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.
A portrait of Erislandy with painted feathers
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.
Erislandy shows me how he paints his pigeons. The dye process doesn't hurt or injure the birds.
Erislandy sits inside a pigeon coop, where many of his birds live.
A pigeon racer synchronizes his vintage clock and preps for the messenger pigeon race.
Erislandy made rings using my picture and attached them to three of his pigeons.
All the competing pigeons are placed in metal crates, loaded onto a truck bed, taken to different cities, and then released at the same time to start this race.
Erislandy cleans out the pigeon food with water and lays it out on his roof to dry out.
Messenger pigeons typically share bigger pigeon coops, allowing them to fly around the tight spaces.
To avoid cheating, small clocks are attached to the pigeons and taken off when they return home. Their times are then jotted down.
Erislandy displays a handful of his dyed pigeons. He dyes the pigeons certain colors to represent particular regions, for one of the competitions, but he often paints them simply to raise the price or make them look more beautiful.
There are about five female pigeon racers that compete in Havana. Ines is one of them, and both she and her husband run the Federación Colombófila de Cuba that hosts the messenger pigeon races. Here, Ines shows me an egg from one of her pigeons.
“El maestro” is Erislandy’s mentor who taught him everything about pigeon racing and breeding. I photographed his pigeon two years ago and made him a copy. He had the picture framed himself.
A hatched egg sits inside Erislandy's pigeon coop.
Erislandy has about seven students who he teaches about pigeons. He often gives them small pigeons, so they can learn how to raise the birds on their own.
Erislandy shows off one of his dyed pigeons during sunset.