Christmas in Paradise




So I’m going to be spending Christmas in Phuket and New Year’s in Bali, which means another two weeks away from WordPress. On the plus side, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of interesting anecdotes to tell and pictures to show when I get back (and I’ll get going on the China stuff too!). Merry Christmas everyone, and may the next year be your best!

Pigeon Slangin’ in China

Long time no see everyone! I’ve been out on business in China for the next month, and unfortunately, in the land of the Great Firewall, I was unable to access WordPress. Now I’m back and ready to update everyone on what I’ve been up to!

And what have I been up to? Selling pigeons that’s what.

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Breeding is very important in the pigeon world. The children or brothers and sisters of a champion can be worth 10-100 times more than one with a regular pedigree. These two are sibling to a National winner and worth over $1500 apiece!

And no, not the kind you eat. In many parts of Europe, Asia and North America, there’s a group of people called pigeon fanciers, who race and breed pigeons, either for profit or just as a hobby. It’s kind of like horse racing, where you select the good racers to breed with other good racers in hopes that they will have good racing children. Unlike horses though, they race by flying; I’m only clarifying because one of my coworkers thought they run on a racetrack…

There’s a lot of money in it too. While in Europe, winning a race is mostly a glory thing, in China, prize money can go up to as much as 1 million yuan ($160,000). And that’s small fry compared to the money in pigeon gambling (I’ve heard rumors that it can be as high as 100 million yuan, or $16 million!). A recent seizure by Chinese customs of a pigeon shipment, found a pigeon on board that had sold for 200,000 euros!

So what do I do? I work for a Belgian fancier who sells pigeons to China, interpreting for him and his Chinese customers at pigeon exhibitions around China. This is the third year I’ve been doing this, going with him to exhbitions in Langfang, Jinan, Beijing, and Chengdu. Belgian pigeons are considered to be higher in quality, as fanciers come from families who’ve been raising pigeons for generations. My client, for example, is the fourth generation of pigeon fanciers.

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Taken at the Langfang Pigeon Exhibition. Pigeons are nervous creatures. If they’re resting like this they’re feeling pretty calm.

When I first became involved with pigeons, I was like huh? People spend this much money on birds?! If you looked around a pigeon exhibition, there are vendors selling vitamins and “enhancers”,pigeon feed, loft builders, breeding nests, pigeon carriers, and oddly enough, remote control helicopters. Pigeons go from about 100 yuan ($16) to 100,000 yuan ($16,000) depending on if they have a racing record, breeding record, a good pedigree, or if they “feel” or “look” good.

What does a “good” pigeon look like?

A lot of fanciers will bring a magnifying glass made specifically for looking at pigeon eyes and a little flashlight. What are they looking for?

1. Color. Pigeons have two basic eye colors, yellow and white. Some say that it’s a good idea to pair pigeons with different eye colors because it signals genetic diversity. Yellow eyes are dominant and white eyes are recessive, meaning two pigeons with white eyes will never give a yellow-eyed child. Sometimes fanciers will look for children of champions with the same eye color as their champion parent; they believe that this means the child has inherited their winning parent’s traits. Does this have scientific merit? Not at all…

2. Irises. Pigeons with very reactive irises are seen as healthy, while those whose irises react sluggishly are considered unhealthy.

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A professional photograph of a pigeon, which includes a closeup of the eye. This is a white eye…I think

What does a good pigeon feel like?

This varies among fanciers and the regions that pigeons compete in. Some look for long tail feathers, some look for short. Some like their pigeons thicker, some like them light. Some like their breastbone to be further up, some further down. There isn’t really a universal standard for what a good pigeon feels like. Some are looking for birds that can fly long distances, and some are looking for pigeons who are good at speed races. Some think cocks fly better, some prefer hens. Some are superstitious that pigeons of a certain color are better fliers because they have a winner that was that color. There isn’t really a universal standard for what a good pigeon feels like.

And that’s how you pick a pigeon…

But wait. Once you buy these expensive pigeons, how do you know which one are yours?

If you look at the picture of Chaplin Jr. above, there’s a code BE08-6065416. That’s his band number, which is inscribed on the ring on his right leg since he was a chick. The band number is unique, and cannot be removed after he passes a certain age (unless you cut his leg off…). On his other leg is a chip, which is how they determine which pigeon wins the race. In Belgium, all band numbers are registered to their owners, which means that you can’t steal someone else’s pigeon and race with it.

How do they race?

When the pigeons are a few weeks old, they begin training. This consists of driving them 20-100km away from their lofts and releasing them. Some don’t have the instinct to return home, and are never seen again, but most do come back. For races, pigeons are driven to club lofts and released with pigeons from other fanciers. The first pigeons to “clock in” at home with the highest average speed wins.

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Opening ceremony at the Chengdu Pigeon Exhibition. Cue the Star Wars music (not kidding)!

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Watched a couple of interesting traditional Sichuan performances.

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The release of pigeons! I was terrified of being pooped on…

Even after doing so many exhibitions, I’ve never had the chance to hold a pigeon myself. After all, they’re at least $500 apiece, what if I accidentally let it go? Hopefully one day I’ll be able to go to Belgium and meet some of the pigeons whose offspring I’ve sold…