Life up top: The unseen world of Cuba’s rooftop pigeon competitions

A pigeon takes flight from its coop on a rooftop in Havana, Cuba.
Photo by Christian Triunfo

Story by Christian Triunfo · 

HAVANA, CUBA — Carlos Fernández stands on top of a five-story building in the heart of San Agustin, next to a coop made of scrap-metal where his friend’s pigeon, Robocop, readies to take flight. In a moment, Israel Rosaló, known as “El Meca,” short for “el mecánico” or “the mechanic,” will remove a tiny wedge of wood and lift the scrap-metal door to release his bird into the sunset sky.

There are eight men on the roof – ages 15 to 47 – friends for life and full of conversation. But when that bird starts to glide, the group falls silent. Moments after it hits the air, Robocop finds another pigeon and begins circling it. “See that there? That would give him eight points,” said Fernández, 26, in Spanish. He’s excited, he’s enthralled. He’s proud.

The men are a study in what many consider to be Cuba’s real national sport. For decades, pigeon races were at the core of many communities, bringing people from across the island together to converse and compete. But now, racing has fallen out of fashion. The competition has evolved and the pigeons are doing something new. They seduce. The point of the exercise is to entice someone else’s pigeon back to your box. If you capture a bird, you keep it. The game continues until there’s only one left in the sky.

“Racing pigeons in Cuba is a thing of the past,” said Fernández. “There is something more fulfilling and challenging about watching your pigeon dance with another, to really witness a battle of attraction.”

This dance on air, otherwise known as “conquering,” started in 2000. Luis Borroto, 60, created a set of guidelines for a sport centered on a pigeon’s mating process. The goal is to see whose bird can tally up the most points as it tries to seduce other birds back to its master’s cage.

“For the longest time, nobody took conquering pigeons seriously,” said Borroto, who lives in

Mandi Soca, president of “The Gentlemen of Truth,” a pigeon club dedicated to protecting the birds, climbs out onto the rooftop. Photo by Christian Triunfo

Guanabacoa. “But this game has proved to give the Cuban people an entire sporting community. Now, the conquering pigeon is the most popular pigeon here.”

For his part, eight-year-old Robocop is a sign of hope for this group of men. With a thick line of red paint from the tip of his left wing to his ribs, Robocop is a red-chested ash, notable for the fluorescent red feathers that bulge out of its neck. Rosaló hopes that Robocop will help breed a new addition to his coop, and to next year’s competitions, which happen every year in January and February because the extreme Caribbean heat prevents them from flying safely otherwise.

A long history

The competition stems from an extensive history between humans and pigeons starting centuries ago when the Spanish colonized Cuba and used the birds to carry messages tied to their ankles. As a result, pigeons have always been a demonstration of prestige in social circles, not surprising in a country where money is scarce and citizens have found other methods to communicate their success.

“It goes beyond wealth. Success in the Cuban working class must be shown through prestige. Money is only a small part of it,” said Daybel Pañellas Alvares, a professor of social psychology at the University of Havana. “Owning and breeding pigeons is social currency for many Cubans.”

Eventually, messenger pigeons evolved into the kind of bird Cubans used to race. They were built for speed and direct trajectory. Today, Cubans use much larger pigeons, a different breed called the “buchon,” built for seduction.

“A conquering pigeon has to have a strong physical presence,” said Borroto. “Their name stems from their size.” The buchon breed is a reference to the bird’s large bulging neck, usually filled with feathers that glow in the sun. When they coo, they flex their neck to attract the opposite sex.

It is only part of the elaborate ritual they perform to get their opponent back to their box. The complexity of the bird’s flight requires serious analysis as well. Sometimes, in cases where there are two males or two females left flying, points accumulated throughout the competition must be added to break the tie. Every move in the air and every successful conquest add points to a bird’s scoreboard. The points can range from 10 for style of flight to 100 for coaxing another bird back to a box.

A “buchon” breed of pigeon is the most sought after for its plumage and size. Photo by Christian Triunfo

Three judges sit in different locations across the rooftops in order to get a complete view of the scene. They assign points and make sure there is no cheating. The competitions can go on for up to four hours and reach a radius of four miles. Prepared with binoculars and notepads, the judges watch vigilantly, and then confer at the end to determine the final scores.

Once a victor emerges, the club throws him a party paid for with the small monthly fee everyone paid, ranging from 5 to 50 cents, to compete. It’s a full day of rum, food, music and family.

Video reported and produced by Zach Ben-Amots

Street breeders and deadly traps

One of the largest issues that face judges during competition is the infiltration of street breeders, men who use unethical methods to trap an opponent’s bird. The most popular is a system that mimics a mousetrap. More often than not, the bird comes out with a clipped wing, broken foot or sometimes, decapitated.

