Pigeon Racing

Pigeon racing began in 1818 in Belgium and spread across Europe and the rest of the world.

Pigeon racing is a so-called “sport” or “hobby” in which specially bred pigeons (similar to the ones we commonly see but with high navigational skills) perform nationally from November to March-April when about 1200 birds participate in races – and in varied competitions. The rest of the year the pigeons are bred and/or trained.

Carrier or homing pigeons were used for delivering messages during World War II. The Calcutta Racing Pigeons Club is the oldest in India with descendents of the birds left behind by the British, whereas in Chennai the descendents of a pair of pigeons brought in by an American in the 1980s are mostly found in the clubs of the city. As Government of India does not permit the import of these birds, some individuals and organisations such as the Central Madras Homer Club who breed and train pigeons, import eggs of particular bloodlines and hatch them – bypassing the law. However, in Old Delhi pigeons and Kabutarbaaz or pigeon keepers continue to exist since the Mughal era.

Till March 2002 the Police Pigeon Service was used for emergency communications during natural disasters in Orissa. And, in 2018 the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage conducted a ceremonial flight of these pigeons from Bhubaneswar to Cuttack.

Pigeons have an instinctive ability to navigate by the sun, the earth’s magnetic field and by infrasound or hearing distant low-frequency sound waves. However, due to adverse weather or man-created conditions (like telecom and cell tower signals emitting electromagnetic radiation or EMR which results in disorientation, and wind turbines which affect all birds and bats too) they increasingly find it difficult to pick up proper directions to reach “home” but it is erroneously claimed that “no matter what, most do eventually return safe”.

For example in April 2022 the Karnataka Homing Pigeon Federation released 26 homing pigeons from 2 rectangular cages on a vacant plot in Delhi. From this starting point which they had never been before, they had to somehow find their way back to their respective lofts about 1,500 to 1,700 kilometres away. The birds had a red seal affixed on their wings and 2 rubber bands on their legs with concealed numbers for identification on reaching so that the fastest bird could be ascertained and awarded. After verifying the number and noting the time of arrival, the organisers of the race calculate the distance covered (in kilometres) and the pigeon’s velocity (in metres per minute). Some use Radio Frequency Identification via an electronic chip attached to the bird and a corresponding electronic clock with antennas at the loft so that the relevant information is registered automatically.

On rare occasions highly trained pigeons get lost. For example, in March 2015 the Gujarat state was sent into a tizzy after coming across and detaining a pigeon having the sensor chip Benzing Dual which is used for racing pigeons. A couple of months later another pigeon with Urdu markings was found in a village near Pathankot. It was not the first time that an alleged “spy pigeon” had flown across the Indo-Pak border – exactly 5 years earlier in May 2010, a pigeon had been “apprehended” near Amritsar. Again, in October 2016 a pigeon was found with a message in Urdu tied to its leg and due to “suspected Pakistani links” was kept at Bamial police custody in Pathankot, Punjab. (Around the same time a hawk that appeared to be trained was caught by the Border Security Force on the India-Pakistan border from Anupgarh in Sri Ganganagar district of Rajasthan. It was sent to the zoo at Bikaner.) Periodically spy pigeons are found. A FIR was lodged against the one caught in April 2021. This suspicious pigeon had landed on the shoulder of a constable who was on duty at BOP Roranwala, in Amritsar district, Punjab near the Pakistan border.

Culling is part of Training

The birds are trained when 3 months old with trial runs beginning with a distance of 2 kilometres and going up to 70 kilometres. This develops their stamina and homing instincts, and those that survive these short distances automatically learn to tackle hazards like predators – mainly hawks.

They do not publicise how many pigeons are forever lost during training and never return home – estimated at 60%. Their fate en route is any one’s guess given the weather conditions, lack of food, water, electricity wire shocks, and dangers in the form of bigger birds and humans. Called “basket culling” and deliberately carried out, knowing they won’t return inferior pigeons are released far from home. Others simply wring the necks of such unwanted birds admitting it is a necessary evil to maintain the quality of the racing pigeons.

