Pigeon racing has caught the attention of Madurai fanciers and has definitely moved with the times

It took five days for Lavanya to reach home from Nagpur. Travelling 1600 km and traversing three states, this male pigeon made a perfect landing at its loft.

“Pigeons are intelligent,” says T. Paranthaman, who owns more than 300 pairs. “I have named the pigeons after my daughter,” he smiles. “Homer breeds are trained to compete in long distance races. They are diurnal, with an ability to travel 500 km a day. My pigeons have returned home from Tada, the Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu border, on the same day covering around 560 km,” he says.

Though there are different theories on how the pigeon reaches its loft perfectly, the more popular one is that it senses the earth’s magnetic field and uses the sun for direction to navigate.

Inducting a pigeon into a race is not easy. It has to be done gradually and takes months of training. “A dove is ready for the race from the sixth month,” says Paranthaman, who has been breeding pigeons for more than 40 years. “Every day we release the birds to fly and it will fly around for about an hour and return to the nest. Gradually, we increase the distance.”

The local racing pigeon club transports the birds to various sites and then releases them to fly back to their loft. “The time it takes the fowl to cover the specified distance is then measured,” says D. Rajamanickam, president of the Madurai Racing Pigeon Club.

Every bird’s time of travel is calculated and compared with that of all the other pigeons in the race to determine which pigeon returned at the highest speed. The traditional method of timing pigeons is to place a rubber tag on the leg of each bird – each tag has a unique serial number. When the bird returns home the tag is removed by a neutral judge, who records the official time. As races can be won or lost by seconds rather than minutes, owners take extreme care in recording the time.

The club is now planning to update the system of recording the arrival system. “We have planned to fix a band that contains a microchip,” says Rajamanickam. “The antenna placed at the entry point to the loft scans the chip and automatically reads the data as the bird arrives at the loft,” he explains.

The health of the racing pigeons is important as it decides the winner. The doves have to be in a position to handle adversaries as they may fall prey to vultures. “The breed and lineage also determines the performance of the pigeons,” he says. “We strictly stick to its blood line and never cross-breed. Our best performances are recorded by the doves whose lineage is from a Racing Homer imported from Belgium in 1984.”

Members of the club feed the pigeons with millets, ragi, gingelly seeds and green gram in the morning and Bengal gram, peas, groundnut and sunflower seed in the evening. “I feed my pigeons with badam and pista during the racing period,” says Paranthaman, who is also the secretary of the Madurai Racing Pigeon Club. “We prepare a pigeon for the race like equipping a sportsperson. The preparation starts one month before the race. We give them calcium for general health, liver tonic to prevent any indigestion and antibiotic to keep parasites away. For the effort we put it in, our birds will never cheat us,” he says.

Each racing pigeon weighs around 150 to 200 gm. It has a life span of 12 years and it actively participates in races from six months to four years and retires after that. The retired pigeon is then used for breeding purposes.

The racing season starts from January and ends in March. “It is the time when the weather is conducive for the birds’ flight,” says Paranthaman. “The wind blows from north to south and there are no rains.”

There are around 25 members in the Madurai Racing Pigeon Club and only 10 of them are actively involved in racing.

“After a prolonged effort the Indian Racing Pigeon Association has got its international recognition and we work to get affiliation from the national body,” says Paranthaman, who is now planning to organise a single loft race next year. “It is my dream. It has been happening in Belgium. I have invited my friends all over the country and international friends for this race.”

In an effort to popularise this sport, he visits schools and encourages students to pursue it. “I am ready to meet students and impart my knowledge. If the school authorities accept, I am also ready to offer my pigeons free to the school,” he says.

But severe restrictions imposed by law-enforcement agencies disappoint fanciers. Says Paranthaman, “Law enforcers leave those who kill these peace-loving birds for food but are harassing us. In fact, we are protecting the avian friends.”