Inside the Quirky World of Competitive Pigeon Seduction

The urban pastime of Scottish “doomen” is filled with avian attraction, obsession, and the thrill of the chase.

The relationship between a “dooman” and his “doo” has the elements of a passion-fueled romance—seduction, the thrill of the chase, and an ending of either heartbreak or joy.

“Doo” is a colloquial term in Scotland for pigeon—the Horseman Thief Pouter to be exact— a breed which has a unique gift for luring a pouter pigeon of the opposite sex back to its home base to mate. A “dooman” (most practioners of this sport are male, though there are some "doowomen" as well) is the human who spends hours, sometimes to the consternation of spouses or others who might want their attention, scanning the skies to see if a rival has one of his doos out, or primping and preparing his own doo for flight.

John Proudfoot stands for a portrait in his friend's living room in the Southhouse area of Edinburgh.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Billy Casment sits for a portrait at his home in the Niddrie area of Edinburgh.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Paul Smith sits for a portrait with one of his birds in the Muirhouse area of Edinburgh. Paul was taught by his grandad who used to take him to the pet shop to buy pigeons for 50 pence.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Paul Casment sits for a portrait with one of his doos at his house in the Niddrie area of Edinburgh. He admits to stealing motorbikes for fun before getting into flying doos: "The pigeons take you away from that and remind you that theres more to life."
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Peter Ford sits for a portrait with one of his doos. Peter was left disabled and unable to work after an accident and became a "full-time dooflyer."
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Dylan Leppage sits for a portrait with one his doos in his room in the Sighthill area of Edinburgh. Dylan's stepfather encouraged his interest in the doos after he got into trouble in school.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Sinead Wilson stands with one of her favorite doos at her house in the Southhouse area of Edinburgh. Sinead flies pigeons with her father.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Gary Pacitti sits with one of his birds in his room in the Southhouse area of Edinburgh. Gary admits to being afraid of the pigeons up until he was convinced by his friends to begin flying doos.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Steven Rubbers stands for a portrait in the Niddrie area of Edinburgh.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Connor Ross from the Restilrig housing project in Edinburgh has been flying doos for four months after he was introduced to them by friends. His father, a former judo champion, heroin addict, and ex-con encourages him to keep flying the pigeons so that he can have a better life, says Ormerod.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Dylan sits on the stairs of his building with one of his doos. Dylan was taught to fly the birds by his dad.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

“You know when a dooman is going to leave his wife because the birds are waiting at the door as well,” photographer Robert Ormerod tells me, repeating a saying he heard while photographing the sport of doo flying in the housing projects of Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland.

Pigeons flying above the Edinburgh area of Niddrie, a place well known for its high concentration of doomen.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Anton Barclay prepares to release one of his male pigeons in order to in entice a female pigeon back to his hut in the Lochend area of Edinburgh.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

In these neighbourhoods where levels of unemployment are high, the activity keeps kids and adults alike involved in something positive, Ormerod says. “For the young, doo-flying provides focus, structure, and a reason to stay out of trouble in areas where crime, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy are high.”

Scots have practised doo flying since the Victorian era. The sport is largely passed down by fathers to their sons, and more recently, daughters. Here’s how it works: on a nice day, dooman might send out one of his pigeons, which they keep in their lofts, living rooms, or homemade sheds. A rival dooman looking out of the window of his house or sitting outside in his garden may spot the bird above the neighbourhood and will then quickly choose one of his own birds to release.

Father and son Ian and Mark Wilson dye their newest pigeons yellow in the Southhouse area of Edinburgh. The yellow colour helps the bird attract members of the opposite sex.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

An unidentified doomen stands with one of his birds in the Niddrie area of Edinburgh.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Then animal—or bird—attraction takes over. The birds fly towards each other as the doomen attentively watch from below, mimicking the cooing sounds of the birds in encouragement. If they are lucky, it is their doo which lures its mate back to its home base. Once the visiting bird is perched on just the right part of the hut, the dooman pulls a rope attached to a net, capturing the bird. (As a side note, Ormerod is not aware of birds being harmed in the process.)

The winner earns bragging rights at the local pub and another bird for his collection. Birds are traded and sold during events a few neighbourhoods over lest the birds be tempted to return to their home base. The effort that goes into caring for, grooming, and training, the pigeons is a source of pride and is time-consuming. It can also be acrimonious, especially if you’ve netted someone’s champion bird. “In the past, huts have been burnt down, pigeons get stolen, people have been stabbed,” Ormerod says, recounting legendary tales he heard. To be a successful doo flyer, he continues, you have to know how to stick up for yourself.

A pigeon sits on a carrying box.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Ormerod’s goal with this project was to show the connection between the doo flyers and their birds, so he opted for a series of portraits and still life shots detailing the birds’ significance in these humans’ lives. The birds also have a way of bringing nature and a “flash of beauty” to these drab urban spaces, and Ormerod likes to think, an escape from the confines of everyday life.

But the calm tone of the images is deceptive. “I had some crazy times chasing pigeons around living rooms,” he says. In one particular instance, he was at a young man’s house, capturing an artistic shot of the man holding his pigeon against the backdrop of tree-themed wallpaper. “The other boy’s mum came in, and at the same time and the bird started flying everywhere in a flurry of feathers and pigeon poo,” he recalls. “She made this very angry expression and then walked through to the kitchen.”

Doomen will be doomen.

Dan Dawson releases one of his doos from his garden.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

Header Image: Dan Dawson has kept Horseman Thief pigeons for 50 years. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ORMEROD

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