City-based Pigeon Fanciers group have access to high-quality bred pigeons specially suited for harsh weather

We've heard of competitive races for cars, horses and even camels, but how about racing pigeons? It's an age-old sport that has caught the fancy of a dedicated group of people who are reviving the tradition in Dubai. Pigeon Fanciers, as they are called, claim that this hobby brings them much joy, is not expensive and is easy even for a beginner to get into.

Due to weather and geographical restrictions, the races here are conducted over distances measuring 100km to 500km. A schedule is issued well in advance and all competing pigeons are transported in special vehicles to a spot in Al Ain or even Oman where they are released and they actually fly back to their owners in Dubai.

"It is thrilling to watch them come back to my window," smiles Ihab Fathy, an architect in Dubai. An electronic device fitted under the bird's wing measures the velocity of the bird during flight and decides the winner of the race.

Fathy, who has raced pigeons for more than 16 years, is still fascinated by their endurance levels and intelligence. "Pigeons were trained on military bases in the UK, Eygpt and India and were recorded to have saved many lives. They were also used as an effective communication tool," he says.

"For me pigeon racing gives a certain thrill that no other sport can. Apart from the actual racing, the process of training and caring for them is immensely satisfying and, of course, a sportsman loves to win," says Fathy with a twinkle in his eye. His family is supportive of his passion for the sport and takes equal pride in his prized possessions.

His racing champions are bought after considerable deliberation. "I have always maintained that quality is more important than quantity," he says quietly. His belief is understandable since pigeons for racing are judged by the strength of the bird's wing and not colour and shape of the bird as in the case of birds for display.

"Racing pigeons hold pedigree certificates and are available from thousands of dirhams to a mere Dh200," discloses Fathy. "We are lucky that in Dubai we have access to a pool of high-quality bred pigeons because here pigeons have to be able withstand humidity, sand storms and even light rain," he adds.

Now is a good time to begin training young pigeons to fly over long distances in order to be ready for the racing season at the end of the year.

"A beginner can start with just 20 birds. The actual upkeep is not more than Dh150 per month and their loft does not require too much space," explains Fathy. As quality time has to be spent in training the birds, a special bond develops between the fancier and the birds.

"I train my birds twice a day before the sun sets because the birds need to see where they are going. Towards the end of the month I will start teaching them to fly over short distances till they learn to fly the longer distances required for the races," says Fathy.

Like most fanciers around the world, he wants more people to experience the joy of pigeon racing and is happy to help people learn the skills to become fanciers themselves. Fathy also promises to help find quality birds at affordable prices for those interested in pursuing this hobby.