LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - When Hasan Khalil, a 34-year-old from northern Iraq, first saw pigeons flying around the Syrian refugee camp where he spent the majority of his childhood, he never could have imagined that he would later develop a passion for training the birds.
But in recent years, Khalil has spent hours training Ukrainian Skycutters and Macedonian Doneks at local parks when he isn’t running his barbershop, Golden Scissor.
“I started seeing birds fly in the villages around there, and it just got me attracted,” he told the Lincoln Journal Star. “I just wanted to know about how they live.”
Khalil said he would wake up every morning and walk to the mudhouses where the village birds lived and feed them.
“They made me happy” he said. ”(Helped me) get away from everything.”
After moving to the United States at age 14, Khalil continued working with birds and remembers raising and training roller pigeons in the attic of his house in Buffalo, New York. Although he trained all kinds of birds, Khalil discovered his interest in Ukrainian Skycutters and Macedonian Doneks after moving to Nebraska in 2010.
“I was passionate to get back to birds, and this time I wanted to get some birds that are rare here in the USA,” he said. “I searched and searched, and I found someone that imported these birds from Macedonia and Ukraine.”
He said he also selected the specific birds because they’re performing birds. Khalil said the Skycutters can fly high and hover for a while. Meanwhile, the Doneks, which are originally from Turkey, fly into the sky, then dive down in a spiral motion.
Khalil has about 80 Skycutters, Doneks and doves that he breeds, raises and trains. He built a shed next to his barbershop where he initially housed the birds, but he’s looking for another location that’s larger and more appropriate for his pigeons.
“I was flying (my) birds here. My whole neighborhood knows about it; they all love it,” Khalil said.
Like the reaction of his neighbors, Khalil said he often gets compliments whenever he takes his pigeons to train at Lincoln parks.
“Everyone that has seen my birds really love it, and that’s what makes me keep going,” he said.
Khalil said he’s recently noticed an increased interest in his birds since the start of the pandemic. He said families with kids regularly watch him train birds and ask questions.
“A lot of elderly people come to watch, and they really, really love the birds,” Khalil said. “They tell me that since the coronavirus, ‘This has been the happiest moment.’ That makes my day.”
Khalil said he’s glad he can share his passion with others. He said his bird training is simple entertainment, but the effect it has on others is rewarding.
He can regularly be found with his blue truck, three kids and at least 10 pigeons at any Lincoln park from May to September. He said his children - Yasmeen, 11; Nadleen, 10; and Shaheen, 2 - love helping with the birds.
He said his entire family supports his hobby and that he hopes to teach his kids how to train pigeons as well.
His journey of training pigeons has been full of challenges, and he’s lost numerous birds.
Despite being self-taught, Khalil said he’s found a community of support on Facebook groups.
“We all communicate together, and it’s thousands of people. If one of my birds is sick, I just (post) a photo, and they tell me what to do,” Khalil said. “We learn from each other.”
Through those Facebook groups, Khalil has sold pigeons to people in at least 14 states and Canada. He said a pair of Skycutters can cost up to $350.
Khalil said his next goal for his hobby is to develop his family’s YouTube channel, Bebo Show, into a platform for videos about his pigeon training and growth.
As with his training videos, Khalil wants to share the beauty and talent of his pigeons. He said his next goal is to either partner with an organization for bird training performances or take the birds to events such as the state fair.
“My experience has been really good to work with an animal that’s meant to just be on roofs, to tame them and bring them to do things that I didn’t think was possible,” Khalil said. “I would love to share it and teach other people.”
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