A conference of fowls in Urfa

When the signal is given, a cloud forms in the skies over Urfa to the rush of thousands of wings. The pigeons of Urfa are holding their ‘mixer’.

Tayr’ in Arabic and ‘murg’ in Persian, birds are gregarious animals that love to congregate. There are numerous species whose names appear in the holy books of the world, all of them a source of inspiration for poetry, folk tales and songs. But our subject here is neither the Phoenix that resides behind the legendary mountain known as Kaf Dağı, the Hoopoe that carried a message from King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba, nor the parrot or peacock. What we are going to speak of here are the homing pigeons that are raised for pleasure on the rooftops and in the courtyards of Urfa in southeastern Turkey.

With their noble stance, sweet voices, and colorful feathers, these birds literally mesmerize observers. Let loose in the skies over Urfa, they make a deep impression, especially when they swoop in for a landing. Observing them silently - their gait, their stance, their various poses, their cooing as they wander in the courtyards and over the rooftops of Urfa, feeding and drinking - not only excites but also gives pause. An urge to be a bird and soar through the sky is born in our hearts, and we want to fly away and perch on the windowsill of the one we love.

In almost every season of good weather in Urfa, pigeons are released into the sky en masse twice a day. At these times, a few thousand colorful pigeons take wing from some two hundred to three hundred homes, instantly blotting out the skies over the city. If you’re a careful observer you’ll see that the birds come together in the sky in swarms, locked in firm embrace. Then, as if each flock had agreed in advance to stick together, they home in on their own spaces with nary a bird going astray.

If you would like to observe one of these dramatic moments, then go to Urfa and be a guest one afternoon in a pigeon fancier’s home. He will meet you at the outer gate and usher you straight up  to the rooftop without further ado. Opening the door of the loft, he will listen first to the birds’ sweet cooing before setting them free in the air. You will observe here how the many different breeds feed and drink and how the mainly male birds court the one or two females in the nest. When the time is right, the birds will take off in an instant with a fluttering of wings at the keeper’s signal. As the flocks recede from view to come together high above, you will see a roseate cloud form in the sky. Simultaneously the strains of a folk song will be heard over the radio, a song recorded on an old vinyl disc and sung by Urfa’s own Cemil Cankat: “Lo, my heart was a poor bird / That took wing from my hand / Lo, in the strands of her hair / It became hopelessly entangled.”

Upwards of twenty thousand birds virtually dance today in the skies over Urfa. Pigeon raising is popular mainly among the small shopkeepers and artisans that still practice the traditional handicrafts.  Numbering among their favorite hobbies, this pleasant pastime has been on the rise in recent years. After lowering their shutters towards evening, the shop keepers rush home and head straight for the roof, where they release their birds from the special lofts or birdhouses in which they are safely locked up to first feed and water them. All the stress and strain of the day’s work dissipates as they watch their beloved birds. Pigeon fanciers in Urfa meet in venues known as ‘Birder Coffeehouses’, most of which are located in the old bazaars. Best known among them, the ‘Çardaklı Kahve’, so-named because it is covered with an arbor of grape vines, has bird perches inside and wooden bird houses with screened in fronts.

A polyphonic symphony of cooing birds will greet you when you enter the coffeehouse. Regaled by the stories of the birders seated on low stools around tiny square tables, you won’t be able to get your fill of the freshly steeped tea served there.

Let us turn now to how homing pigeons are raised. First of all, the roof has to be conducive to this business. There must, for example, be a runway where the birds can land. When releasing the birds from the roof into the air, the birder uses a pole made of a long, flat piece of wood with a square of cloth attached at one end. When the pole is waved, the birds take flight. This happens once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. They usually fly over the house, tracing wide circles at a height of 40-50 meters over the roof. Occasionally coming together with other groups of birds, they can soar to heights of 100-200 meters. Seeing the skies over Urfa at this time of day is a sight not to be missed, because you will never tire of watching the birds. Like jets in an air show, they swoop past each other in flyovers, forming ‘clouds’ of birds that move as one. Every birder knows his own birds from several meters away. Those who return home safely are the loyal birds of that house. During these flights, every birder nevertheless manages to bring down and capture one or more birds that have joined his from another flock. Once captured, no bird is returned to its owner. To prevent the new bird from escaping, it is either bound for a few days with a piece of string or placed next to a female. The point being that the new bird get accustomed to its new home and owner.

In Urfa the hobby of pigeon fancying is traditionally passed down from fathers to sons, who find inner peace in watching these noble birds and communing with them to beat their wings in the skies over Urfa.