're up there.)
Abbas (pronounced Ab-BAHS) raises about 300 birds. His shed is up a back alley close to an open field overgrown with weeds about five minutes walking distance from the City Hall. In his mid-forties, his face weathered from the sun, Abbas has spent untold hours watching and caring for his pigeons. "I've been keeping these birds for as long as I remember. Before me, my parents and grandparents used to do it. Now my own three children are fond of them, too.
Pigeon lovers the world over, not just in Azerbaijan, will tell you that keeping the birds "just grows on you", and that if you catch the "pigeon bug" as a child, you're likely to stay hooked for the rest of your life.
Abbas has named his birds. Mostly, he calls them by some physical characteristic, although, occasionally, a behavioral trait is noted, too. There's Blue, Black, Flowery Neck, Red Neck, Bare Foot. After listing a few dozen, he interrupts himself, "I could go on telling you their names until morning," he offers, trying to prove how dear these creatures are to him, though a bit unsure whether others are so eager to hear him recite pigeon names until daybreak.
People throughout the world have many reasons for keeping pigeons. They're raised for food, called "squabs" (chicks), for breeding exotic species, for racing and "high flying". Some people are simply fascinated by the elaborate plumage and colorage of some of the exotic species. Scientific labs raise them for medical purposes, especially in studying endocrinology and genetics.
But for Abbas, the birds are pure pleasure and companionship. "We wouldn't think of eating them. Oh no! That would be a sin! We love them more than our own selves," he admits. "When I release them to fly away, I never go anywhere even if I'm called, until they come back. Watching them calms my nerves." There's a social element, too. Pigeons provide a good excuse for friends and neighbors to casually drop by and chat and watch together, especially after work in the early evening hours.
"We love to train them when there's a wind. It's good for deepening and strengthening their breathing." Baku, allegedly named for its "pounding winds" ("bad kube" in Persian) gets very strong seasonal winds, sometimes up to 40-60 miles an hour. "That's when we make them fly very high-up so high, they appear like tiny specks in the sky. But by sundown, they always return."
Pigeons have an incredible instinct of always knowing where "home" is. Abbas says that once he brought seven pigeons from Astrakhan, up north in the Volga Delta in Russia more than 500 miles away by sea, and even further by land. "The person who gave them to me warned me not to take them away, insisting they would return. I was skeptical: it was simply too far. So I brought them to Baku and a few days later, he sent me a telegram saying the pigeons had all returned."
"To keep pigeons from flying away you have to take good care of them. They become very devoted and loyal," Abbas says. "I have one pigeon that even if you took him to America, I promise he'd be back within a few weeks." His claim sounds a bit exaggerated, given the distance of the Atlantic, but pigeons have been known to fly thousands of miles. In races, some have clocked 90 miles per hour.
Pigeons don't require much in the way of housing as long as they're kept clean, dry and away from drafts. The main thing is to keep out vermin and predators, and provide wheat or other cereals along with a regular supply of water. But these days, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, feed is more expensive. "Economic crisis affects pigeons just like it does human beings." Abbas estimates the life span of his birds is maximum 16-17 years, though some pigeon species are known to live 30-35 years.
"They're smart in a possessive way, too," Abbas observes. Pigeons tend to be monogamous at any given time. "I once had a male pigeon who disappeared. When, he came back a month later, he discovered that his female had 'gotten eggs' from another pigeon. Out of pure jealousy, he killed those little pigeons ."
Domesticated pigeons are believed to have originated from the Blue Barred Rock Dove (Columba Livia) indigenous to Europe, Asia and Africa. Today, hundreds of breeds have been identified worldwide-all descendants of this common ancestor, and all, capable of interbreeding.
Quite possibly, pigeons were the first bird ever tamed by man. Noah is said to have used pigeons to determine if the flood waters had subsided. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians are known to have domesticated pigeons more than 3,000 years ago. Pigeons are portrayed on Mesopotamian coins dating back to 4500 BC.
Using Pigeons as Carriers
Pigeons have played strategic roles in war. The Rothschilds received the news of Napoleon's defeat by the armies of Wellington at Waterloo via pigeon. The Reuters News Agency, the first major news service, became famous only after pigeons were used to send news from the Paris stock market to the south of France.
In both world wars, stories abound in which pigeons performed heroically. One pigeon named "Cher Ami" which served in the US Army Signal Corps in France during World War I was awarded the French "Croix de Guerre" (War Cross) for having saved 194 soldiers who had been "lost" from their battalion.
Equipped with special capsules attached to their legs, the birds used to deliver vital maps and secret documents under the harshest of conditions, many times at the risk of their own lives. Genghis Khan employed carrier pigeons, too, in military tactics of the 12th century. Nowadays, with satellite telecommunications, the use of pigeons as carriers has been drastically reduced.
In the United States and Europe, pigeon raising was much more popular 100 years ago then it is today. For example, the University of California system lists more than 250 books about pigeons, most dating back before the 1900s. Titles read like "Passenger Pigeons" (1858); "A-Z of Pigeons" (1867), "Treatise on the Art of Breeding and Managing Pigeons" (1852), "Squab Secrets Disclosed" (1914), and "Pigeons in the Great War" (1914-1918).
But still, today, there are many devoted pigeon keepers and, thus, Pigeon Associations exist all over the world. The US National Pigeon Association, for example, held its annual show in Oklahoma City last year and had 6,000 pigeon entries. Birds are judged on the fine nuances of their appearance, demeanor, and carriage. People connect via the Internet to learn how to take care of their birds <recreation.pet.birds>. For specific pigeon news, try AOL (America On Line) discussion group, "Pigeons, Anyone?" under Keyword: "Pet Care", and subtitle "Birds".
But in Azerbaijan, pigeon fanciers pass on their interest and love for the birds just as they have for generations-through the children. More than anything, the nature of the birds themselves attract hobbyists. Pigeons are friendly, affectionate social creatures, preferring the company of the flock than to going it alone. It's rare for pigeons ever to express aggression. They'll let you hold and pet them, they'll alight on your shoulder and your head. In Azerbaijan and elsewhere in the region, including Tabriz (Iran), many people own pigeons which can somersault backwards while flying-an absolutely spectacular sight! They're tamable and trainable. Some even teach their favorite birds to sip water from between their lips.
Because of their gentle nature, pigeons have earned the reputation as the "Bird of Peace". Artists, like Picasso, throughout the world have perpetrated this belief and quest for worldwide peace through their graceful sketches of the all-white species with its thinner body and longer tail (sometimes called "dove"). For Abbas, who hopes the war with Armenians will soon come to an end, it's all the more reason he finds meaning in raising them.
John Arena of Western Australia and Alan Zuschlag of Washington, D.C., both extremely knowledgeable pigeon fanciers for many years, have contributed to this article via the Internet.
From Azerbaijan International (3.3) Autumn 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.