Some people pay to keep pigeons away from their property. Others, especially in China, love the ubiquitous rock pigeon. (Yep, that’s the same species that perches on statues around the world, gobbles up stale hot dog buns off the street and uses parked cars as latrines.) And as the saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure: Last weekend, one bird enthusiast dropped $1.4 million on a Belgian pigeon named Armando.
Granted, Armando is no ordinary pigeon. Joshua Berlinger at CNN reports that he’s a world-record holding racing pigeon, considered the “best long distance pigeon” of all time according to pigeon racing information hub and organization Pipa, which is short for Pigeon Paradise. Armando was one of 178 pigeons sold at auction by Belgian breeder Joel Verschoot, bringing in a total of $2.5 million. Besides the champ, another pigeon named Contador was sold for $225,000 and seven of Armando’s children were sold for an average of $24,000.
Prior to the sale, the previously most expensive pigeon was Nadine, a bird that sold for $450,000 to a Chinese buyer in 2017. For comparison, the average price for a good racing pigeon is in the $2,800 range.
Nikolaas Gyselbrecht, the CEO of Pipa says the high-dollar auction was incredible. “It was unreal, the feeling—it was something out of this world,” he tells the BBC. “In our wildest dreams, we had never hoped for a price like that. We hoped for around €400,000 to €500,000 [$450,000 to $550,000], and we only dreamed of €600,000 [$675,000].”
When Armando, now five years old, travels to China, he won’t be setting any new records. The badass bird is now retired from racing and will be put out to stud. Gyselbrecht says pigeons can sire children until around age 10 and can live until 20. So Armando won’t be bringing in much prize money. But if he inseminates enough eggs, he might be able to alleviate his purchase price.
So, why are Chinese buyers dropping so much money on pigeons? Berlinger reports that pigeon racing is the sport du jour for the upper and middle class in parts of China. Currently, there are about 90,000 pigeon breeders in Beijing alone registered with the Racing Pigeons Association. Prizes for races often reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Jiangming Liu, a Pipa employee in China, says the fact that pigeon racing is the only sport that people can legally gamble on in mainland China has increased its popularity. And since anyone can participate, young, old, healthy or not, it appeals to a wide swathe of people.
"Everyone can do it. From regular people to some rich people. Regular people buy cheap pigeons. Rich people buy expensive pigeons," Liu tells CNN’s Berlinger.
So, how does pigeon racing work? Pigeons have a strong homing sense and have been used for millennia as carrier pigeons to send messages between predetermined points. Using that instinct, in the 1800s pigeon breeders began setting up races, taking the birds miles from their roosts and releasing them, timing them to see which returned home quickest. Over the decades the sport has become more much more sophisticated and pigeons, like Armando, have been bred for speed and homing ability.