Photos: The Ancient art of Pigeon Breeding

Sep 11, 2013 at 3:39 PM ET

Perched high above the streets of Cairo, burdened by economic, political and social struggle, some men and boys rely on an ancient hobby as their escape.

References to pigeon husbandry, both for sport and as a food source, can be found chiseled into hieroglyphics and scripted in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets from more than 5,000 years ago. This honor for the same birds the West thinks of as “flying rats” prominently exists throughout the Middle East.

Fancier is the more elegant term for these pigeon keepers. The men and boys command their birds with a flag and shrill whistles that echo through Cairo’s skies. Finding this slice of culture fascinating, I’ve spent the better part of this summer climbing up rickety coops across Cairo, amusing the fanciers’ young sons, who whizzed past me, giggling, as I struggled to navigate their intricate structures.

Kirollos, 10, climbs his father’s coop, a multi-story structure atop a 6-story building.

Basha Suleman’s children play in one of his five coops.

“I’ve never done drugs, been in trouble, not even smoked a cigarette. This keeps me so busy, it keeps you out of trouble,” says Basha Suleman, a father of seven who started his first pigeon farm when he was 6. His family loves the pigeons and all share in the responsibilities. Another fancier, Saber Adly, joked that his 3-year-old son loves the pigeons more than him. Adly agreed that the hobby keeps him “out of the ahwa [café]” and has taught him patience.

Pigeon farming can be quite high-maintenance, both physically and financially. The average monthly cost of feed alone for a large pigeon coop is around 600 Egyptian pounds (about $87).

Mohamed (right) and Hafifi (center), make their living building pigeon coops. Hafifi’s son (left) assists his disabled father throughout the process. The average coop is built in 15 to 20 days, and most fanciers build their own.

The pigeons are primarily raised as a hobby, either trained for skill or bred to be sold for showcase (think “beakless” or with “feather pants”). They are also raised for food, but most men I met find their “babies” too precious to devour. The majority of owners limit their flock’s “yard” to their neighborhood, although others will train them to navigate their way home from up to 30 kilometers away. Through the use of flags and piercing whistles, the birds are trained to fly in various patterns and told when to return.

Occasionally birds will stray to other coops and flocks, which does not go unnoticed by their owner. Suleman has a specific coop of birds that aren’t technically his. When I asked both him and Adly what length they would go to return them, they both agreed that it all depended on their relationship with the other owners. “I have agreements with some others in the community to always return each others stray birds,” says Adly. For other, less familiar owners, Adly will answer them with a shrugged “haven’t seen it,” even if the bird is in his possession. For a hobby that involves hundreds, possibly thousands of men throughout Cairo, competition is inevitable, and the “win some, lose some” is their motto.

Born and raised on a Pennsylvania Christmas tree farm, Amanda Mustard is a self-taught photojournalist currently based in Cairo. She has a fondness for pomegranates, tattoos and film scores. Mustard previously shot a series of images for Vocativ of Cairo’s “Garbage City.”