Flights of fancy

By Erik Nilsson ( China Daily ) Updated: 2014-01-12 01:35:40

Flights of fancy

More than 60,000 pigeons set off during the 8th China Pigeon Race at the Zhengzhou Sports Center in 2007. The birds came from more than 10 provinces and municipalities. Provided to China Daily

Pigeon racing's popularity is soaring among China's wealthy, producing sky-high bids for champion pedigree — and unintended consequences ranging from import-tax spats to pirates who trap and ransom the birds. Erik Nilsson reports.

The bird bomb detonates. Its payload — millions of yuan worth of pigeons — explodes out of the truck's door like shrapnel with wings. Win or lose the war they seemingly don't realize is before their beaks, they're instinctively flying home.

That's what homing pigeons do. Scientists don't know why. Or how.

Yet it's their species' namesake.

And these birds have long been used in actual combat in China, perhaps without realizing it. They've delivered messages from dynastic upheavals through the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).

That's not to say their use hasn't been mostly peaceful. And Mandarin makes no distinction between pigeons and doves.

They were essentially an ancient take on delivery drones. Couriers on the ground simply couldn't match their speed.

The 153 racing birds released in Beijing's Baige Park for the Iron Pigeon Triatholon, hosted by Jiangsu Broadcasting Corp's loft, are not only combatants for, but also trophies of, the superrich. They're status symbols — like Ferraris with feathers.

Some get lost. Some fall prey to raptors. An equally unknown number are "bird-napped".

So much money flying through the skies has produced pirates on the ground, who bait, net and ransom pricey pigeons.

"There's no guarantee every bird will find its way home," Beijing Blue Feather pigeon trainer Wang Jinhai explains.

"A pigeon's previous competitions are invalidated if it doesn't complete a race. So people set up nets along routes. After they nab a pigeon, they call its owner to demand ransom."

Wang trains his pigeons by letting them fly near his loft daily and calls them back by playing Kenny G's Going Home.

"We use the same song every day, so pigeons are conditioned to the signal," he says.

The more distance they sojourn, the fewer pigeons return.

Blue Feather staged a five-leg race this year. The last contest required the birds to fly 500 kilometers from Henan province's Qi county to Beijing. Only 1,420 of 2,205 birds made it within the time limit.

And just 42 of 153 pigeons finished the 1,000-km route of the Jiangsu Radio and Television Station Loft's competition in time. The distance is exceptional, even for China, where more endurance contests are staged than in Europe, which has long dominated the industry.

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