Pigeon racing has become a popular pastime among China’s nouveau riche, with some spending thousands of dollars to raise them.
“He’s very cute,” remarks Dong Xiaobo as he feeds a pigeon he’s been raising for several years. “Ever since he was little, he’d always eat grain from my mouth. We’ve built a very close relationship.”
Dong is a pigeon enthusiast in Beijing who raises the birds for racing. Throughout history, pigeons have been used to carry messages, and the sport of racing them evolved from their uncanny ability to sense direction across long distances.
Races involve releasing trained pigeons and seeing who can return home the fastest. The distances can range from 100 to 300 miles.
The modern sport of pigeon racing was introduced to China in the 1930s by European merchants, but it didn’t take off until the 1980s after economic reforms meant people could afford to breed pigeons for recreation.
China now holds more than 10,000 races a year, with some competitions offering prize money as high as $1 million.
Most pigeon breeders like Dong are hobbyists and do it for the prestige. The birds themselves can fetch a high price, with one going for a whopping $320,000 at an auction in 2014.
Dong himself spends more than $85,000 a year raising pigeons and supports his expensive hobby with other business ventures.
“I love raising pigeons,” he says. “There’s no business in it. The cost of raising and training pigeons is very high, but I am not in it to make money.”
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He proudly points to his shelf full of trophies accumulated since he started raising the birds in 2000.
“Especially during races, you can feel their perseverance,” Dong says. “No matter how bad the weather gets, whether it’s wind or rain, you can wait at home and they won’t let you down.”
There are now hundreds of pigeon associations in China, where races have become a pastime of the nouveau riche. Luxury clubs host competitions for their wealthy clients, and breeders employ a team of trainers to ensure the birds are in top shape.
“Years ago, people didn’t even have enough to eat, let alone raise birds,” Dong says, recalling his time growing up in rural China. “But now people have more free time and money, so more people are starting to raise pigeons.”