Fancy Pigeons

The majority of these portraits are thanks to Moustafa and Mohamad Hassan who raise some amazingly beautiful birds at Venus Loft. Their knowledge and collection have really helped me understand the current state of the hobby in Egypt.

I created the portrait series as an abnormal story that works without much text. My idea was to photograph something so unusual, yet so familiar that it makes us stop, think, and enjoy the beauty and humanity in these animals. There’s no overt controversy, or issue about them but, when I look at them, I start thinking about stereotypes. Each pigeon is a stereotype in western culture, but these birds are also a novel piece of culture from the middle east.

I used to give credence to the axiom that “pigeons are no more than rats with wings” until I researched the rooftop pigeon fanciers of Cairo. I talked my way up to one of the ubiquitous wood slat roosts that are visible across the city and have learned that their obsession reaches across the region, lasts for generations, and has created some amazing birds. I see the narrative of the story following these eccentric hobbyists that pour hours each day into feeding, breeding, raising, and loving these amazing birds.

Though I shot it in Egypt I keep hearing about the hobby across the Middle East. Historically each country or region would have it’s special pigeon breed and everyone would focus on improving their bird against their local neighbor’s bird. In the pre-internet age the elders of the community would pass their knowledge and finest specimens directly on to their younger neighbors, pigeon markets were the place to browse and socialize, but in the last 10 years a major shift has come with the internet. Pigeons are traded across borders, knowledge is shared on internet forums, images of their finest birds are posted on facebook. The birds are no longer geographically restricted as the finest specimens of Birmingham Rollers, Baghdadis, Turkish Tumblers, Iranian High Flyers, and Egyptian Swifts can be found in Australia, US, Europe, Saudi, and Kuwait.

I’ve gotten a bit carried away with the research and can write much more detail about what I’ve seen and read and the logistics but I’d like the feedback and ideas of editors and pigeon fanciers. One of my favorite tidbits is this 1883 New York Times Article about a Pigeon Village in Egypt. To see the scale of this hobby take a gander at Wikipedia’s list of pigeon breads. To see a bit of the history zoom out and look at the engravings in this google eBook. Just to make these bird portraits political I searched for similar fancy pigeons in Israel, this is what I found.

The Jacobin Pigeon, named after the Jacobin order of monks, is known for its feathered hood over its head. It has been bred with a hood so large that it can interfere with mating and they often require foster parents to raise their young.

The Polish Owl is actually one of 52 breeds of Polish pigeons and is closely related to the Budapest Short Face. They are bred to be as small as possible and have a very precise posture, when taken to competitions they are scored based on how close they are to a recognized standard.

This English Longface is labeled as a tumbler. Tumblers are known for their distinctive mid-flight backflips, but as they were eventually bred for their rounded heads, English Longface Tumblers lost their unique flight pattern and some even lost their ability to fly.

Maltese Pigeons originated in Northern Italy near Modena. Drawings of the birds of that period resemble the Dodo, which is now extinct. Since then, they have been bred for their long neck and legs and their boxy shape.

20101211 - Cairo, Egypt -

A well trained English Pouter will constantly be strutting and showing off with its inflated neck. When the bird walks and struts it could be compared to a prancing horse. English Pouters are a very old breed and are known and recorded from the 1730s.

David Degner / Freelance

A couple of English Fantails pigeons. Charles Darwin kept English Fantails in his pigeon loft and used them as examples in the first chapter of "On The Origin Of Species." They are bred in more than fifty colors and marking patterns.

The King pigeon is known for its large size. While there are a few show varieties, it is more suitable for eating and squab production. It is a breed that originated in the United States during the 1890s but is now used world-wide as a utility bird.

The Crested Frillback Pigeon has no clear country of origin but an explorer in 1757 Egypt saw pigeons in Cairo "on which each and every feather was twisted or turned round." Breading for to accentuate these traits, without introducing unwanted results, requires strategizing of coupling a few generations in the future.

The Buda stork and Pest stork breeds were standardized in the early 1800s. Soon after the sister cities united, the bird breeds became known as the Budapest Short Face.

20101211 - Cairo, Egypt -

The Jacobin Pigeon, named after the Jacobin order of monks, is known for its feathered hood over its head. It has been bred with a hood so large that it can interfere with mating and they often require foster parents to raise their young.

David Degner / Freelance

This young pigeon is less than a week old. Breeding and caring for these birds can be an intense process as their special features and genetics create frailties that make them reliant on humans and susceptible to infections.

20101013 - Cairo, Egypt -

The coops of pigeon fanciers are distinctive boxes on stilts, often with diamond shaped decorations.

Other pigeons are trained to fly in kits at sunset and engage in a neighborhood war to lure neighbors pigeons back to their coop.

David Degner / Freelance

6/21/10 - Cairo, Egypt -

At slightly before sunset pigeon fanciers climb to the top of their coops to exercise their birds and upon the birds return they are fed.

In the working class neighborhood of Imbaba, looking out onto the Nile one of the more common hobbies is raising pigeons. Some people eat them but most of the time they are groomed for their beauty and as pets.

David Degner / Freelance

CAIRO EGYPT - June 26: Pigeons fly in a coop above Manshaet Nasr. In the unregulated neighborhood of Manshaet Nasr many Christian's started family businessmen's of collecting and recycling Cairo's garbage in CAIRO, EGYPT on June 26. (Photo by David Degner / Getty Images)

20101001 - Cairo, Egypt -

Cairo's pigeon market ( سوق الحمام ) is set up between graves of old Cairo's cemetery. In these narrow alleys beautiful and well trained pigeons are sold for between $3 and $150.

Some of the pigeons are collected and bread for their unique traits, such as having crowns of feathers encircling their head or performing controlled tumbles in flight.

Other pigeons are trained to fly in kits at sunset and engage in a neighborhood war to lure neighbors pigeons back to their coop.

David Degner / Freelance

20101013 - Cairo, Egypt -

Many young people help in raising pigeons and by their teens get a few pigeons of their own.

Cairo's pigeon market ( سوق الحمام ) is set up between graves of old Cairo's cemetery. In these narrow alleys beautiful and well trained pigeons are sold for between $3 and $150.

Some of the pigeons are collected and bread for their unique traits, such as having crowns of feathers encircling their head or performing controlled tumbles in flight.

Other pigeons are trained to fly in kits at sunset and engage in a neighborhood war to lure neighbors pigeons back to their coop.

David Degner / Freelance

20101013 - Cairo, Egypt -

Cairo's pigeon market ( سوق الحمام ) is set up between graves of old Cairo's cemetery. In these narrow alleys beautiful and well trained pigeons are sold for between $3 and $150.

Some of the pigeons are collected and bread for their unique traits, such as having crowns of feathers encircling their head or performing controlled tumbles in flight.

Other pigeons are trained to fly in kits at sunset and engage in a neighborhood war to lure neighbors pigeons back to their coop.

(Credit Image: David Degner / www.daviddegner.com)