Pigeons, Get me a Trophy


How do you make the common pigeon listen to your commands, identify colours and win fiercely fought competitions for you? There is a science involved

Atul Thakur & Amin Ali | TNN

Next time you shoo away the pigeon pecking at a morsel on your window sill, spare some thought. The little birdie hides inside it rare talents you have never known – like making sense of colours — yellow, red, green — and understanding human sounds. Or, for that matter, differentiating between the paintings of Monet and Picasso. Seriously.
But there’s something else it is really good at – winning competitions, making thousands of humans flock to kabootarbaazi events like the one in Agra that Sunday Times attended in the last week of December. What people go for is not just the thrill of seeing pigeons doing our bidding, but the amazing science of training them to do so.

At Kuberpur (Agra), on Christmas day,
crowds went wild as huge bunches of pigeons took off from the ground, swirled in the sky and landed back after flying in neat formations and in low circles. The khalifas, or pigeon fanciers, showed off their skills as they controlled the flight path of the birds with peculiar call signs. The trick for someone to win the competition is to trap birds of their rivals and add those to their own numbers. For instance, a khalifa will win if he starts off with 100 pigeons and ends up with 150 — the 50 weaned off from various competitors.
Kabootarbaazi, also called kulkulbaazi, is an annual festival that many say are attracting more youngsters each passing year, pulled to such events for the love of one of India’s oldest sports. There were 30,000-plus spectators this year, and organisers say the number has been going up steadily.
“The competition was revived in 2004 and draws some of the best pigeon fanciers of the area,” says Dinesh Choudhary, president of the Agra-Firozabad Kabootarbaazi Association. “In Agra, the venue is changed every day and the birds don’t get the advantage of recognising the lofts in which they were raised,” he adds.
The contest’s uniqueness even drew IT professional Pranay Praksh and his friends. “We were celebrating Christmas at Agra when we heard about this competition,” he says. “Soon, we started finding out details and realised it’s pretty big. It’s great we have made it here as this one’s been quite an experience.”
On the first day – the festival of sorts goes on for a week – the mounds between the mustard fields were packed with people gathered there to watch pigeons that are literally raised like kids and fed on a rich diet of dry fruits, desi ghee, millet and corn. A typical khalifa spends hours every day to train his birds. It pays off well. “I am a regular visitor to the event. This year I brought my daughter, too, because there is no better way to celebrate Christmas than to watch the Taj and kabootarbazi,” says Mohammad Abrar who had come all the way from old Delhi.

How does it work? Primarily, the birds are trained to recognise the voice, whistle and hand gestures of their masters. Teams first gather around and take positions on vantage mounds, marking their territories with flags and a circular landing pad of similar colour. Every team has to fly its pigeon-group at the same time, let the birds blend together in air and then finally
show their skills by calling the birds
back. The pigeons are trained to respond in particular ways by identifying different stimuli. A whistle, for
example, means that one is flying in the right direction; hands and flags are used to make the birds change their path, and “Aaao”, typically, is a call for return to base.
As the competition begins, the khalifas order their birds to join other groups in the air. After a few rounds of flight, they start instructing their birds to fly in different directions. While the best-trained birds come back intact, the lesser ones get confused, fall into the trap, and join rival gangs as they return to the starting point. After several rounds, the team that catches the maximum pigeons wins.
This time, the pigeons of Ustad Anis and Khalifa Akhtar performed with commendable expertise and finesse. They were happy at the end of it. Beaming with joy, Akhtar said, “In the worst scenario, our pigeons, sometimes worth over Rs 2.5 lakh, can all get caught in rival traps within the span of an hour. It is not just pride that is at stake.”
But on December 30, after six days of excitement, it was Ali Sher Pehalwan’s team that was declared the winner. The pigeons will go back to better and richer food, with more proteins perhaps, and their masters will carry with them the joy they gave the spectators and the extra sharpness they added to the amazing science of pigeon flying.
Nature has gifted pigeons with distinctive abilities
These birds can position themselves by recognising earth’s magnetic field
A recent study by German scientist Gerta Fleissner reported threedimensional iron like structure in a pigeon’s beak that helps it in precise measurement of the three components of the earth’s magnetic field
For smaller distances, pigeons construct navigational maps
Unlike our retina which has three different type of cone or colour receptors, pigeons have five cone types. With all possible combinations these birds can see three times as many colours as humans
A 1995 paper released by Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita indicates that the birds can be trained to differentiate between the paintings of Monet and Picasso. The birds showed that they can differentiate between cubist and impressionist art
A 2010 study published in ‘Nature’ indicates that there is a hierarchy mechanism in small groups of pigeons. It is assumed that the mechanism can operate at multiple level if the flocks scales up to a larger group

(source: http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Archive&Source=Page&Skin=pastissues2&BaseHref=CAP/2012/01/08&PageLabel=21&EntityId=Ar02100&ViewMode=HTML)

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