It begins on a driveway in Tampa, where 10 cages are scattered around. One by one, male pigeons are given a minute to strut around and puff out their chests, hoping to impress the lone female.
The birds’ owners watch carefully, some live streaming the flirtation. They are all Cuban men from across the island.
Then Jose Pupo removes the female from the last cage.
“Hola mi gente, cojan sus palomas,” he says. Pick up the birds.
The men carry their birds a few blocks down from Pupo’s house, to an empty intersection. After a brief countdown, the animals take off, the males all chasing after the same female. The men below whistle and holler. They each hope to win the day’s competition by having their male lead the female back home.
These are the palomeros of Tampa, the pigeon men. Their birds — las palomas ladronas (the thieving pigeons) — steal the hearts of impressionable birds and capture the love of the men who raise them.
As the friends tease each other, claiming some males are underperforming mid-flight, Pupo keeps his eyes trained skyward, confident in his bird, nicknamed the Custodian.
Pupo had brought all the men together on this Sunday for the pluma loca, or crazy feather competition, a variation of their regular routine. But he aimed to win.
“It’s a sit and wait game,” he says, as the Custodian circles overhead.
On any given day, even during the pandemic, the skies over the Egypt Lake-Leto and Town ‘n’ Country neighborhoods are full of pigeons.
Each afternoon, players launch their birds and hope they’ll return home leading someone else’s bird into a specially designed cage, marking a capture.
The birds attract rivals with distinct feather colors, or by alerting them to food back at their place, or the classic method: straight-up seduction.
The victor can choose to keep the captured bird, sell it, give it back or trade it for supplies, Pupo said. The best palomero is the one whose birds rack up the most captures. More captures mean less out-of-pocket costs and, of course, the most coveted prize: bragging rights.
“Instead of saying my dog is better than yours, you can say my pigeon is better than yours, because my pigeon caught your pigeon,” Pupo said.
Pupo, 25, learned the sport of thieving pigeons from his grandfather Vicente Carrillo in Cuba. Last year marked his first full year competing in the United States, during which he caught 75 birds.
He started out with pigeons he bought at local pet stores, which cater to the growing palomero community. Through friends, he was able to get more birds to breed and raise as his own, at times even stepping in to help the parents with baby bird formula.
That dedication helps in training the birds to always come home, Pupo said.
Regardless, he knows there’s always a risk whenever he lets his pigeons loose. They can end up blindsided by love or dead at the claws of a predator.
Between September and March, palomeros are especially cautious, because chicken hawks and peregrine falcons are on the hunt.
But when Pupo hosts his Sunday competitions, the men arrive ready to play and spectate. After all, who would want to miss the pigeon version of The Bachelorette?
Back at the pluma loca, held before the pandemic, the Custodian, named after the custodios or men who guard places at night in Cuba, shows off the moves that earned him his moniker.
While the other males fly too close to the female, aggressive in their pursuit, the Custodian keeps a comfortable distance. He doesn’t fight with the other males and doesn’t pressure the female to follow a certain path. He just stays in her line of sight, playing it cool.
The crowd of players and spectators convenes back at Pupo’s driveway. By now, most of the male pigeons have given up, hoping for better luck with other birds flying about or going home to rest.
Some men catch up on how the weekend is going, some sip cafe Cubano, and others check phones for posts in their group’s Facebook page.
Then, suddenly, someone whistles.
Cries of “mira, mira” ring out. Look! Look!
The Custodian swoops in for a landing on a nearby roof. His painted wings — bright red and blue — make him instantly recognizable. The female follows, perching a few feet away.
The men applaud, some patting Pupo on the back.
“Custodian is a loyal bird,” Pupo says, beaming with pride.
But the game isn’t over.
The Custodian may have been the last eligible bachelor, but he still has to seal the deal. The female has to enter his cage to count as captured.
The men creep closer to Pupo’s house, careful not to make too much of a ruckus, ready for the final move.
Ask the palomeros where this whole thing started, and they’ll point to Spanish conquistadors who brought the sport to Cuba.
Over time, Cubans made it their own, mixing the imported European birds with the local flock to create what’s now known as the Cuban pigeon. Its bulging neck sets it apart from the everyday pigeon you might see flapping around in the United States.
“This is not a New York pigeon,” Pupo said.
The sport took off in Cuba, in part, because it doesn’t take much to get started, said Leyner Diaz, a top breeder in Tampa.
Diaz, 37, started raising palomas ladronas, also known as palomas deportivas or sporty pigeons, in Cuba when he was 6. Boys weren’t allowed on rooftops but released their birds from the streets.
The sport continues to thrive on the island, but Diaz and other local palomeros are pleased to see this part of their culture flourishing in Florida.
The palomeros de tampa Facebook group boasts more than 5,400 members. The Palomeros de Miami group is more than 6,700 strong. There are also groups in Naples, Sarasota and Bradenton.
In 2012, the city of Hialeah passed regulations on pigeon breeding to minimize nuisances that might come with a lot of birds in one spot, as reported by the Miami Herald. Miami-Dade County took a similar path.
There are no such rules in Tampa or Hillsborough County, where Pupo and others hope the sport can grow to include the more formal game play seen in South Florida. There, judges use a rigorous point system to determine who has the best pigeon.
Roberto Valdes, 48, enjoys the camaraderie in Tampa.
And Valdes, who moved to the area in 1999, has always loved the sport.
His prized bird, El Mas Tigre, was known as the local champion. The pigeon, who died recently at 5 years old, held a record of 90 captures.
But the old bird is making way for promising upstarts like 1-year-old Custodian, who by Feb. 16 this year had already claimed 19 captures. And he was set for one more.
“Ya casi, ya casi,” says a spectator, clutching his phone as he squints at Pupo’s coop.
After a few minutes of showing off around his date, the Custodian makes his intentions clear by flying straight into his cage.
It is motion-activated. All the female has to do is step inside, onto the loose bottom panel, and her weight will cause the door to close behind her.
Pupo and the other men fidget as they wait. The crowd on the street has grown to include neighbors on a Sunday walk, now caught up in the action.
Then, a collective gasp.
The female lands just outside the cage, pacing back and forth, cooing at the Custodian, taking her sweet time.
Then, a few paces forward, a few more. And snap!
The men burst into cheers, congratulating Pupo on a game well played. The Custodian and the female, meanwhile, are not to be disturbed.