Training and Racing

Homers are a breed of pigeons named so because many have flown back to their “homes” from long distances. They are made to race between 8 months to 5 years of age. Training is called “tossing” which involves, as just mentioned, taking the birds to a place and releasing them… the time they take to return home needs to be noted.

Young pigeons are usually made to fly 8 kms and then lured back with strewn grain and a bar of salt on their rooftop. A piece of cloth attached to a long stick is waved gently to signal their take off flight and it is again waved when they return. Males and females are housed in separate cages to prevent unwanted mating. The injured, the very young, and the old birds are also segregated.

As stated above, for races the pigeons are released far away but with a chit containing a code tied to their legs. The first to inform the code to the organiser is the owner of the winning pigeon. Knowing fully well that they are likely to go hungry, before they race the pigeons are fed peanuts, almonds and millet. Racing pigeons are fed once a day only, whereas the breeders are fed thrice and are given multi-vitamins tablets as well. Feed consists of 10 different grains like maize, corn, millet, safflower, grams, etc.

Gradually, the surviving pigeons participate in longer distance races for which they are taken in trains to the starting points and released to fly back to their homes. For example, the distance from Gwalior to Chennai is about 1165 kilometres and experienced pigeons cover it in less than 68 hours. However, some pigeons have lost their way and returned home after as much as a year. Imagine the trauma… it is cruel to put pigeons through such stress and strain.

In 2020 a pigeon fancier of Chennai said that owing to many disturbances in the sky such as dish TV and network towers it is very difficult for pigeons to navigate because although every year almost 400 birds participate in 200 kms, 500 kms and even up to 1,500 kms races, only 10 pigeons return. The prize money is a meagre Rs 3,000/- but he earns by selling his home-bred birds for up to Rs 15,000/-. Maintaining his flock of 35 pigeons (their food and medicine) and training them to race costs him around Rs 1.5 lakh a year. He sees it as a hereditary passion bordering on prestige not attachment for the birds like one would for a pet dog, and says that there are 800 persons like him.

Pigeon Clubs

A group of 10 formed the Hyderabad Homer Pigeon Club beginning racing in January 2012. They claim that pigeon racing is a “Nawabi shauk” and although uncommon, occurs in Chennai (considered the country’s capital for pigeon racing – according to the New Madras Racing Pigeon Association there are 5000 fanciers out of which 1,000 race pigeons) under the auspices of 7 clubs of Tamil Nadu, 2 (down from 5) clubs of Kolkata and another 5 clubs in Karnataka with Bengaluru being prominent. BWC has also heard of the Kancheepuram Homer Pigeon Association that conducts competitions.

It is not true that the “sport” is kind and that it’s simply a “hobby” because the birds are bred in tiny cages in dirty lofts, only to be taken out for training and racing. Think, why do families put up with constant disturbing cooing and dirt? Pigeon Handlers Disease is due to inhaling bird shit – tiny particles which may not even be visible. Over time the lungs of those who are allergic get choked, often leading to death as a result of not being able to breathe. Why are eggs from particular birds imported and hatched here, circumventing the ban on import of racing pigeons? Why is so much spent on feed? There is no doubt, they are bred for sale and the winning pigeons bring in profits too. A good racing pigeon sells for as much as $140,000 (about Rs 70 lakhs) in the USA.

Club members have admitted to journalists that “prevention of diseases is the only escape” for the pigeons. Paratyphoid, Canker, Coccidiosis, E-Coli, Ornithosis, Sour Crop, Diarrhoea and Newcastle disease (Ranikhet) are common, contagious and dangerous. So if the birds get sick, they are immediately discarded. Abandoning and culling (read killing) goes hand in hand with raising and racing pigeons.

Flying pigeons (a cross between the local breed and Homer, and some from other states like the Rampuri ones from Punjab) are found at Mattanchery and Fort Kochi areas of Ernakulam. Some pigeon flying associations were established decades back, whereas others are relatively new. They have been conducting the Ernakulam Open Pigeon Flying Tournament regularly so the “hobby-cum-sport” has become commercialised and attracts sponsors and pigeons belonging to around 200 persons participate.

