The birds look so fragile — tiny legs, chubby bodies, easily held in one hand. But in the fighting ring, face to face, and cheered on by gamblers, quail can release a fury of feathers, beaks and claws when two aggressive males are forced to do battle.
Many Pakistanis take part in animal fighting as a form of entertainment — pitting dogs, chickens, bears and even eagles. Among the most popular, at least in the northwestern borderlands, are quail fights.
Keeping quail is a tradition said to be a centuries-old, part of the ethnic Pashtun culture. And it goes back further still: nearly 2,000 years ago, even the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius partook.
Quail fighting was banned in Afghanistan under Taleban rule, but since 2001, the pastime has been revived in Pashtun enclaves such as Kabul and Kandahar.
Across the border in Pakistan, quail fighting is embraced by largely older men who are proud to be part of what they see as a vanishing part of rural life.
“I have been keeping birds since before I had a mustache and beard,” said Dost Mohammad, about 75. The grey-haired, long-bearded farmer balanced a bright red bag on his left hand. In the dark underneath the heavy fabric, he gently cupped his prize quail.
Mohammad, who also owns peacocks and fighting chickens, was among several men who discussed bird fighting — some called it “wrestling” — in a small village near Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. They showed how they handle and feed the birds, defending a practice seen as cruel by outsiders and animal rights activists.
It is legal to hunt and keep quails in Pakistan, although those who do so are required to get a license from wildlife officials. But gambling on the bouts is illegal, and raids by police are routine. Last month police busted nine gamblers and confiscated $ 80,000 in cash, a newspaper reported.