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Friday, October 25, 2019, 10:57
Pigeon power helps nation celebrate
By Xu Lin
Friday, October 25, 2019, 10:57 By Xu Lin

Pigeons fly over Tiananmen Square in Beijing during the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic on Tuesday. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

When 70,000 pigeons were released in Tian'anmen Square on Oct 1, Huang Libing, 53, was eagerly waiting for those he owned to arrive back at his home in a hutong, or alleyway, about 5 kilometers away.

The birds had been set free to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

All 30 of his pigeons returned home within 10 minutes, with the quickest completing the journey in only about five minutes

All 30 of his pigeons returned home within 10 minutes, with the quickest completing the journey in only about five minutes.

"I watched the livestream broadcast of this year's National Day celebrations - it was a particularly magnificent sight, both the pigeons and the military parade," he said.

Huang has taken part in major celebrations for years, responding to calls by the Beijing Racing Pigeon Association, which handles the release of the birds for such occasions.

He received special leg bands for all his pigeons released on Oct 1 and a subsidy of 15 yuan (US$2.10) for each one. Such bands, bearing identification information, are attached to pigeon chicks when they are about 7 days old.

"It (Oct 1) was a great honor. The selection process was strict and the pigeons had to undergo physical examinations. Some of my friends were sorry that their birds were not chosen and asked me for leg bands," he said.

The first time homing pigeons were released to mark National Day was in 1959 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of New China, when several thousand took to the sky.

Dong Xiaobo, a professional breeder, has raised more than 1,000 pigeons in Beijing's Daxing district, some of them well-known breeds from Europe. (YANG XIAOJIA / CHINA DAILY)

The homing pigeon industry started to take off with the introduction of the reform and opening-up policy in 1978. Associations for pigeon owners were set up nationwide.

Since then, pigeons have been released regularly for major events, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Founded in 1982, the Beijing Racing Pigeon Association prepares for such occasions several months in advance and encourages its members across the city to submit birds voluntarily.

Huang Jian, vice-president of the China Racing Pigeon Association, said: "Once released, these pigeons are anxious to fly home. On most occasions, they will reach home. If you do come across a pigeon that has lost its way, you can give it food and water, after which it will fly home on its own." Huang Jian sent 60 pigeons for this year's National Day celebrations.

The tradition of using homing pigeons to send messages was once popular in many countries, and pigeon racing originated in Belgium in the 19th century.

In the 1930s, the sport was introduced to Shanghai from Europe. When the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) ended, some pigeons used by the military were left by the First American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers, in Kunming, Yunnan province, and by Japanese troops in Wuhan, Hubei province.

In January 1997, the association joined the Federation Colombophile International, the worldwide organization for pigeon sports. This marked a turning point for pigeon racing in China, as participants started to interact with their overseas counterparts.

Huang Jian said that in 1997, the China Racing Pigeon Association only issued 5 million leg rings.

Official data show that in the past two decades, the industry has developed significantly, with more than 10,000 races now held in China annually, 25 million leg rings issued each year and a market size of over 20 billion yuan.

Huang Jian said it costs 15 yuan to register a pigeon for ordinary races, and the bonus paid ranges from 50 yuan to 2,000 yuan. In some professional races staged by clubs, the bonus is much higher, even reaching several million yuan, but it also costs more to register the birds.

Prices for homing pigeons vary, ranging from several hundred yuan to 100,000 yuan, with higher charges for champion birds, according to Huang Jian.

"Because of urbanization and environmental sanitation regulations in cities in recent years, some owners have had to raise pigeons in the suburbs. They have also had to build pigeon lofts that meet certain standards and get agreement from their neighbors," he said.

Pigeon owner Huang Libing said his birds have been trained to fly distances of at least 150 kilometers to prepare for races.

He initially trains them to fly 5 km before gradually increasing the distance once they become familiar with the way home. During the racing season, he gets up at 3:30 am to drive 150 km to release the pigeons at dawn. They often arrive home earlier than him, as he encounters rush-hour traffic.

Huang Libing reads 15-day weather forecasts for cities along the pigeons' route and has to be certain there will be sunny conditions so that they can perform at their best.

He said various factors govern the way pigeons perform in races, including the species, the way the birds are bred, their health and proper training.

"Pigeons overcome all kinds of difficulties to reach home. One of my pigeons broke its breastbone, but it made it home after a week.

"Just like an angler hoping for a fish to take the bait, I enjoy the process of waiting. I'm glad to see my pigeons land."

Huang Libing said that during the racing season some people spread large nets in midair to catch homing pigeons and sell them to other owners to make money. He is hoping that such illegal activities can be ended.

Zhang Jian, 50, has raised homing pigeons for about 30 years and has 40 birds.

In 1950, his father started to raise pigeons in their backyard in Xizhimen, Beijing. At the time, the area was next to farmland, where pigeons could hunt for food. There was no need to feed them, except in winter. Instead of using a cage, his father nailed several planks on a wall for pigeons to rest on.

In 1969, his father moved to Nanluoguxiang in downtown Beijing and continued to raise pigeons.

According to Zhang, competitions with neighbors were popular. The pigeons were released and observed to see those that flew the longest in the area. Sometimes Zhang's father and his neighbors went to the suburbs to fish and release pigeons, and their families would tell them later whose birds arrived home first.

"My father's generation raised local species purely for fun. Nowadays, there are many pigeon competitions throughout the year, with bonuses awarded. European species and cross-bred birds are popular due to their fine performance in contests."

Like his father, Zhang gets a great deal of pleasure from raising homing pigeons. He generally releases them twice a day and sits on the terrace to watch them for an hour.

He socializes with several neighbors who also raise the birds. Sometimes, while his neighbors are also releasing pigeons, they greet each other on the terrace.

Dong Xiaobo, a professional breeder, has raised more than 1,000 pigeons in Beijing's Daxing district, some of them well-known breeds from Europe. (YANG XIAOJIA / FOR CHINA DAILY)

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"I am used to hard work, as I have to clean the pigeon loft every day. It's a tiring and dirty job," he said.

"My approach has changed over the years. You need to be very patient. If a pigeon doesn't come home, all you can do is wait. Life goes on and you have to adjust your mentality."

Dong Xiaobo, 53, has raised more than 1,000 pigeons in Beijing's Daxing district, some of them well-known breeds from Europe. The professional breeder prefers crossbreeds of European and Chinese species, as they have a better chance of winning races.

He travels to Europe to buy suitable pigeons that cost 1,500 to 1,700 euros (US$1,668 to US$1,890) each. However, the price for a champion bird can be dozens of times higher.

"The pigeons have an innate homing ability. They will generally return to their nests, using magnetoreception (use of a magnetic field to identify direction, altitude or location) and sunlight. If there is an earthquake in a neighboring country, it will also affect pigeons in China," Dong said.

"More and more people are raising homing pigeons, and a complete industrial chain has developed over the years, such as food, medicine and tools."

In the past, a special clock had to be used to calculate pigeons' times in a race, but now when the birds reach home, an electrical scanner in the loft reads their leg bands and uploads this information online.

READ MORE: Evening gala held to mark 70th founding anniversary of PRC

Many pigeon owners, including Dong, are forced to rely on their experience to tell when a bird is ill, as few vets in China can treat pigeons.

"To perform well in races, you need plenty of research and communication with others. In the racing season, daily training sessions are necessary. You should also feed pigeons different food according to the season and provide them with nutrients," Dong said.

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