Gurbir “The Birdman” Brar believes in pigeons.
They can prevent crime, relieve depression and high blood pressure, teach science, and heal family divides, he says.
The 23-year-old wants to encourage others to keep the birds as pets and rekindle a dying hobby.
But a City of Abbotsford bylaw is putting Brar’s passion in jeopardy.
Since the age of six, the self-dubbed “Birdman” has kept pigeons in his backyard, feeding them, regularly taking them out to fly, and developing a relationship with the birds, each of which he says has a unique personality.
While studying criminology at the University of the Fraser Valley, he began developing a crime-prevention program. He believes getting young people to care for pigeons can keep them out of trouble, through youth outreach programs.
The birds can be relied upon to always return to their owner, which can have a positive effect on a young person’s self-esteem, something many at-risk kids need, said Brar.
His goal is to develop programs with local elementary and middle schools, which he hopes would foster the fading pastime among the younger generation.
“One of my worries is that when I’m 40, 45, 50, I won’t have anyone to fly my pigeons with or compete against,” said Brar, who has entered his birds in races.
The in-school programs could also be used to teach a variety of sciences – nutrition, physics, biology – as well as develop leadership skills among students who join pigeon-keeping clubs.
Brar has had several friends become involved in crime and “the gang lifestyle,” which he has successfully avoided thanks, in part, to his pigeons, he says.
A few years ago, a 16-year-old Surrey boy contacted him through the local pigeon club’s website, asking for help getting started in the hobby.
Brar didn’t hesitate to build a small loft, fill it with half a dozen birds and drive them to the young man, who himself was involved with gangs.
The new pigeon keeper has embraced the activity, left his criminal lifestyle and is now attending college, said Brar.
The hobby also has the potential to bring different generations together, especially in Indo-Canadian communities, said Brar. Keeping pigeons is popular throughout India and doing it in Canada can bring young people closer to their parents and grandparents who may have memories of doing so back home.
All of these plans have come out of Brar’s passion for the hobby and his own flock he keeps in a hand-built loft in his backyard.
But ever since he moved with his family to a new home in west Abbotsford in 2013, he has been stressed about the possibility of losing his own flock of birds.
His previous neighbours never complained about the birds, even commenting about how much they liked them, he said.
But he has received several notices from both CARE Animal Control and the City of Abbotsford, some threatening fines of up to $250 per day. He has been informed that since the property is not zoned for agricultural use, he cannot keep the pigeons.
Brar feels this is unfair.
He has reduced the size of his flock from approximately 100 to 25, even keeping them in his garage, rather than an outdoor enclosure, for some time.
“We’re not using them for eggs, we’re not using them for meat,” he said. “They’re literally just pets.”
The hobby is likely to die, said Brar, let alone see a resurgence, if pigeons cannot be kept in residential areas.
“The bylaw itself, I feel is very oppressive, in the sense that it’s almost helping to kill this hobby,” he said.
Just as with any pet owners, there are responsible and irresponsible pigeon keepers, said Brar, who suggests implementing a licensing system, with rules about cleanliness, overcrowding and training.
Brar has sent letters to Abbotsford city councillors and the mayor, asking that they put a moratorium on the bylaw.
The city manager responded to Brar, telling him he is welcome to appear before council as a delegation and make the case for why the rule should be changed, an offer he has yet to take up, according to Mayor Henry Braun.
“We’re not picking on Mr. Brar. The bylaw is the bylaw… The only way that council would do that is if they hear a compelling case for why we should revisit that bylaw,” said Braun.
But Brar said he hopes to continue his passion, for years to come.
“My goal is, until the day I die, I’m going to keep pigeons. One way or another, I’m going to have pigeons.”