Nearly two years ago, I met a man named Erislandy, a Cuban pigeon racer who's known throughout Old Havana for dying his birds fluorescent colors. For Erislandy, and others in the country, racing and breeding pigeons can be a good way to make money. (Once your bird starts winning races, for example, you can sell the champion's offspring to other racers.) Erislandy paints his animals primarily green and yellow to represent his home province. Plus, they're more identifiable this way—more luxurious, more eye-catching. He competes all year round. He participates in the picadero, which features 20 to 30 male pigeons pecking at one female pigeon to get her to mate (whoever she picks wins). And he competes in many of the 24 races hosted by the Federación Colombófila de Cuba, an organization that brings together more than 300 pigeon racers throughout the capital and beyond.
I was lucky enough to witness one of these races. People place their messenger pigeons all across Cuba, at different destination points, and then release them at the same time. Whichever bird returns home, with the greatest distance and time, is declared the winner. It's quite remarkable watching these pigeons. There's still uncertainty about how these creatures are even able to find their way back. Some believe they have some sort of "compass" in their brains. Either way, compass or not, a lot of them don't return. Unfortunately, some get lost or killed. Some die from exhaustion.
Along with watching the race, I spent a whole week with Erislandy, learning about his breeding and his life as a racer.
Below is a collection of photos from the time we spent together.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.