Pigeons are surprisingly emotive birds. Some people view them as nothing more than rats with wings; disease-infested intruders that invade our cities and befoul our pavements. Others have a more romantic mental image of little old ladies feeding cooing flocks in ancient squares or leafy parks. But few would ever consider these divisive creatures to be highly-tuned speed machines that can bring fame and fortune to those who own and train them. Yet, it’s for this very reason that I find myself investigating the sport of pigeon racing in a small village in Central Java.
Scanning the deep blue of a cloudless Javanese sky, nine-year-old Trio furrows his brow. Although he’s only been racing pigeons in his village of Selogriyo for just a little over a year, he’s already competing against the adults. His sharp eyes glimpse a tiny speck of grey hurtling towards him like an arrow, traversing the centuries-old rice terraces etched into the slopes of volcanic soil. “Hey, hey!” he cries, waving one arm and calling out to his bird – which responds with a precipitous turn, plunging to land beside him in a blur of grey and white feathers.
The race is over, but my exploration of this fascinating community has just begun. “Bird training began here more than a hundred years ago with the mail delivery service,” says Hari, a local who leads tours of the mountains and villages surrounding the iconic Buddhist temple of Borobudur, located about an hour from Yogyakarta. We have joined the villagers of Selogriyo on a beautiful Sunday morning to learn more about the art of kolongan balap merpati – training and flying the Javanese merpati (racing pigeon).
The racing takes place in a scenic valley framed by verdant rice fields and set in the shadow of the towering Gunung Sumbing volcano. I’m sitting with a group of trainers on a wooden bench beside the kolong – a grid of four bamboo poles stretching more than 10 metres into the sky. The poles are encircled at the top with a band of red flags, reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Quidditch pitch. Within this square is a landing pad of soft sand; I’m told that speeding birds have sometimes died from the impact of landing on the sun-baked soil. It’s a scene that is repeated in the villages surrounding Yogyakarta time and again.
In pigeon racing, birds are all mated pairs, and it is the affectionate bond shared between them that makes the sport possible. “First, we must match the male and the female in a wooden cage,” says Muslih, a shy trainer in his thirties whose face lights up as he talks about his pigeons. A matched pair will show obvious signs of affection, cooing and nuzzling their beaks together – lovebirds, so to speak. Once paired, only the female birds are kept in the cages; while in yet further evidence of gender disparity, the males are allowed to fly free as they please. You would expect that he might take off for good, but when a pair is properly bonded, the male will always return to find his mate, even across unbelievable distances.
Muklis, another trainer who is also in his mid-thirties, tells of a male bird that was released in Sumatra (nearly 1,000km away), only to return to find his mate three months later. Scientists are still trying to understand exactly how birds like the merpati are able to navigate across such long distances.
Along with several others, Trio, Muslih and Muklis have convened at the kolong for some Sunday morning socialising and a chance to train their merpati ahead of the intensely competitive inter-village races, which happen every few months. The trainers, who hold day jobs as tukang (handymen) or farmers, begin practising when their pigeons are just six months old, releasing the male from a short distance to fly to his mate. They’ll repeat this process up to 70 times a day, gradually moving the pair further and further apart.
“I love practising with my merpati in the afternoon with my friends after we finish work. We push each other to see who has the fastest bird, and hope that we might win one of the top prizes,” Muslih says earnestly.
Once the guys have caught up on the village gossip, there is a flurry of activity as they prepare for another trial run. Muklis hops onto a sputtering motorbike to carry the male birds 2.5km up a narrow track to the top of the valley, close to the small temple of Candi Selegriyo. There, he coordinates with the other trainers via walkie-talkie to release the pigeons for the practice race. Once freed, the male birds explode into the clear mountain air, soaring above the farmers herding water buffaloes down below.
Back at the kolong, Muslih spots the incoming birds, calling out with a cry of “hey, hey!” while holding the female pigeons aloft. Just when it seems that the males are oblivious, they abruptly change direction and touch down on the soft soil, cooing at being reunited with their ladies. A pair of judges determines which bird is the first to finish.
From its roots as a simple activity for farmers to occupy their downtime, the kolongan balap merpati has since evolved into a highly competitive sport. The biggest races draw hundreds of spectators, with valuable prizes such as motorbikes on the line.
A pair of champion birds can command prices of up to IDR 70 million (around US$5,250). A good pair can compete for five years, and the buyer can recoup the investment by selling their eggs or hatchlings for IDR 1 million to IDR 5 million (US$75 to US$375) each. At their peak, female birds can lay a pair of eggs twice per month, providing a decent source of income. However, when the birds are training for a race, the pair aren’t allowed to mate, as a female with a chick will neglect the male bird, weakening his drive to compete.
Watching the racing, I soon realise that time has flown by. Making the journey back to Yogyakarta, I find myself passing the villages and brooding volcanoes that I’ve enjoyed exploring. This time, I notice that the vistas are also dotted with distinctive red-flagged kolong – evidence of the strong place that the sport of pigeon racing continues to have within the physical and cultural landscapes of Central Java.
Selogriyo is two hours from Yogyakarta. We recommend setting up base near Borobudur; there are many hotels near the temple that can organise trips to Selogriyo.
Are pigeons wrecking homes?
Such is the strong appeal of pigeon racing that an official at the Purbalingga Religious Court in Central Java recently blamed the sport for the rising number of divorces being filed in the region. A story in the Jakarta Post in August attributed the rise to disgruntled wives growing tired of the time and money their spouses spent on their birds instead of their families.
SilkAir flies daily between Singapore and Yogyakarta. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine