Last summer, a story appeared in the New York Times that could have come straight from an episode of “Only Fools and Horses”. Just swap Peckham for Shanghai and cast two Chinese guys in the roles of Del Boy and Rodders.
Before the story begins, and in case we didn’t know, we need to understand that to start a pigeon race, the pigeons are transported hundreds of miles away from their lofts. When they are released, their instinct is to fly back home, and it’s the first to reach its loft again that wins the prize.
Right, the stage is set, and the action begins summer 2018, when these two guys decide to enter four birds into the annual Shanghai Grand Prix Race. They come up with the ingenious idea of giving their birds two home lofts, one in Shanghai, the race’s end, and one in Shangqiu, the race’s starting point.
The plan is, when all the pigeons are released by race officials in Shangqiu, their four birds won’t (and don’t) like the rest of the birds in the race, fly the hundreds of miles back to Shanghai. Instead they head straight back to their second and nearest home loft, the one in Shangqiu. Our two geniuses simply collect their birds, hide them inside milk cartons, and smuggle them on to the bullet train that connects the two cities.
Disembarking from the train in Shanghai, the birds are re-released and flap their way back to the Shanghai loft they call home. Needless to say, the four birds beat all the opposition by a long mile, and are declared outright and extraordinary winners of the prestigious race with its $160,000 prize.
The Trotters would have been in their element. You can just hear Del Boy saying to Rodders, “This time next year we’ll be millionaires!” But in this Chinese version, the jubilant smiles are soon to fade.
Even over a long race such as this, pigeons can fly at a phenomenal 80 mph. At that speed, the average race time between the two cities is about 8 hours. But the fastest of avian flyers can’t come close to the bullet train’s top speed of 200 mph. And the train only takes 3 hours 15 minutes to make the same journey.
Mmm. It’s not going to take a genius to work out pdq that in the birds’ record-shattering win the maths doesn’t quite add up. And the other competitors were no slouches working out the sums. If only our guys had thought to stop off somewhere for a leisurely lunch on the way back to Shanghai!
But this story, amusing as it is on the surface, leaves a bad taste. Because in truth…
There is nothing funny about pigeon-racing
After the Grand Prix race, to hide the evidence of their fraud, the two men destroyed their four innocent birds.
Here’s another “extraordinary story” passed on to a reporter for the BBC by one of his colleagues: “She [the colleague] used to live next door to a pigeon fancier. One day his winged competitors returned from a race, but one refused to re-enter the loft; it perched on the house roof, out of reach of its owner who wanted to register its ID from the tag on its leg.
“A simple solution was at hand, in the shape of an air rifle. He shot the bird and collected its corpse to complete his race record.
“‘You made that up,’ I accused. ‘No I didn’t,’ she replied.”
The reporter was wrong about one thing – the story is not “extraordinary” at all. On the contrary, it is all too familiar.
In Belgium, the historic home of pigeon racing and still the epicentre of the pigeon fancier’s world, competition birds can be worth thousands of euros, especially as certified winners. And over the last decade or so, the hobby’s popularity has spread like a contagion across the Far East, particularly in China, the Philippines and Taiwan. Last month a Chinese buyer “spent a record 1.25 million euros ($1.4 million) at an auction for Belgium’s best long-distance racing pigeon of all time.”
Put those facts together, and this is what you get –
Crime and Cruelty, Cruelty and Crime
In one incident, a Belgian national noticed two men who looked ‘Asian’ dumping black bin sacks in some woods. The sacks turned out to be full of pigeon corpses, each with one foot cut off – the foot with the identity tag.
“The Royal Belgian Federation of Pigeon Fanciers has suggested that Chinese criminal gangs are behind a growing number of robberies. Rather than attempting to smuggle their prey abroad, criminals will kill the pigeons and cut off their identifying rings to be used on much less valuable birds bred in Asia.”
