Pigeon Racing and Pigeon Racers: skills, strategy, ethics

Written By Ya-Ching Huang.

Image Credit: 石門 By Sam Wang/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Pigeon racing is a historically national sport in Belgium and the Netherlands, the main export countries of racing pigeons for Taiwanese fanciers. While pigeon racing is usually described as the working-class horserace in the United Kingdom, Taiwanese pigeon racing draws participants from all walks of life, including farmers, vendors, civil servants, blue and white-collar workers, and business owners. Pigeons were a common playmate for older participants’ childhood in the 1950s to 1970s when the races were institutionalized. Some participants delved into pigeon racing as a professional career. Some participants in the races as amateurs. Others pick up the hobby after retiring from the work. Participants from the younger generation usually succeeded in the family business of pigeon racing. While pigeon racing in Taiwan is a declining pastime, it is still prevalent in suburban and rural areas, where pigeon lofts can be spotted on the top of the building or in the middle of the farms. 

Taiwanese pigeon racing involves both the races and gambling that gives people hope for overnight fortune. It is organized by private pigeon clubs, which usually charge five percent of the total betting money for revenue. Most pigeon clubs, in general, hold three seasons of races a year and at least five rounds of races in one season. On the race day, racing pigeons are shipped to a liberation point on the sea, and they have to fly back to their pigeon lofts. If they can fly back within a specified time duration, they are eligible to advance to the next round. The fastest pigeons in the final round can win different amounts of prize money by ranking. The prize money is collected from the fee participants paid for pigeon bands, an electronic device that can help record flying time. However, the most attractive and considerable rewards are actually from participants’ betting money on the pigeons, which constitutes the illegal economy of pigeon racing.  

Inevitably, pigeon racing is seen as morally disreputable since it has been involved in the controversies of illegal gambling and animal rights abuses. Control Yuan, an independent investigatory agency of the government, in the survey report of 2012, raised the issue of tax evasion in pigeon-racing gambling. Some participants support the intervention of the government by taxing betting money to legalize this activity. Many fanciers work hard to obtain the right to host international races, hoping to destigmatize pigeon racing as a national sport. Others foresee the backlash against the intervention from pigeon clubs who will lose profitable commission of betting money. PETA, an American animal rights organization, accused the races of abusing animal rights. Facing the charging, some players reflect on challenges for young pigeons to fly across the sea, but most of them emphasized pigeons have their best care in the process of training. The debates on these issues remained unsettled. 

For most pigeon-racing players, the investment in this game is not just betting money but their time and efforts during the process of preparation for the competition. In contrast to roulette, lotteries, and slot machines that take no efforts and depend mainly on chance, pigeon racing takes around four to eight months to prepare in advance of the races. The preparation work is way more complicated than an outsider can imagine. Unlike in Belgium and the Netherlands, racing pigeons in Taiwan can only race once in their whole lifetime. For a new season of the competition, players have to breed pigeons from the old ones they owned or bought from other countries or players. Young pigeons are trained to get familiar with their pigeon loft and the surrounding environment. Then, they would be taken to different places and liberated for training their homing ability. Daily care includes preparing pigeon feeding, scrapping droppings, dosing pigeons with nutritional supplements or medicines, vaccinating pigeons in case of ailments, and even performing surgical suture for injured pigeons. In the training process, they need to decide which pigeons they want to bet for each competition’s round. The pigeon embodies the labor, time, and efforts of the players. They believe it is a game of skill that relies on gamblers’ knowledge, strategies, and decisions. 

Although skill is emphasized, the chance is undeniable in the game; for example, champion pigeons’ offspring are not necessarily born as a winner due to uncertain inheritance. Unstable weather on the sea might cause well-trained pigeons to be unable to return home on time. The gambling design also increases the uncertainties since the betting unit is not only individual pigeons but a group of pigeons from two to six together as a team. For group betting, in general, the more pigeons with faster speed in a team, the higher chance the team could win. Consequently, it is much more difficult than individual betting to predict the outcome. These uncontrollable uncertainties that give rise to chance create a sense of equality and hope for pigeon racing players. 

Because of the combination of skill and chance, it is hard for a player to predict the outcome. How then do players perceive winning conditions in the game? Money is a building block in the game. Participants need to be able to afford the cost of building pigeon lofts, buying pigeon feeding, nutritional supplements and medicine, and paying for pigeon bands and competition fees for the pigeon clubs. Besides, the money they possess affects their decision on what levels of racing pigeons they can buy. According to a rough estimation in a pigeon auction that I participated in 2015 in Taiwan, the average price was around 1,400 U.S. dollars and the highest bid on that day was 11,000 U.S. dollars. The auctioning pigeons were mainly from the Netherlands and Belgium. A Belgium champion pigeon, Bolt, was sold to a Chinese business person at the price of 400,000 U.S. dollars and has kept the world record. Most importantly, those with deep pockets could be more advantageous on betting because of the unique and complex gambling of group betting mentioned above. An affluent player with ten registered pigeons in a two-pigeons betting unit can bet on ten-choose-two combinations. Therefore, economic capital can increase the chance of getting winnings.  

Skill is another significant dimension in pigeon racing. It is tacit knowledge cultivated by daily practicing that shows players’ ability to breed, train, and take good care of pigeons. As breeders, the players have formulated an eye for picking breeding pairs to hatch high-quality offspring. Except for pedigree, some observe pigeons’ physical structures such as breastbone, wings, tails, muscles, the color of eyes, or oral cavity. Some pay attention to pigeons’ personality. As trainers, they guide the birds to be familiar with surroundings, release them to circle overhead around the pigeon loft, and then take them on training flights from short to long distances. The set of knowledge and skill that bear on the health and homing ability of the pigeons could considerably affect the races’ outcome. The returned and champion pigeons are usually regarded as evidence of their skill. 

Nevertheless, not everyone has a sufficient amount of money or is equipped with skills. Interpersonal relationships can be mobilized to benefit disadvantaged players under some conditions. Beginners, usually short of money and skill, tend to utilize their social networks to obtain other seniors’ skill instruction or gain high-quality pigeon studs. Nevertheless, this could only happen when the assistance would not damage the interests of the senior provider. To be more specific, the beginner and the provider must be the members of different pigeon clubs with no competition, or the provider has retired from pigeon racing. 

Almost every player keeps accumulating their skill to ensure good performance in the races since it can not only help them win money but also activates useful resources from their social network. For professional players with less betting money but higher skill, an excellent racing profile can help them attract relatives or friends to invest in their pigeons. Therefore, the investment alleviates their disadvantages of gambling, increasing the possibility of winning the payoff. The outstanding performance of those eminent players with both trump cards—money and skill—has become a brand that they can sell their own products such as pigeon feeding or nutrition to their potential customers for revenue. Their champion pigeon and its offspring can also bring them considerable profit if they are willing to sell out. 

These players develop various strategies to increase their advantages in the game even though the chance to make a huge fortune overnight is slim. To many participants, monetary compensation is one of the compelling motivations. Nevertheless, the love toward pigeons, the passion for studying breeding and training knowledge, and the camaraderie between players are indispensable to understand this unique activity. 

Ya-Ching Huang is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Boston University. Her research interests include economic sociology, cultural sociology, and morality. She received her M.A. in Sociology from National Taiwan University, and her master’s thesis focused on the practices, cooperation, and masculinities of pigeon-racing players in Taiwan.

This article was published as part of a special issue on animals and society in Taiwan.

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