In the Mediterranean costal town of Fethiye, a wheeling cloud of more than a hundred pigeons, (a ‘kit’ for professionals) take their exercise at the same time every day, obscuring the sky in front of the Lycian tomb of Amintas. This breathtaking sight links the modern sport, popular in many parts of Turkey, with the ancient history of the orient and of these spectacular birds.

Pigeons have been domesticated for more than 10,000 years and many of the 550 breeds are found in all parts of the world. It is therefore no surprise that Turkey is celebrated for its remarkable array of speedy, tumbling, spinning varieties. Worldwide there are some very famous people known to have a passion for the sport of racing pigeons or ‘pigeon fancying’, including one very well known woman, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom!

Selçuk Yildız, originally from Gaziantep but now living in the village of Inlice, between Fethiye and Göcek, has more than a hundred birds of different breeds, which live in coops behind his house. He knows each one and handles them with gentle love and gentleness. They know him too and respond to his low whistles and calls. He explains that, “pigeons pair for life and have a special way of raising their young, each taking turns to incubate their precious eggs. They are extraordinary birds.”

“The parents assiduously care for their young, who stay in the nests for 10 weeks, much longer than many other birds [which is, by the way why baby pigeon are seldom seen] and emerge strong and feathered. The adult bird produces new feathers once every year and can live for 15 years in captivity.” The pigeons’ number one enemy are birds of prey such as hawks and falcons, for whom a plump, healthy pigeon can make a tasty meal. “Turkish pigeon lovers can only pray that their birds return home safely.”

“Different breeds of pigeons have different abilities. Some are show varieties. Others are bred as ‘homing’ or racing birds. These can fly from sunrise to sunset at incredible speeds.” Yildız adds.

No matter where they fly in the world the basic training for the homing pigeon is the same. In the early days of training the young racers are taken several miles from home and taught to return quickly to get the tastiest grains. At first they are released as a kit, but to give them more experience and self-confidence, a trainer will often release them to fly home solo.

The show breeds include Tumblers, Rollers and Tipplers. One example of a special Turkish pigeon is the “Hunkar” (meaning “king”) pigeon, a crested white bird, which originates from Izmir and Manisa, which was bred in Ottoman times. The Turkish ‘Takla’ or Tumbler is probably the most popular bird, coming in many different colours, with a frill of feathers around its feet.

As the name suggests these bird are famous for their tumbling – falling and spinning through the air, sometimes from amazing altitudes, before finally landing elegantly. As Yildız explains they are mostly known by the name of the town from which they originate. Denizli or Sivas, for example and Bursa; which is said to be one of the oldest roller breeds in the world. Other Turkish breeds include, Dönek, Kelebek and Dolapcı

Another famous breed is the ‘Messenger Pigeon’, or ‘Posta’ in Turkish, which has played an important part in military campaigns, as recently as the 2nd World War. The United Kingdom used about 250,000 homing pigeons during the war. The Dickin Medal, which is the highest possible animal’s decoration for valour, was awarded to 32 pigeons, including the United States Army Pigeon Service’s G.I. Joe and the Irish pigeon Paddy. Incredibly, the last ‘pigeon post’ service was abandoned in India in 2004 with the birds being retired to live out the rest of their days in peace.

“Pigeon fancying” itself, has a rich and ancient history. It is suggested that the sport travelled from the steppes of Central Asia with Turkey’s Shamanistic forebears, or along the Silk Road from the Far East. Maybe it came from Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq.) Whichever it was, Turkish towns and cities as diverse as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Sivas and Gaziantep have a large number of clubs and societies in which this remarkable bird is cherished and celebrated. Although the town regarded as the most renowned for pigeon fancying as a sport is Mardin, it is in Sanlı Urfa the famous ‘Battle of the skies’ takes place. This is a daily spectacle of tumbling, soaring pigeons filling the sky above the town, said to date back to 2000BC to the time of King Nemrud.

There is little media coverage other than in local papers and in many parts of the world the sport is in decline but nevertheless Turkey has a large and active Pigeon Fanciers Federation with a wide regional network, including a very active one in Fethiye, Muğla. This branch that has more than 400 members many of who come together every Saturday evening to discuss things important to pigeon fanciers: buying and selling the chicks of prize winners of the more than 180 Turkish breeds and generally sharing information. They also organise their own shows and travel to others all over the country. The ‘joy of the competition’ forms a large part of the weekly meeting according to Ümit Karagöz, the club’s chairman.

His passion for this sport is clear as he explains how intelligent these birds are. “They can be taught some complex skills and are among the very few animals that can pass ‘the mirror test’ where is appears to recognise itself. We can train pigeons to obey commands, whistles mostly and some rules. All competing birds are liberated at the same time and on their return home the rubber ring is used to measure the velocity – and the fastest wins! A master timer coordinates the results.”

Karagöz is delighted by the popularity of the sport in Fethiye – and Turkey generally. “For many countries pigeon fancying is seen as a sport for older people, but here it is wonderful to see so many young men participating.” It is an interesting sport to watch too and it is not difficult to understand how attached the fanciers become to their birds. Karagöz sums it his love of this idiosyncratic sport. “ It is wonderful way to relax after work. I feel really emotional when I see my birds returning home after a long journey. For me, it’s a million times better than football!”

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