In mid-May, a total of NT$7 million (US$230,000) changed hands during a three-hour auction for racing pigeons in Shengang, Taichung (central Taiwan). According to the Taiwan-based Business Weekly, one particular small breed pigeon, weighing around one pound, was sold for NT$2.01 million (US$70,000), roughly the cost of a luxury BMW or Mercedes.
Many might not regard pigeon racing as a sport or a business, but it is a NT$70 billion (US$2.3 billion) industry and has existed in Taiwan for over 60 years. Pigeon racing creates at least a dozen NT dollar millionaires a year. On average, there is a stock market boom in Taiwan every three to five years, but pigeon racing can be far more lucrative, and is much more fun.
Pigeon racing is big business but without the high barriers of entry. Participants can be illiterate farmers or managers in the corporate world. In fact, it is estimated that at least 200,000 people on the island make a living from pigeon racing.
Unpredictability is one factor that attracts a racer. According to Business Weekly, pigeons can begin racing when they are less than six months old. Although inexperienced, they still have a chance of winning the race. Although pigeon owners attach a great deal of importance to a bird’s bloodline, any pigeon can take the lead out of the blue without any particular pedigree or previous record.
Recalling one race, a forty-year veteran of pigeon racing, Lai Ming-chang, told the Business Weekly, that in one particular race in which his pigeon was not expected to win, just in the last six seconds of the race, the bird suddenly raced to the loft at a speed of 80 kilometers per hour (60 mph ) and came in first. Lai took home prize money worth hundreds of thousands of NT dollars. In addition to the prize money, winning pigeons are also prized as breeding birds.
With about NT$1 billion (US$33.3 million) per year spent buying breeding pigeons, Taiwan is now part of the International Federation of Pigeon Racing. Whereas Taiwan is known globally for its export-based hi-tech manufacturing economy, in the area of pigeon breeding, the island is heavily dependent on imports from Belgium, where pigeon racing has a history dating back to the early 19th century.
According to the Business Weekly, due to the high jackpots that can be won, and the unpredictable nature of the racing, each pigeon owner pampers their birds. Often owners will feed their racing birds better food than they eat themselves. This extra special nourishment can include ginseng, deer horn, collagen and yeast. Accommodation-wise, these birds also live in high class digs that can include a loft built from juniper or teak wood, while their owners make do with something much more inexpensive. In this niche market, food, supplements and breeding birds are estimated to generate revenues of NT$3 to 4 billion (US$100 million) annually.
The height of the pigeon racing season climaxes on June 26 with the annual ocean race in northern Taiwan.