Queen had to return home at any cost. She flew relentlessly, braving the headwind and the ominous hawks circling above her head. She flew by the day, and by the night. She covered 1,000 km in 16 hours from an unfamiliar place called Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. Soon she was able to spot her home in Hyderabad, at Mallepally, to be precise. She is a homing pigeon. She always comes back home.

There are times when the birds get injured in hawk attacks, but they come back anyway. In the merciful weather of December and January, it is not only kites that claim a slice of Hyderabad’s sky. It’s the season of homing pigeon races too, and enthusiasts have already begun the rehearsals.

Pigeon racing clubs
“The Hyderabad Homer Pigeon Club (HHPC) was established in 2010 and has 20 members now. We usually compete among ourselves – 200 km, 250 km, 350 km and more. The first race of our club this year is on December 23,” says the club’s president Dr Shakir Noman. Recalling how pigeons have always been a part of his life, Dr Noman adds: “My grandmother was a pigeon enthusiast. My brother and I spent our childhood among them. It was this passion that drew me to racing pigeons as well.” Queen, who flew back from Gwalior, belongs to this club.

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Saif Mohammad Khan, racing secretary of Deccan Pigeon Force Club (DPFC), had a similar affinity. He grew up in a farm and his grandfather loved pigeons. His club, too, has 20 members, 12 of whom will take part in racing this year. “Kolkata and Chennai are the pigeon racing hubs in India. It was started by the British soldiers who had returned from war in Kolkata. Pigeons were extensively used in world wars to carry messages,” says Saif.

DPFC’s first race will be held on December 16. They have various categories of races like Young Derby (for yearlings), Open Races (birds older than a year) and Open Derby (birds from all rings). Rings are unique numbers that are given to all members. The price of each pigeon starts from Rs 10,000 and goes higher. A Belgian racing pigeon, Bolt, holds the world record for being sold at USD 400,000.

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The Process
“To start with, the birds are brought to one place and then carried in an open basket to the release location. Since the birds prefer to fly from north to south, we go north to choose release points. Once we get to the release point, we release the birds and come back. The birds fly back to their respective homes.

They are tagged with an external and internal number. Whichever pigeon returns first, wins,” explains Dr Nouman. The more they make the birds practise, the better they become at flying. The DPFC has started training the birds, which is called tossing. They recently had a tossing session in which they released the birds from Kamareddy.

Features and diet
“Homing pigeons are more muscular than the regular rock pigeons. They hold their chest upright and the body is betel leaf shaped. The ones with any white pattern are called Pieds. There are chequered and blue ones too,” Dr Noman says, exhibiting the beautiful wing pattern of his champion bird, Queen. “You can tell whether a bird is a short or long distance flier from the wing pattern,” he adds.

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The doctor, who spends Rs 20,000 a month on his birds, says that the birds feed on a mix of grains that include maize, jowar, wheat and pulses. They are also given multi-vitamins and vaccinated four-five times a year.

“The birds are also dewormed and given grit, which help the birds to digest the grains,” says Saif from DPFC. After importing birds was banned in India some 10 years ago due to a global bird flu outbreak, most of these birds are bought from Kolkata and Chennai, he says.

How do they navigate?
The popular theories are that homing pigeons use magnetic fields or low frequency sounds to find their way in the skies. Whatever the reason, Dr Noman believes that God has given the pigeons their own GPS system.

Is cruelty involved?
The doctor debunked reports that gambling was involved in racing pigeons or that it constitutes animal cruelty. “It is just a hobby. We take good care of the birds, and do not make them fly very long distances. We also strictly prohibit betting.” #KhabarLive