“It is really an epidemic, a true plague,” said Pierre De Rijst, president of Fédération Royale de Colombophiles Belges. “All they have to do is fit the stolen identification rings in China onto a bird worth a fraction of the value, which they then pass off as an ace racer.”
When a race is on, people like to shoot the pigeons out of the sky, just for fun. Others string fishing nets across the mountains to catch the birds – then sell them on to would-be pigeon fanciers for a fraction of their monetary worth. (In the world of pigeon racing, a bird with no monetary worth has no worth at all.)
2 million pigeons are bred and raised by the UK’s 43,000 pigeon fanciers every year. Thousands of the birds are killed as ‘unsuitable’ before they even get to race. PETA filmed pigeon-fanciers weeding out “slow-flying birds and snapping their necks before tossing them into the bin.”
“Money—not just entry fees, but vast illegal wagers—fuels the multibillion-dollar pigeon-racing industry. Wealthy racers pay upwards of $100,000 for imported breeder birds, and top flyers admitted to making millions on a single race. The chance to win staggering sums leads to extortion, drugging of birds, and kidnapping birds for ransom.”
As if all that weren’t enough, after a race pigeons may be killed by their owners if they fail to make the time needed to qualify for the next race in the series.
And then there are the races themselves – even worse than the deadly Iditarod
The Alaskan Iditarod dogsled race calls itself “The Last Great Race on Earth”. Since it began in 1973, 150 participating dogs have died. Deaths are so routine that officials consider them “unpreventable”. Many others are injured, or end the race with permanent lung damage. Many many more are bred and then killed if they don’t reach racing standard. (Read more here)
But the stats for losses in major pigeon races are off the scale. Take the prestigious MacArthur Race in the Philippines: “It is a brutal 600-kilometre gauntlet during which competitors face searing heat, wild seas, vicious predators, and the threat of kidnapping.” Only 1 in 10 pigeons that start the race makes it back.
In Taiwan, “the birds, who are released over treacherous open oceans and have to fly hundreds of miles to reach land, are often swept underwater by waves and drown, or fall victim to extreme weather, raptors, electric lines, foul play, disorientation, or exhaustion—or, if they return but finish out of the money, their necks are typically broken.” In Taiwanese pigeon races, only 1 in 50 of the birds survive, 98 out of 100 die.
A Taiwanese fisherman describes the scene of horror he witnessed: “It was raining pigeons – literally. I’ve never seen such a scene. Every one of them crashed. Some crashed on to the boat, some crashed into the ocean… About one hour after the pigeon rain, you could see the whole surface of the ocean filled with dead pigeons.”
Here in the UK it is no better. Pigeons pair for life. They ‘kiss’ affectionately, and both care for their offspring. The fanciers exploit this fidelity by deliberately “widowing” a pair. They use the stronger male, who will fly back fast to his mate, in sprint races. Not in longer races. In longer races, the male is inclined to forget his mate back home and seek new love elsewhere.
The females on the other hand, never stray from their one soulmate, and even over long distance races faithfully fix their sights on home. This steadfast devotion is rewarded by making them the natural choice for the longest, cruellest races, such as the Barcelona International, in which they are forced to fly up to 900 miles to reach home. The final deadly barrier is the English Channel, referred to by those in the pigeon racing world as “the graveyard”, because it swallows up such huge numbers of exhausted birds. Only 1 in 10 make it back. Then, if they’re not going to be of use for future races, their owners drown them or break their necks.
“Millions of dollars fly in this business, but the pigeons are always the losers” – PETA
A pigeon’s worth?
Cock-fighting, badger-baiting and hunting foxes with hounds are rightly banned in the UK as barbaric activities having no place in the modern world. Every life is precious and every animal death for human ‘sport’ an unnecessary tragedy. But it seems we care much more about badgers, foxes and cocks (and the Iditarod dogs) than we do about the racing pigeons, whom “many people consider to be no better than flying rats.”
Who gets to decide what the life of this gentle, intelligent creature is worth?
Take action for UK racing pigeons here
Take action for Taiwan’s racing pigeons here