Feather Report–The Legendary Pigeon Breeder of Liliani
MIAN NAZIR AHMAD SAT ON A CHARPOY on the terrace of his three-storey house, dressed in a light brown shalwar kameez; a black woollen hat pulled over his head bore the logo of the New York Police Department. Behind him was a row of rooms lined with wooden coops, filled with more than 500 cooing pigeons.
We were in the town of Liliani on Ferozepur Road, which runs from Lahore, Pakistan, to Ferozepur, India. My search for the most serious pigeon breeders started in Lahore, a sprawling city of rooftops. I found the pigeon sellers online, their numbers posted on various forums. They, in turn, led me to the breeders. Liliani, a small town less than 12 kilometres from the India-Pakistan border, was where I would find one of the oldest and most famous pigeon breeding families in all of Punjab, the sellers said. They couldn’t give me a postal address or phone number; instead, they said, I just had to get to Liliani, and ask anyone for Mian Nazir Ahmad.
“Oh kabootar wallay baba?” (The gentleman with the pigeons?) said the first traffic policeman I approached. He then directed me to one of the narrow streets that snaked through the town and led to Ahmad’s house. Inside, I climbed up a flight of stairs and emerged on the largest roof for miles around, where I met Mian Nazir Ahmad.
“Land ownership and kabootarbazi have been in our family for at least 100 years,” Ahmad said in his native Punjabi, as we sat sipping thick, sweet tea. Pigeon enthusiasts, he added, come from all over Pakistan and from as far away as Bahrain, Kuwait and Dubai to buy his birds. His most prized birds are of a Pakistani breed called Teddy—a local variation of a breed called the Highflyer, noted for its ability to fly to great heights and remain airborne for hours. “Buyers who are well versed in pigeon breeding offer up to 2 lakh [Pakistani rupees] at a time for a pair, but we seldom sell,” Ahmad said. There were two other varieties of pigeons—Doves and Goldens—in the cages, Ahmad’s 30-year-old son Azeem explained. The crossbreeds between Teddys and the others are sold to buyers, but the pure Teddys are not.
When the wings of a baby pigeon—or squab—appear, they are bound with string to keep the bird from flying away too soon, and to get it used to being around its handler. After a week, the string is loosened, a little more every day, until the twentieth day, when all the knots are freed and the bird is allowed to soar, an ink stamp under its tail identifying its owner. The pigeons that breeders like Ahmad sell are sought after for competitions at which their stamina and homing abilities are tested. These competitions offer lucrative prizes, such as cars, and up to 20 lakh Pakistani rupees.
Ahmad said he spends between 15,000 to 20,000 rupees daily on his flock. Most of the pigeons are fed a mixture of grains. The prize pigeons, however, have a special diet. The night before a competition, Azeem explained, they are fed a fine powdery mixture of “real pearls, almonds, gold, pistachio and amber”, believed to impart strength to the birds.
Competitions begin around the crack of dawn. Birds are released from rooftops, and they climb high into the sky, till they are mere specks, watched carefully through binoculars by handlers from opposing teams. The pigeons can circle the sky for up to 15 hours, though a free-willed bird might return in a few minutes, embarrassing the owner. The rules of the competition stipulate that the pigeon must remain visible throughout its flight, while landing even an inch outside the boundary of the roof results in disqualification. A tournament typically lasts 14 days, with flights on seven of these days. Flight times are tallied at the end of a tournament to determine the best flier. Ahmad’s pigeons have remained uncontested champions at the Punjab level competitions for the past ten years.
Between June and July last year, Azeem had discovered an exceptional flier in a batch he helped rear. The bird was two years old and had a long flying life ahead of it—a healthy bird can live for around 15 years, according to Azeem. It had shown great promise in training, but one day it failed to return home after a training flight. By sundown, Azeem had accepted the loss of a potential champion.
The next day, the family received a phone call from across the border, from Punjab in India. “A Sardarji called us,” Azeem said. “He asked if the pigeon was ours.” The man, Azeem explained, had found Azeem’s cousin’s number on the bird’s tail, stamped in ink. “When my cousin said that it belongs to Mian sahib, the Sardarji was very happy,” Azeem said. “He had heard of Mian sahib. He offered to bring the bird to the border to return it to us.” But Azeem’s cousin told the man to keep the pigeon and breed it for future fliers. “When the chicks hatch,” he said, “they will be excellent fliers. It will make you happy.”