How much would you pay for a pigeon? Let's rephrase that question. Would you pay to buy a pigeon at all in the first place? After all, there's plenty of hard work involved in breeding them. From providing them with filtered water and a variety of grains to hosting them in a huge space on your terrace, it's not easy.
But believe it or not, there are associations in Bangladesh involved in pigeon racing, which spend money to the tunes of lakhs behind a single bird.
The Cavendish is a champion bird from Belgium. It's sister was bought for BDT 410,000 from an auction a couple of years ago, and according to the Bangladesh Racing Pigeon Owner's Association (BRPOA), it is the highest amount any one has spent on a pigeon in the country.
Don't look surprised. It's not uncommon for fanciers—people who breed pigeons—to spend such an amount on these racing birds. In 2013, a Belgian pigeon called Usain Bolt was sold to a Chinese businessman for an astounding GBP 400,000, or around BDT 30,000,000.
“There are many factors behind the price of a pigeon,” explains Md Amdad Hossain Bhuiyan, General Secretary of the BRPOA. “You look at the number of races its mother has won and you also look at its races. When you find that its relatives have won a number of national races, the price automatically gets higher,” he adds. The Cavendish's mother had won 11 national races in Belgium and that's the reason why its price went up to BDT 400,000 during the auctions.
“Unless something very tragic takes place, you are bound to get a good return,” says Amdad. “Aside from winning races in Bangladesh, fanciers often sell the children of these high-priced birds at an even higher cost to other fanciers,” he says.
The one aspect that the purchase of The Cavendish's sister definitely highlights is the growing interest in pigeon racing in Bangladesh. What began as a mere pastime in 2004 has grown into three big clubs. Aside from the BRPOA, there is also the Bangladesh Racing Pigeon Fanciers Club (BRPFC) and the Bangladesh Racing Pigeon Entrepreneur Ltd.
Members of these clubs take part in 10 races every year, from November to March, which is considered to be the ideal time for the pigeons to compete. “In Europe, the races take place in the summer because the region is nearly frozen over in winter. For us though, it's the opposite. During summer, in the heat and amidst the rains, pigeons are likely to face more dangers,” explains Jahid Mollah, Treasurer of BRPFC.
So how do the races take place?
Each participant is required to pay a fee of BDT 100 to their respective clubs for each pigeon, after which the pigeons are carried on trucks to the race venue. The gates of the cages that the pigeons are kept in are electronically controlled so that when the buzzer is pressed, all the cages open at once, allowing a fair start.
The objective of the pigeons is to return to their respective homes or lofts as quickly as possible. Once the pigeon arrives, the timing is recorded on a digital clock. The distance from each of the lofts to the starting point is pre-measured using Google Maps and is then divided by the amount of time that the pigeon takes to cover the distance. Eventually, the pigeon with the highest velocity is deemed the winner.
“It's a well-known fact that pigeons have the ability to locate their lofts despite being thousands of kilometres away from it. Research shows that they use the earth's magnetic field, the sun and their noses to find their home,” says Jahid.
Some of the starting points include Teknaf, Chittagong, Saint Martin's Island, Chowmuhani and Mirsarai. These birds, on an average, have the ability to travel at 80 km/hr. So, if a race begins from St Martin's Island, a number of them come back to their respective homes in Dhaka within five to six hours. Their location and timing is measured with the help of a device with a chip that is fitted onto the bird's left leg.
“You feel really proud when you see your pigeon crossing seas and rivers in just a matter of hours and coming home. You know that you have trained it well,” says Jahid.
But it's not as though the same pigeon always ends up winning. There are a number of factors involved here as well. For instance, the pigeon that won last time may not necessarily be feeling well in the next race. Fanciers analyse this phenomenon by observing if there's any change in the pigeon's eating or flying habits.
And then there's the luck factor. There are times when a pigeon, despite coming close to its residence, circles around the rooftop before landing on the sensor board, which records its landing time. That way, the pigeon loses crucial seconds.
While these birds are born with a strong sense of direction, that ability needs to be honed from a young age in order for them to take part in races. It takes around five to six weeks, at least, to train a pigeon.
“After the pigeons are old enough, I send them to a place that's around 10 km away from my house. On the first day, they will take some time to find the top of my house. You will see them circling above for four to five minutes before landing,” says Jahid, while explaining the training mechanism.
“In the third week, they are taken 30 km away and by then, they know the way around quite well. After six weeks, they are generally capable of taking part in a race where they will need to cover 100 km, and as time progresses, they further expand their radius,” he adds.
The pigeons used for racing are a special kind and their origins are generally from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Every year, fanciers from these countries come to Bangladesh and sell their pigeons via auction. Local auctions among the clubs also take place after each race.
“If your pigeon wins the race, you will be given BDT 20,000. During the auctions, the price for the winning bird goes up to BDT 100,000,” says Jahid.
Members of the racing clubs in Bangladesh claim that they aren't into pigeon racing just for the money. After all, it's not as though there's a lot of money in the sport in the first place. They also claim that there's no underground betting scene in this sector.
For most of them, it's a hobby. The majority of the members have been taking care of pigeons since they were in school. The clubs are places where they can go and have a good adda. They believe that pigeon rearing is an activity that the youngsters of today need to get involved in.
“There are so many teenagers doing drugs these days. They don't have a place to go for entertainment. It's a horrible cycle. Pigeon rearing helps you learn a lot of things. Firstly, it keeps you occupied. You learn discipline and how to be responsible and then, you also grow a fondness for the birds, as though they are your own children,” explains Zahed Khan, a fancier from Mohammadpur.
Mohammad Amdad Hossian Bhuiyan from the BRPOA wants to take pigeon racing to another level. He wants the government to form a pigeon racing federation just like the other sports federations of the country and ensure that Bangladesh participates in pigeon races abroad.
Only time can tell whether pigeon racing will be considered as an official sport in the country, but there's no doubt that it's an activity that is gaining popularity.