To most city dwellers, pigeons are vermin to be shooed from park benches and warned off window ledges with spikes. Gourmands might contend that spatchcocked squabs can make a nice Sunday lunch. But pay more than 100,000 euros for a pigeon?
It’s becoming increasingly common, driven largely by interest in pigeon racing among China’s newly rich, Bloomberg Markets reports in its March issue. In May 2013, Chinese businessman Gao Fuxin set a new record, paying 310,000 euros ($351,000) in an online auction for a pigeon named Bolt, after Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. The previous record: 250,400 euros, paid by a Chinese shipping tycoon in 2012. “The Chinese, they care a lot about their face, and they are willing to spend a lot of money to get that face -- to show off,” says Ian Somers of Pigeon Paradise, the Belgium-based broker that sold Bolt. (Birds from Belgium and the Netherlands are prized for their countries’ racing traditions.) The company has conducted nine auctions since 2009 in which the total proceeds exceeded one million euros.
In a typical pigeon race, hundreds of birds from different breeders’ lofts are outfitted with time-keeping bands, trucked to a starting point hundreds of kilometers away (the exact distance home varies for each bird) and then released simultaneously. The winning bird isn’t the one that gets back to its home loft first but rather the one that travels at the fastest average speed.
Purses can exceed one million euros, and many races in China also feature an active illegal betting scene. More than 2.5 million euros can ride on a race’s outcome. Owners anticipate that at least 10 percent of their entrants won’t make it back in each race. (Animal-rights activists say that percentage is low and that many losing birds are euthanized.)
During races, hawks are a common problem. So are thieves. In China and Taiwan, so-called pigeon pirates wait along the birds’ expected routes with bait and nets. If captured, the birds are resold or ransomed.
Expensive birds such as Bolt are simply too valuable to race. They’re put out to stud after being auctioned. “In pigeon racing, blood is everything,” says Mike Ganus, a breeder and racer in Granger, Indiana, who sells about 500 birds a year to China. “If you don’t have the genetics, you won’t have a winner, no matter what you do.”
While buyers are beginning to rely more on the racing record of a pigeon and its offspring instead of physical traits, auction catalogs still feature close-ups of the birds’ wing feathers. One bit of pigeon lore holds that the length and shape of a bird’s seventh primary feather determines its performance. “It used to be you could sell any European winner to the Chinese,” Ganus says. “Now, they are looking for very exclusive pigeons.”