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Peace birds in racing mode

Chennai, Dec. 3: Pigeons are hot property in Tamil Nadu’s capital. They have come a long way from the time they were fancied as couriers and assigned to carry intelligence messages in wartime Britain. Thoroughbred pigeons are now providing racing enthusiasts a kick in Chennai and other parts of the country.

Several clubs have sprung up in old Chennai, bracing for long-distance “pigeon races”’ from Calcutta and New Delhi, with the bird’s famed homing ability proving handy for race-lovers.

Pigeons will be released at a show in Calcutta next month — the birds’ flight back to Chennai, if they make it that far, will be watched with great interest. The Calcutta-Chennai route was tried two years ago, but the long eastern coastline posed the birds difficulties.

The Calcutta Racing Pigeons Club is the oldest in India, with birds left behind by the British at Independence helping nurture the “sport” during post-Independence years.

S. Balaji, a veteran Chennai pigeon racer, says the club has organised races between Calcutta and Delhi. “Y.S. Chen, P.S. Lee and Huang are among the pioneers of this peace birds’ sport in Calcutta,” says Balaji, an avid racer himself.

“Believe it or not, there are now anywhere from 300 to 500 pigeon fanciers in Chennai and even a racing pigeons federation has been formed to coordinate the activities of all the pigeon clubs,” he says. “I have taken this as my only vocation in life even if it is an expensive proposition.”

Balaji is by no means the only one passionate about pigeon-rearing in Tamil Nadu. He teamed up with a like-minded friend Ravichandran to buy 40 birds from a landlord in Salem. The duo now has 100 birds in their pigeon loft, on the roof of Balaji’s house. “We don’t want to sell even one of them, though the racing phenomenon has placed a premium on these birds,” the bird-lovers said.

There are at least five racing pigeon clubs here and the roots of this fancy can be traced back to the 1980s when Jimmy Diaz, an American living in Chennai, imported 14 pigeons from the US.

The then Karnataka finance minister Ghorpade bought a pair of red pigeons from that lot, recalls Balaji. “We much later came to know that they were a 500-miles winner,” he adds.

The descendants of those American birds are doing the rounds of Chennai’s racing circuit, with their “racing value” having caught the bird lovers’ eye.

Some have imported books from the US and the UK to read up about “pigeon science” and learn how to rear these birds. The hobby doesn’t come cheap: the mortality rate of the pigeons is high and all their medicines have to be imported.

“Club rings with the punch mark of the club and serial numbers are given” to each pigeon once it is enrolled at a club. “After the young ones are hatched, we have to train them for at least three months,” says Balaji. The first sorties are across short distances, from Chennai’s suburbs to the pigeons’ lofts.

The trial runs, starting from a distance of two km and extending till 70 km, help the birds hone their homing “instinct”. The runs also help the birds learn to tackle “several hazards” like predators or losing their way en route.

Chennai’s racing enthusiasts held their first long-distance pigeon race in January 1995, recalls Ravichandran. That race was staged from Bitragunta in Andhra Pradesh, 190 km away, to Chennai.

During races, the “liberator” drives the pigeons across to a pre-selected “race point” from where they are released. The date and time each bird is released is conveyed by phone to a coordinating club official in Chennai along with the number of participants. The official appoints “referees” who have to be present at each pigeon owner’s residence to note when the birds return.

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