BWC investigations in 2013 between June and August (monsoon) when competitions are held due to a cool weather, led to information like it is mandatory for the competitors to follow 25 rules and regulations. A day prior to the competition, a seal is imprinted on the pigeons’ tails as identification. Upon release a bird needs to show itself by flying low every 15 minutes, then on the hour. The pigeon must land within 50 metres from the place where it was released.

Only one or two birds are released daily in the presence of the referees. When the referee demands within 15 minutes the released bird has to be spotted and shown to him by the owner. The birds are unable to navigate home in poor light so in case they remain in the sky after sunset, owners light halogen lamps and keep a group of captive pigeons around it to help the bird in the sky to locate the spot where it should land. Flight duration is calculated from the time the bird is set free till the time it returns to ground which is normally between 6 am and 7 pm.

Training birds involves restrictions on their diet for 45 days during which time they are mainly fed almonds, raggi (millet) and calcium tablets. Wing and tail feathers are clipped so new ones grow – favoured because they are supposed to be lighter (not dusty!). Occasional culling (read killing) of young pigeons is carried out in order to concentrate of the best competitive birds; however, older birds are may be allowed to live out their normal (about 8 years) life spans. Two year old pigeons are the most wanted ones although all pigeons are quite fit to fly in competitions till they are five.

BWC feels the pigeons are lucky that in India there just aren’t enough takers for this “sport” although more people seem to be interested now than they were some years ago. However for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Samajwadi and Aam Admi parties resorted to an “inexpensive” campaigning gimmick of tagging pigeons with their symbols tied to a kachha thread and making them fly to different areas around Lucknow. BWC sent a complaint about this to the Election Commissioner because some years ago the Election Commission had assured BWC that the use of animals for campaigning had been banned.

Breeding and Flying Pigeons

Although there are around 386 different breeds of pigeons in India, basically there are of two types of pigeons: high flying ones and low flying ones.

The majority are high fliers and Gerebaaj/Tippler is the most well known breed that flies and goes on flying. Whereas, the Roller pigeons fly to roll, and the Homing pigeons fly to race home.

Ishkbaazi is pigeon flying and the award at the National Pigeon Flying Competition is the Rashtriya Kabutar Udaan Pratiyogita. Different competitions are held some for young birds (born during that year) and others for the old birds.

Pigeon flying that began in the late 1970s in Kochi continues and tournaments are regularly held by the Cochin Pigeon Flying Association and the Cochin Dove Flying Association. In 2013 the Ernakulam Open Pigeon Flying Tournament covering three months during the monsoon (June to August) was announced with 200 participants showcasing the flying prowess of their pigeons and competing to break the last record. The competition is held daily between 6 am to 7 pm, for 2 to 3 birds: during the first hour the birds have to show themselves every 15 minutes after which they need fly lower and be seen every hour only, and again in the last hour show themselves every 15 minutes; and, the pigeons should land within 50 metres of takeoff. The pigeons they fly are mainly a cross between the local breed and Homer, but some get their birds from Kolkata, Tiruchi, or the Rampuri variety from Punjab. Training them for the strenuous ordeal takes a minimum of 50 days.

In 2017 at places like Ludhiana and Moga in Punjab, pigeons participating in flying competitions were found to be given cheaply available opium (afeem) in water or were injected with it in order to make them fly up in the sky for a long period – the pigeons that do not touch ground for the longest time win.

In May 2020 complaints were received by BWC with supporting videos showing how pigeon fanciers of Punjab were capturing and killing raptors because they were attacking their pigeons. They were capturing them by bringing them down from mobile towers, using hooks, guns and even attaching iron claws on their pigeons so falcons that prey on them get injured. Upon bringing this to the attention of the Wildlife Department, they promptly cracked down on the culprits and 24 FIRs were filed. However, BWC feels the underlying reason is cruel pigeon flying which in itself needs to be stopped.

Human Fights, Extortion and even Murder over Pigeons

1,000 to 1,500 people rear pigeons in Pune. They are sold by about 20 vendors on the banks of the river Mutha on Wednesdays and Sundays for any thing between Rs 400/- to Rs 6,000/-, even as much as Rs 50,000/- each depending on the specie. Each wire cage or cardboard carton is crammed with birds unable to move. Their wings are clipped and they are secured together with safety pins.


