- A pigeon sold for a record-breaking $US1.4 million in China in March 2019. That’s the most that a racing pigeon has ever been sold for.
- Messenger pigeons were used across ancient Egypt and Rome, and their high value isn’t new.
- In 2018, two men tried to win the prize money at a pigeon race by smuggling their birds on a bullet train. In Taiwan, an organised criminal ring was kidnapping valuable racing pigeons and holding them at ransom.
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Pigeons are one of the oldest domesticated birds. They have been kept for thousands of years and used for food, sending messages, and entertainment.
They are appreciated not only for their speed but for their looks, too. And there are over 800 breeds of pigeon, many bred specifically to be exhibited at shows.
Messenger pigeons were used across ancient Egypt and Rome, and their high value isn’t new. According to Pliny the Elder, “Many persons have quite a mania for pigeons – building towns for them on the top of their roofs, and taking a pleasure in relating the pedigree and noble origin of each.” And in about 50 BC, a single pair of pigeons were sold for 400 denarii, almost twice the annual pay of a Roman foot soldier at the time.
And right up until the invention of the telegraph, in 1844, homing pigeons remained the fastest way to send messages across long distances. The birds can fly for 1,000 miles in one race and can reach 90 miles per hour over shorter distances.
They even played big parts in the world wars – thousands of pigeons were used in the First World War alone. Submarines, minesweepers, and tanks often carried pigeons on board to send urgent messages back to base.
Their role in the war wasn’t limited to delivering messages, though. In 1907, Julius Neubronner, a German pharmacist who used the birds to deliver medicine, invented a miniature pigeon camera that the German military used briefly in the war for aerial reconnaissance.
These days, you won’t see many pigeons delivering messages, but the birds are still used in races across the world.
After the war, the sport became a pastime of the working class, and affordable to many. But in recent years, the sport has transformed. Its rising popularity in China and the huge surge in wealth there has led people to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in the birds, and the prize money for winning some of the races can be equally high.
Chinese bidders have spent millions of dollars on pigeons over the last few years, often buying them from Belgium. Animation: [Bolt (310,000 euros in 2013), Nadine (400,000 euros in 2017) and New Bliksem (376,000 euros in 2018)]
And Armando’s value rose to $US1.3 million only because of a bidding war between two wealthy Chinese bidders. Despite reaching this record price, Armando is likely to never race again and instead be used for breeding.
While the number of British pigeon fanciers has fallen from 60,000 in 1990 to about 21,000 today, there are 100,000 fanciers in Beijing, and Taiwan alone has half a million fanciers. And the numbers are rising. The sport is even rapidly growing in Iraq, and a pigeon recently sold for $US93,000.
This recent surge in value has caused problems. In 2018, two men tried to win the prize money at a pigeon race by smuggling their birds on a bullet train. And in Taiwan, an organised criminal ring was kidnapping valuable racing pigeons and holding them at ransom.
This new world of pigeon racing across China has changed the reputation of the sport, and for those with the money to buy the prize winners, these birds are a status symbol. But for those who have been doing it for years, it’s not about the money, but the dedication and love of the sport.
Anthony Martire: “She came home at 9 p.m. at night in the dark like a bat. I jumped out of my shoes. It’s all about the work that you put in.”
Geoff Barker: “And nobody can really tell what’s going to breed a perfect pigeon. You could pay a fortune for a pigeon. I think there’s one been sold in China, and it could never breed a decent pigeon. But you could get two pigeons for a tenner and they hit it on and breed a perfect pigeon.”
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