The Hidden World of Baku’s Pigeon Fanciers
Pigeons have been kept domestically for millennia and for a multitude of reasons – for exhibiting, eating, racing and as recently as World War II they were famously used to send messages. Many fanciers (as they’re also known) simply find harmony in the company of the birds and this is also true of Baku’s pigeon keepers. Until recently pigeon keeping was a popular pastime in the Azerbaijani capital and its nearby villages. There’s even an iconic local breed of pigeon called the Baku Tumbler, which is renowned for its flying abilities. Typically soaring so high as to disappear from sight, it remains in the air for up to eight hours, from time to time clicking its wings and performing acrobatic rolls.
I remember very well the time when every morning you could see hundreds of pigeons fluttering in the sky, and their owners sitting, usually, on the rooves of one and two-story houses and chasing them with long sticks.
And there can’t have been any houses in Baku’s villages where pigeons weren’t kept. And even when moving each summer to the dacha they would take the pigeons with them. In the morning, in the rays of the rising sun, you could see fluttering birds and hear the sounds of flapping wings in the suburban stillness.
One obvious reason for the gradual disappearance of this subculture from central parts of the city is the quickly changing urban environment. Many of the old one and two-story houses in areas like Sovetski, for example, have been replaced by modern apartment blocks. Another factor is economic, as feeding, housing, and guarding pigeons has become increasingly costly and onerous.
For some, though, breeding pigeons is actually a business and a single bird can fetch anything between just a few manats and several hundred. Cases, where pigeons are exchanged for cars, are very common. There are pigeon lofts with alarms and even with guards. Indeed, one experienced fancier I met while researching this article guards his lofts with three ferocious Shamakhi sheepdogs. “They’ll eat anyone that comes in,” he said, and I don’t believe he was joking.
Those not in it for the money have differing motivations. I’m sure that if you were to ask a pigeon fancier why he keeps pigeons it would be impossible to get an intelligible answer. In many cases, it’s as simple as continuing a family tradition.
Digging beyond Baku’s chic, 21st-century facade, the series takes us deep into the city’s underbelly – from bustling pigeon bazaars to the gritty backyards of Absheron villages and the cramped rooves of the Old (Inner) City where oppressive urban scenery juxtaposes with the pigeons’ soft white plumes. And it’s this uncanny proximity to nature that goes to the heart of what it means to keep them.
In my opinion pigeon, fanciers identify themselves with the birds they raise, with their beauty, grace, and physical strength, and most importantly with their love for freedom. The moment they see the pigeons flying they’re also on top of the world. I even began to notice in myself that when I watch pigeons flying I feel a sense of freedom, a light euphoria.