Many get stolen from their coops and that’s when fights and attacks between humans occur. It is not a matter of just “catch and keep” – it is outright theft. The owner is then asked to pay to get his own bird back. It is otherwise sold off to some one from out of town. This has been ascertained by the Police because the thieves do not always remember to remove the identification rings.

In September 2013, at Talegaon a man was killed when he tried to stop two thieves from stealing his birds. And, a sale in June 2014 resulted in a teenager being murdered. Ten years later in July 2023 at Pune pigeon keepers carrying sharp weapons kidnapped a rival’s 12-year old son, thrashed him and forced him to eat pigeon poop. It was done on suspicion that the boy’s father had stolen some of their pigeons.


In October 2015 at Devipura village in Haryana a 14-year old boy was found dead after being in police custody for allegedly stealing 4 pigeons.

If not for the sake of the pigeons, for the sake of human life, rearing, trading and flying pigeons should be banned.

In March 2023 following public outrage over pigeon droppings resulting in having an adverse effect on human health, several municipalities starting with Thane (Maharashtra) decided to stop people from keeping or feeding pigeons. By the end of the year 25 cases were filed in Pune – 8 months after the drive to stop feeding pigeons at public places began.

Pigeon Race à la Tanjore

In Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, a traditional pigeon race has been taking place since the 13th century. About 50 people gather with their pet pigeons that have been trained for the competition. The race begins early morning and the pigeons are required to fly non-stop for five hours and dive at least five times in the course of their flight. The pigeon that performs all the required feats is declared the winner.


In 2004 a week-long annual competition for pigeons, commonly called Kabootarbaazi or Kulkul, was revived (Emperor Jehangir was a fan) with the setting up of the Agra-Firozabad Kabootarbaazi Association. The December 2011 event at Kuberpur (Agra) drew around 30,000 spectators.

On mounds between mustard fields, Khalifas, Ustads or Kabutarbaaz (different qualifications based on their skills in controlling flocks of pigeons) release their group of birds, some worth Rs 2.5 lakh, claimed to be “well fed on rich protein diets” (read unnatural diets for birds) that include ghee along with dry fruits, millet and corn. The ones that have successfully learnt to recognise voice commands, whistles, hand gestures, flags and colours, return to them. But, many land up in rival teams. In the end, the person who has the highest number of pigeons wins the competition. The team that covers the longest distance is also felicitated.

The sport involves annual championships in different places in India, including Jama Masjid, Old Delhi. In 2014, Shri Sarwan Singh, world champion for Kabootarbaazi, asked the Chief Minister of Punjab to recognise pigeon games as a state sport. BWC hopes it does not come to pass.

Beginning December 2015 through January 2016 the Kabootarbaazi contest was planned after a gap of three-four years in Agra district. However, it was stopped before completion by the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change after the Animal Welfare Board of India objected on cruelty grounds.

No Peace for the Birds

BWC has known celebrities or politicians in India to celebrate some festival or function by taking a white pigeon/dove (or two) in hand and making it fly off. They couldn’t care less what happens to the poor birds that couldn’t even be homing pigeons – not that they should be used just because they would probably fly home.

In 1995 BWC India joined animal protection groups from around the world (collectively representing 5 million people) in a protest requesting that the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games cancel the planned live bird release at the opening ceremonies in Atlanta in 1996, following which there was no release of Olympic doves or white pigeons. Dove shaped balloons have been released in some places like at Norway.

A Vatican tradition on the last Sunday in January was to fly two doves out of the window overlooking St Peter’s Square. However, after they were attacked by a seagull and crow in 2014, the practice was discontinued in 2015 by Pope Francis who released “peace balloons” instead.

Export of Doves Banned

Pigeons and doves are birds of the same family so it may interest readers to know that Beauty Without Cruelty strongly backed the Jain community’s objections to doves being included in the list of birds permitted to be exported from India in 1980. As a result of protest letters and telegrams to the Government, doves were taken off the list by the end of the year.
Page last updated on 25/11/23