Once More to the Roof

In southern Turkey, a painter by day, a pigeon keeper by night

By / July 2013

It is 1980. Tensions in Turkey between leftists and rightists are high. Roving gangs single people out and force them to declare their sympathies. Consequences for identifying with the wrong group can be violent. In Adana’s Seyhan district, Ahmet Çaglar is desperate to keep his 15-year-old son, Metin, off the streets. His solution? A box of pigeons. He hopes the birds will occupy the boy’s free time.

That was more than three decades ago. The left-right political frictions have eased in Adana. But Metin, now in his late 40s, is still preoccupied with pigeons. The small roost his father gave him has turned into a rooftop coop housing nearly 50 birds.

Metin lives with his extended family in a four-story building in Seyhan. Most of his relations deplore his hobby. Even Ahmet, who got Metin into pigeons all those years ago, has moved on. But Metin’s brother-in-law, Ibrahim Yuksel, shares his fondness for the birds. During the day, Metin works as a painter. Ibrahim has a job with the city water department. In the evenings, they head upstairs.

When Metin opens the coop, a bricked enclosure protected by more locks than he keeps on his flat, the birds pour onto the roof. Some are gray, some black, others are white with brown highlights. In the sun, the head and chest feathers of the pigeons reflect emerald green. The birds hop onto the low concrete ledge around the edge. A few perch on the satellite dish. The males make passes at the females. None of them fly away.

“No,” says Metin, “they don’t fly away. They know this is their home. This is where they belong.” With a little prompting, however, they will take wing. Ibrahim grabs a long pole with a rag tied to one end. Using this he gently prods a couple of the birds until they wade into the air.

The flying style of Adana pigeons differs from that of the pigeons raised in Gaziantep, two hours to the east. Gaziantep pigeons turn circles before landing. In Urfa the birds are famous for tumbling through the air, dipping and diving and turning on their backs. What was the specialty of Adana pigeons? Metin told me to wait and see. He signaled to Ibrahim to call back the birds.

Ibrahim picked up a cordless power drill. Instead of a drill bit, the attachment looked like two white paddles. He pointed the drill at the flying birds and pulled the trigger. The paddles, as if mimicry of pigeon wings, spun dizzily.

A split second later the birds stopped circling and dove straight for the roof. As they swiftly approached they did some last second frantic maneuvering to avoid crashing into the other birds. The men laughed at the astonishment on my face. “They come in like an F-4 Phantom (fighter bomber),” Metin said. “That’s their specialty.”

Despite the impressive display, Metin felt the need to apologize. The birds were in moulting season. Without a full plumage, they flew neither as high, nor as fast, as they could. Ibrahim later sent up a father-son team. The elder made an impressive return but junior’s youth and inexperience showed in his sluggish, corybantic approach.

Turkey’s pigeon raisers possess a bird fervor that can border on obsession. This shared passion can create a sense of camaraderie between folks from varied backgrounds. But it can quickly turn to hostility and suspicion when a good bird goes missing.

Among friends, lost pigeons get returned pronto. When strangers are found in possession of a stray, things can get heated. Sometimes thieves make a wild scene, denying their guilt. Sometimes they demand money in return. Metin and Ibrahim insist this is not how they have built their flock.

Many of their pigeons come from the local pazar, held in Adana on Sunday mornings. Birds go for between 10 and 20 TL (about $5 to $10) a head. It’s not unheard of, though, for special breeding birds to go for upwards of $25,000. Breeding birds, Metin says, are for people in it for the money. Metin and Ibrahim are not in it for the money.

“Taking good care of the birds requires a lot of commitment and sacrifice, more than people may realize,” Ibrahim says. “You have to love the birds to take good care of them. If someone has to get sick, I’d rather it be me than one of our pigeons.”

After the evening’s bird watching, as the sun sets over the apartment complexes in Adana, Metin and Ibrahim take out long cane poles and begin the task of nudging the birds back into the coop. The pigeons know their assigned spots. They pair off two by two in cubicles, cooing as they go. In a matter of minutes the flock is inside. Metin clamps the locks. He insists the extra security is a good deterrent to thieves. He cannot blame the bandits for trying. With birds like these, you cannot be too careful.


Michael Cervantez is an EthnoTraveler contributor.