Dan Dawson has kept Horseman Thief pigeons for 50 years.
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.
“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.
In these neighborhoods 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 practiced 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 neighborhood and will then quickly choose one of his own birds to release.
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 neighborhoods 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.
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.