Pigeon fancying is an ancient pastime in Turkey, popular to this day. We spoke with our very own Fethiye experts to find out more about this fascinating hobby, its history and current day attraction.

At the same time each day a wheeling cloud of more than a hundred pigeons, known as a kit, fly in the sky above the Lycian tomb of Amintas, Fethiye. Training pigeons is an historic sport and although in decline in other parts of the world, it’s thriving in Turkey.

 

'Kit' wheeling in the sky above Fethiye
‘Kit’ wheeling in the sky above Fethiye

Racing and showing pigeons, or pigeon fancying, has a rich and ancient history; the birds have been domesticated for more than 10,000 years. The sport is thought to have originated with Turkey’s Shamanistic forebears, who came from Central Asia. Others link the sport to Mesopotamia.

From Sandringham to Fethiye

There are 550 breeds of domesticated pigeons throughout the world and some very famous aficionados, including the British Queen Elizabeth II. She has around 240 birds at the royal pigeon lofts at Sandringham and is president of many pigeon racing societies around the country.

However, the majority of pigeon fanciers have more modest aims. Selçuk Yıldız, has more than 100 pigeons of various breeds living in coops behind his house in Inlice. Yıldız knows each of his birds and handles them with care. They know him too, responding to his low whistles and calls.

Pigeons are handled with love and care
Pigeons are handled with love and care

An extraordinary bird

 

Yıldız explains that pigeons pair for life and take turns to incubate their precious eggs.

“Pigeons can live for 15 years in captivity.They diligently care for their young, who stay in the nest for 10 weeks, much longer than many other birds, and emerge strong and feathered. This is why we rarely see pigeon chicks,”

he said.

Extraordinary birds that pair for life
Extraordinary birds that pair for life
Pigeon chicks stay in the nest for first 10 weeks of their lives, which is why they are seldom seen
Pigeon chicks stay in the nest for first 10 weeks of their lives, which is why they are seldom seen

Training and showing pigeons

Homing, or racing, birds can fly from sunrise to sunset at incredible speeds and, no matter where they fly in the world the training for a homing pigeon is the same.

In the early days of training, the young racers are taken several miles from home and taught to return.

At first, they are released as a kit, or group, but to give them more experience and self-confidence, a trainer often has them fly home solo.

The pigeon 'kit' are released and trained to return home
The pigeon ‘kit’ are released and trained to return home

Show breeds include Tumblers, Rollers and Tipplers. One special Turkish pigeon is the Hünkar (Sultan) pigeon: a crested white bird that originated in Izmir and Manisa and was bred in Ottoman times. The Turkish Takla (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. They are mostly known by the name of the town where they originated: Denizli, Sivas, or Bursa and are said to be one of the oldest tumbler breeds in the world. Other Turkish breeds include Dönek, Kelebek and Dolapçı.

There are many different breeds of pigeons
There are many different breeds of pigeons

A rich history

Nowadays the southeast Turkish town of Mardin is renowned for pigeon fancying as a sport and in Şanlıurfa there is the famous “Battle of the Skies”. This is when tumbling, soaring pigeons fill the sky above the town, a spectacle said to date back to 2,000 B.C.E., the time of King Nemrud.

Pigeon fancying is a historic and thriving sport in Urfa and Mardin
Pigeon fancying is a historic and thriving sport in Urfa and Mardin

A sport in decline but not everywhere

In many parts of the world the sport is in decline but Turkey has a large and active Pigeon Fanciers Federation with a thriving regional network, including a very active group in Fethiye. Here more than 400 members meet every Saturday evening to discuss things important to pigeon fanciers.

They organize their own shows and travel to others all over the country. The ‘thrill of the competition’ is a large part of the weekly meeting, according to club chairman Ümit Karagöz.

“They can be taught some complex skills and are among the very few animals that can pass ‘the mirror test’, where they appear to recognize themselves,” he said.

Karagöz says, “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,” he added. This sport is an interesting one to watch too and it is not difficult to understand how attached the fanciers become to their birds. It is a 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.”

This story was originally published in 2010