The Jakarta Post
They hurtle in at wingsnap speeds, trusting totally in their handlers with a faith to inspire the pious.
Like cruise missiles they move faster than the eye can adjust, brown blurs against green paddy, guided by a system so sophisticated that science has yet to fully understand the mechanism.
In the final nanosecond they hit the brakes, fanning tail, reversing thrust, opening feathers and cluttering their aerodynamic shape with flaps and landing gear. Just like a Boeing ' or should that be the other way around? One tiny misjudgement and they'll be in a pie by nightfall.
To suggest someone has a bird brain is a compliment ' provided the bird is a homing pigeon.
Every week or so up to 100 men and boys ride their motorbikes and bicycles to the flat ricefields of Pakis on the plains below Mount Semeru, the highest peak in Java. Here they train their birds to obey.
On their backs the men hump multistory cages, more like dolls' apartments, containing pairs of pigeons, the sexes apart. All gather on a small bank between the rice seedlings to sort out the afternoon's business.
After a while selected birds are re-caged and biked 800 meters distant where they're flung into the sky.
Back at the base the owners wave the bird's mates in the air and call the racers home. Every fancier has his own color, technique and cry. 'Ri-ri-ri' is popular ' so is 'whoosh, whoosh' and 'hoi-hoi'. They also jump and flap their arms a lot, but never become airborne.
Pigeons overseas have been clocked at 140 kilometers per hour (kph) over short distances. On marathons, around 80 kph. They are the fastest long-distance creatures on the plant.
Like a naughty teenager the odd bird decides to test its freedom, by-passing the catchers in the rice, joyously flying up and almost away. But after a couple of circuits to check the alternatives the wayward youth quickly calculates that being back with the mob is better than a life alone pecking trash among humble sparrows.
'They're faithful birds like us, not polygamous,' said Dion, 61. He's been a birdman since schooldays, mesmerized by the mysteries of flight and the homing instinct. 'I've got ten pairs back at the house. It's a good excuse to get out and into the country. A great hobby.'
It's also an expensive one. To stay in top condition they're fed kibbled corn, red rice and green soy beans. Spending Rp 50,000 (US$ 4.25) a day on a small flock is common, tiny by Western standards but double the income of an estimated 40 million Indonesians.
A promising young bird can cost Rp 100,000, a champion several million rupiah. Fine if the pigeon lives long and breeds often, but not if it gets sick.
Along with racers, trader Joko Prayitno (Doro) also deals in tumblers (pigeons that fly high and then appear to fall out of the sky), white fantails and other pretties sought to romanticise wedding venues.
When The Jakarta Post visited his aviary he'd just bought a mixed bunch of 80 birds for Rp 3.8 million. He seemed relaxed about the transaction, reckoning keen buyers would soon appear despite an absence of advertising.
That's because he's well known among the avian fraternity for his prizewinners. Apart from trophies he also collected a 21-inch television set, which his birds never get to see. As pigeons are known for their intelligence they'd probably turn the thing off.
Back at the training paddy Didik, 55, explained the absence of women: 'This is men's business,' he said, 'girls don't get involved. My wife doesn't mind ' she knows where I am. What else can a man do? Keep fish or rabbits?
'That's not exciting and there's not much companionship. However more now prefer to play with their motorbikes.'
The young birds start in pigeon kindergarten, being released just a few meters from their owner. Gradually the distance increases till the birds graduate as senior homers and are ready for the big races.
Pigeons from several lofts are taken to a distant town and released. They usually circle a couple of times, and then head home. With the state of Indonesia's roads it's not uncommon for a grumpy pigeon to be tapping its foot and waiting with folded wings for a feed when his owner eventually arrives.
Even in Java's crowded kampongs there's usually space for a pigeon loft atop the house. Here a birdman can get away from it all, be himself, bond with his feathered friends, tidy their nests, repair their cages ' a fiddler on the roof pondering one of the great mysteries of nature:
How can a 500 gram bird fly hundreds of kilometers across country it has never seen before, dodge storms, hawks, powerlines and other hazards, and then find its home among the millions of terracotta tiles below?
The theory is that homing pigeons have natural global positioning systems that help them navigate, maybe using magnetic fields though no scientist is totally sure. Solar flares can disorientate. Distances of up to 1,800 km have been recorded.
Indonesians seem to be closer to their pigeons than their counterparts overseas who may have lofts holding hundreds of breeders.
If the wives of Indonesian fanciers get treated like their husbands' pigeons they'd be happy ladies indeed, constantly stroked and handled with love and care. Certainly they're in splendid condition, far better than their nicotine-stained owners.
However watching them strut around, puffing out their plump chests and checking out their neighbors seemed to challenge the idea that they're monogamous, though both sexes stay together to raise their young. I'm writing here about the birds, not the men.
' Photos by Duncan Graham
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