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For the birds: A $205,000 pigeon

The coop where Blue Prince lived stands empty now, the racing pigeon gone for good.
Yi Minna
China's Yi Minna, the Chief Operating Officer at the PiPa pigeon auction house which organized the Roosen sale, watches pigeons at Pigeon Paradise in Knesselare, Belgium.GEERT VANDEN WIJNGAERT / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The coop where Blue Prince lived stands empty now, the racing pigeon gone for good.

At $205,000 for barely a pound of feathers and lightning-fast fowl, Blue Prince has a one-way ticket to pampered retirement and lifelong breeding in China, which these days has become a predictable destination for topflight birds.

Over the past month, two auctions of Belgian racing pigeons have set one record after another, confirming Belgium as the age-old prime breeding hub of the birds — and China as the new center of global demand.

"They want to have the best pigeons, own the best pigeons, breed with the best pigeons," said Stefan Roosen after wealthy Chinese buyers helped push the sale of the 218-bird colony of his late father, Pros, to a single-auction world record $1.8 million last weekend. In general, the top birds bought in Belgium are not raced in China — it would be too expensive to lose them — but their offspring are.

In European pigeon racing, birds are taken up to 700 miles from their lofts and released. Races are decided by which bird flies back the fastest.

The recent record-breaking auctions, with their Belgium-China connection, highlight the sport's past — and its future.

From its humble origins as a working-class pastime across Belgium and Western Europe over the past century, pigeon racing spread across the globe and developed particular cachet in modern-day China, which escaped the brunt of the global financial crisis and is now passionately spending on pigeons.

"Along with the economical growth of China, the Chinese market, there is a lot of interest," said Yi Minna, the Chief Operating Officer at the PiPa pigeon auction house, which organized the Roosen sale. Among the new class of wealthy Chinese, many spend their money on fine wines, luxury cars, and "collection of horses, of dogs and pigeons as well," Yi said.

And with pigeons, Yi said, there is one huge advantage.

"One bottle of wine remains one bottle," she said. "You have a nice pigeon and it will have more children, grandchildren."

That is just the kind of breeding at which Belgians have long excelled. Generations of knowledge have taught fanciers how to build the best bloodlines with top racers. In the 1950s, this nation of 10 million had over 250,000 official members in the Royal Pigeon Federation. Just about every family had someone who spent weekends in blue overalls tending a few dozen pigeons. Sunday races were the highlight for the downtrodden after a week of labor.

Some pigeon breeders made their way up and developed coops to match their soaring careers — like Pros Roosen, who proved as competitive in real estate as he was in pigeon racing.

"There were clever and smart guys that were looking at it with different eyes and were trying to get better pigeons," said his son Stefan. "They were combining the best bloodlines with one another to get even better and stronger racers. ... That is why the Belgian pigeons over the years became the best in the world."

Handsome payoff
That paid off handsomely for the Roosen family, when five birds fetched $79,000 or more each in the auction, a bittersweet legacy for the fancier who died last August.

"It is a great honor for him. The name of Pros Roosen will last a long time now," said his son standing in the nearly empty loft where once the champions nested.

Even though Stefan feels some nostalgia, pigeon racing was never his sport. So it is when a great tradition is in decline.

From a quarter million pigeon fanciers half a century ago, there are 30,000 left in Belgium. "And they have an average age of about 70, so the decline will continue," said Pierre De Rijst, head of the Belgian Pigeon Federation.

He remembers 1955 when 20 pigeon breeders on his street would spend evenings sitting outside discussing racing strategies.

"Now," he said wistfully, "there are two left."

"Tell me, who wants to stay home all summer to tend the birds? Everybody goes on holidays. They have other entertainment."

So the precious birds fly off to Asia, carrying with them generations of genetic know-how.

But in China, federation membership has boomed over the past 12 to 15, and is now about 300,000. For top pigeons, prices have increases two to threefold in ten years, said Martin Martens, of PiPa.

"Prize money is enormous," Yi said. "We have a $1.31 million race in Shanghai, with the winner getting about half that," she said.

And that is reflected in the Belgian auctions.

"These guys, they just don't stop," De Rijst sighed. "They say: 'this bird comes with us to China' and that's it."