Usually, street breeders’ birds are not as well trained and only serve as a decoy to capture as many pigeons as possible. In recent years, the men believe the number of street breeders is growing along with the popularity of a potentially lucrative sport.

“There, there and there. Those are all traps,” said Fernandez, outraged as he points at a row of rooftops from his own high perch. “All of those boxes have lever-based traps that can easily kill a pigeon.”

Earlier that day, the men point to a 9-year-old boy on another rooftop, this one across the street, about 60 feet away. They call him “El chiqui,” short for the small one.

The La Lisa neighborhood of Havana is filled with pigeon breeders and trappers. Photo by Christian Triunfo

“He’s a great kid, but all he knows is traps. It’s how he was raised,” said Rosaló as he gently placed a placid Robocop back into his box.

The boy tightened the rope of a plastic platform that would snap up and entrap a pigeon with one slight tug. For him, trapping pigeons isn’t unethical. His father does it, and now he’s his right-hand man. It’s a way to make money.

Luis Armando Silva, who goes by Mandi Soca, is the president of “Gentlemen of Truth,” a 30-member society of competitors in the municipality of La Lisa. They prioritize protecting pigeons from the dangers of street breeders, who to them are the scourge of the sport.

“As conquering competitions became more and more prevalent, so did the traps,” said Soca, who is 47, in Spanish. “They’re violent, they’re greedy and they represent everything we oppose.”

The traps allow street breeders to catch a much higher number of pigeons than what is possible with humane cages. In a week, a street breeder can catch 40 pigeons. In a month, an ethical breeder might catch the same. If pigeons are caught during the offseason, they will either be returned or kept and traded among players. Street breeders, on the other hand, won’t think twice about keeping them. Their motivations are driven by money.

“If a pigeon is well-bred and knows what it’s doing, it can be worth a lot of money here,” said Fernandez. “I’ve seen some pigeons get sold for up to 5,000 Cuban pesos” or about $200.

Borroto has seen them go for more. To him, the business of selling pigeons has become a serious problem.

“It’s shameful to think about this business,” Borroto said. “Besides being unethical, the prices attached to these birds are impossible for an average Cuban family to even fathom.”

In Cuba, most buchones have an owner. These are not the same birds that flock around dumpsters or perch on electric lines around the streets. Even those birds often serve a human purpose on the island and especially in cities. In Old Havana, for example, the San Francisco de Asis Square has been dubbed “Plaza de las Palomas,” or Pigeon Plaza. The cobbled square is a wide-open space that is littered with tourists and the loud calls of vendors at any time of day. Surrounding this busy area is a mass of pigeons that collectively fly in circles around anyone who takes a moment to watch, trained by breeders to perform.

“Everybody can find a use for pigeons,” said Soca, president of the “Gentlemen of Truth.” “Practitioners of Santeria will take them for sacrificial rituals, some will use them for a meal. [Pigeons] will always sell for a quick buck. I’ve even seen a guy boast about his earnings by making an entire curtain out of the little ankle rings from the pigeons he’s sold or killed.”

But Soca is firmly among the category of breeders who own pigeons for the joy of watching them fly. In January, his bird “La Niña” took sixth place out of nearly 80 contestants in a competition between various clubs known as “100% Cajón,” or “100% Box,” meaning they do not use traps.

Happy in flight

Every day, Fernández makes his way through his apartment complex to visit his own pigeon, which lives in a shared garage. He doesn’t mind the task. He loves watching the bird’s feathers puff up when he comes in, reminding him of the joy the hobby brings him. On an even more basic level, it gives him something to do in addition to the moving business he operates with his father and their 1952 Chevrolet pickup truck.

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Carlos Fernandez displays the wing of one of his pigeons. Photo by Christian Triunfo

“There isn’t much to do here,” he said, cradling the gray bird in his arms. “People learn to make do with what they have.”

For Borroto, pigeons are an essential component to a Cuban’s upbringing. They are as iconic to the country as tobacco or sugar.

“The second we are born, we are given a bird, or a chicken or a dog to take care of,” he said. “We grow up around these creatures and they become our source of entertainment. For many of us, this is the substance of our life since the day we were born.”

Before leaving his garage, Fernández looked at his bird and sighed. He had taken a year off from competing after going through some financial issues and has only recently started breeding again.

“It was a nasty year,” said Fernández. Later, as he stood on a rooftop watching Robocop fly, he was entranced, happy. Soca grinned and nodded at his friend. “You see that look on his face? That,” he said, “is what pigeons mean to us.”

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