Flights of fancy

Updated: 2014-01-12 01:35

By Erik Nilsson (China Daily)

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Flights of fancy

A pigeon raiser presents the wing of his star pigeon at the China Carrier Pigeon Culture Expo at the new China World International Exhibition and Conference Center in Chaoyang district of Beijing in November. Xing Yi / China Daily

Few races outside the country exceed 500 km.

The centuries-old practice of training homing pigeons in China has been given new wings in recent years. The emergent elite are propelling prices for what is otherwise a fowl archetypically considered "rats with wings" in the West and delicious in China.

A Chinese buyer set the world record price for a pigeon purchase — at 310,000 euros ($425,000) — in a Belgian auction in May. The bid for the bird, named Bolt after Jamaica's Olympic gold-medal sprinter Usain Bolt, overtook the previously unprecedented 250,000 euros another Chinese paid for a Dutch pigeon in 2012.

But Bolt hit a hurdle entering China in an import-duty dispute between China and Belgium that Reuters reports held 1,600 birds in legal limbo in September. He was among the first 400 birds released during negotiations.

Bolt is retired. If he were to fly, he'd try to head back to Belgium. He's instead spending his days in Beijing as a ladies man, breeding the next generation of pricey pigeons for local races.

Champion pigeons' offspring can command top dollar, since "birds without blue blood" are believed to rarely scoop prizes.

On Nov 20, the Pioneer (Beijing) International Pigeon Racing Club's fall auction for the champion pigeons set a national record for total revenue at 16.8 million yuan ($2.77 million), according to pigeon-racing website The 225 birds sold for an average of 74,000 yuan apiece.

Auctioneers accepted cash only.

It was an intense five hours of bidding, starting at 10,000 yuan per bird. Every bid had to add at least 2,000 yuan.

The crowd stood to gawk at the biggest buyers when the top 10 birds went on the block. The highest-valued pigeon was a second-place competitor that went for 1.5 million yuan.

The bird's previous owner Xi Jinwen says: "I wanted to buy my pigeon back."

But Xi stopped bidding at 1.4 million yuan.

That said, cheaper contestants sometimes beat exorbitantly priced champions.

Ankle bands for races — separate from the ID bands issued by the Chinese Pigeon Racing Association — range in cost, too, from 50 to more than 5,000 yuan.

Bands prevent cheating. But also, the more a person pays for the band, the more he stands to win, since prize money comes from the bands' sales.

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The Chinese Pigeon Racing Association is the only authorized ID band producer and also registers every racing club in the country.

It sells more than 10 million ID bands a year and boasts more than 300,000 members. Competitions take place in the fall and spring, as the weather is too extreme the rest of the year.

China hosts two types of races.

The first is organized by associations and clubs, whose members raise and train their own pigeons.

The other kind is the single-loft race. Pigeon owners send their newborn birds to the organizer, who feeds and trains the animals together for about half a year before they compete.

Convenience has made this category more popular in recent years.

Ordinary Beijingers commonly raised their own pigeons, until the 1990s, and whistles attached to their birds' leg bands were part of the city's din.

The municipal government began massive citywide renovations that decade, and many hutong were demolished, along with the rooftop bungalows locals used as pigeon lofts.

Wang Jianguo recalls raising 30 pigeons in his courtyard home in the Dongdan area then.

"My neighbors protested when I installed a loft in my high rise apartment, so I had to give up," the 59-year-old recalls.

Last year, he bought a yard where he raises 200 birds. He hired a trainer to care for the creatures and visits every three days.

"I'll join some races this spring," he says.

Wang Jinhai, the Beijing Blue Feather trainer, recalls his uncle raised pigeons in the '80s and gave him a pair when he was a boy.

"But my parents forbade me from raising pigeons," the 43-year-old says.