Pigeon racing traces its roots to Europe, but Taiwanese have made it their own.
Every year, dozens of racing associations wager tens of millions of NT dollars on birds entered in grueling five-race competitions, while owners of the winners take home huge purses.
It has become such a big business that there are now pigeon hospitals catering to injured competitors with state-of-the-art techniques. And there are birdnappers who ransom the birds.
PHOTO: WALLY SANTANA, AP
Several times a year owners send their birds winging from one end of the island to the other, or flying from platforms at sea to Keelung 300km away.
Competitors are less than a year old and are chosen only after undergoing a rigorous training regime that emphasizes sticking to designated routes and building strength and perseverance.
The stakes are huge. Yeh Cheng-shen, chairman of the Taipei County Pigeon Racing Association and a participant in the sport for 54 of his 68 years, said he won NT$10 million (US$303,000) in a recent five-race meet. He estimated that meet's total pot at more than NT$2 billion.
"There's only one reason why pigeon racing is so popular in Taiwan -- gambling," he says.
Yeh, who estimates the value of his own racing flock in hundreds of thousands of NT dollars, says owners sustain significant losses during the races.
"Three thousand birds started our recent fall meet," he says. "Only 20 or 30 returned at the end of the event."
Yeh says most of the dropouts lose their way along the route, but some are trapped by criminals eager to exact ransoms.
"Gangsters erect these huge nets in valleys and other places the birds have to cross. Then they call the owner and offer to return the bird for what seems like a pretty reasonable price -- about NT$3,000," he says.
With the growth of racing, well-maintained bird hospitals have spread across the country.
The oldest is Taipei's Versele-Laga, established in 1985 by its current director, Li Jaw-yang, a graduate of Taiwan National University.
Li says about half of his clinic's patients are pigeons, nearly all of which are racers.
"Some are suffering from parasites, the kind of malady that any bird is prone to," he says. "But by far the most frequent problem involves injuries they sustain while racing. It's a very difficult sport."
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