Jos Zamzow was blasting southward on a train in Taiwan in December last year, looking out the windows at colorful structures atop apartments and houses passing by in a blur. The train was traveling too fast to make out exactly what they were: Bird coops, it turns out.
“When I got off, the first thing I did was ask what kind. Somebody told me pigeon racing in Taiwan was big business,” Zamzow said.
Zamzow was in Taiwan working to expand existing sales of pet and commercial pork feed made by his family’s southwestern Idaho company, Dynamite Marketing. However, he quickly realized there was a market for something different: High-performance racing pigeon feed, to create a super bird capable of flying faster than 1.5km a minute, sometimes for more than 300km.
Now Zamzow is betting that Dynamite can transform Idaho-grown safflower and corn — and a top-secret, blood-boosting brew of mushroom powder and yeast cell wall extract it makes in its 102-year-old feed mill — into an export business worth up to US$15 million a year.
In Taiwan, pigeon racing is a national pastime. There are racing clubs all over the country, and the sport is so lucrative — with race-winnings in the tens of thousands or more — that it is a top draw for illegal gamblers and crime rings that kidnap pigeons to demand steep ransoms. Bird-doping has even been alleged.
Already, Dynamite makes feed for competitors at New York’s annual Westminster dog show and the Kentucky Derby. The firm expects its test shipments of pigeon chow to head overseas later this summer, enough to feed 1,000 chicks slated to race in the coming season.
“After they start winning races, we expect there will be significant demand, and not just in Taiwan. Pigeon racing is popular all over Asia,” said Zamzow, who returned to Taiwan in April with Idaho Governor Clement Leroy “Butch” Otter to meet with pigeon fanciers.
Earlier this month, a Chinese businessman paid 310,000 euros (US$400,000) for a single bird at an auction in Belgium, the cradle of European pigeon breeding. In all, 530 birds were sold at the event, yielding a record US$5.6 million. Nine of the 10 top-grossing birds went to China or Taiwan.
Racing generally involves taking trained pigeons to a location before allowing them to fly to their respective homes. Older timing systems have given way to more sophisticated radio frequency identification tags and small GPS systems to track birds’ performance. In Taiwan, pigeons are often taken via boats to platforms far offshore and then released.
Just how big and how profitable Taiwan’s pigeon racing world is is not known, in part because gambling on the races is illegal. However, between breeders, racers, gamblers and others, the industry likely generates several hundred million dollars a year.
“There is no official record for this, because pigeon racing is in a gray area,” said Eddie Yen (顏銀德), Taiwan-based director of the Idaho Asia Trade Office and a key contact between Dynamite and the nation’s pigeon industry.
Once Zamzow’s test phase is done, the government must give its stamp of approval for commercial sales. Yen said that could take between three and six months, or longer if more testing is needed.
If Dynamite-fed birds turn out to be fast, they could become targets. In 1998, a Taiwanese gang armed with nets collected ransom of more than US$1.5 million after capturing birds mid-race, then using their numbered ankle rings to find and shake down desperate owners.