This pigeon cost the same as 5 Rolls Royces

Rats with wings: Pigeon-haters say the birds carry disease and viruses © Reuters

Do we value the wrong things? A single pigeon has just been sold at auction for £1.5m. The buyers valued it as much as five new Rolls Royce cars. Were they mad? Or very intelligent indeed?

Kurt Van de Wouwer was in shock. He had put his two-year-old racing pigeon, New Kim, up for sale, and was hoping to get a decent price. She had won national races in her younger days, and though now retired, he thought she might fetch £180. But then a bidding war began between two Chinese buyers. By the end of it, she was the most valuable pigeon ever sold.

For the buyer there is just one problem: a pigeon’s homing instinct is so strong that if he lets New Kim out, she will head straight back to Belgium.

Pigeon racing – in which the birds are released hundreds of miles from their owners’ lofts, and timed on their journey home – is highly competitive. In July, 18 pigeons were found poisoned on the eve of the Barcelona 2020 race, in which nearly 15,000 birds flew 1,062km across the Pyrenees. Two years ago, two Chinese men were found guilty of cheating by putting their birds on a bullet train.

In the heyday of the sport in Britain, after the Second World War, there were half a million lofts across the country. Railways even had “pigeon wagons” to carry birds to the start of races. Today, enthusiasts are more likely to be found in India, Pakistan, Morocco and Eastern Europe – and, of course, China.

Pigeons were the first birds to be domesticated, and have been an important part of human life for 6,000 years. Until the chicken industry was established, they were an essential source of food; traditionally, a manor house had a dovecote, a rabbit warren and a carp pond to provide fresh meat throughout the year. Pigeons’ droppings were highly valued by farmers as fertiliser.

The birds have also played a vital role in medical research. The hormone responsible for milk production in mammals, prolactin, was first isolated in pigeons. It stimulates both the male and female birds to secrete “milk” – a cottage cheese-like fluid – from their crops to feed their squabs. The only other birds to feed their young this way are flamingos.

Charles Darwin was fascinated by pigeons, describing his own flock as “the greatest treat, in my opinion, that can be offered to a human being”. He devoted much of the first chapter of On the Origin of Species to them – and an early reader suggested that the book should focus on pigeons alone, the rest of it being “a wild & foolish piece of imagination”.

Pigeons have been found to be highly intelligent. They can remember hundreds of photographs, and distinguish the music of Bach from that of Stravinsky. Today, however, they are widely regarded as a nuisance, particularly in cities.

Do we value the wrong things?

Perching purchase

Some say, yes: it is ridiculous to spend so much money on a pigeon when you could buy an amazing artwork instead. New Kim has no intrinsic value – she is one bird among millions, and it is only the competitive instinct of pigeon fanciers that has given her an enormous price tag. We are too much in thrall to the status symbols which people buy at great expense to impress others.

Others argue that homing pigeons are creatures more wonderful than anything we could create ourselves, and the fact that New Kim is one of the best makes her worth her record price. By paying it, her new owner has shown a real appreciation of nature and a commitment to excellence – and those are precisely the qualities we need to possess if we are to safeguard the future of the world.

You Decide

  1. Is there any point in giving medals to animals?
  2. Does breeding from a bird or animal give you the right to do as you please with its offspring?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have your own homing pigeon. Draw a map showing the landmarks that it might navigate by on the last few miles back to its loft.
  2. Write a story about a pigeon or animal which wins the Dickin Medal.

Some People Say...

“The most valuable things in life are… friendships, trust, confidence, empathy, mercy, love and faith”

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), British philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that pigeon post is one of the most efficient natural forms of communication. As long ago as the 5th Century BC, Persia and Syria had widespread networks of message-carrying pigeons. In the Second World War, 32 out of 54 Dickin Medals (VCs for animals) were awarded to pigeons; the American Signal Pigeon Corps had over 50,000 pigeons, and 90% of messages sent via them got through. India’s Police Pigeon Service remained active until 2002.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around exactly how pigeons find their way home over landscapes they have never seen before. They are believed to use the Earth’s magnetic field and the Sun for long journeys, and then steer by familiar landmarks such as roads when they get nearer to their lofts. Smell may also play a part, with the wind possibly carrying odours which they can smell but we cannot.

Word Watch

Home
Because pigeons travel so fast – averaging 50mph – their owners have to choose between watching them start or finish the race. There is no chance of getting home before them.
Bullet train
A high-speed train. The term was first applied to Japanese trains, which can now travel at 200mph.
Heyday
Most vibrant era. The word was originally an expression of surprise or delight.
Lofts
Places, often on rooftops, where pigeons are kept. A loft can also mean an attic. The term derives from an Old Norse word for air, sky or an upper room.
Domesticated
Tamed to live with humans. The root of the word is the Latin for home, “domus”.
Dovecote
A building designed with perches for doves or pigeons.
Secrete
In biology it means to produce and release a liquid: saliva is secreted by glands around the mouth. It can also mean to hide something.
Crops
Pouches in their throats where food is prepared for digestion.
Squabs
Young birds. It is particularly applied to ones which do not yet have feathers.
Charles Darwin
A British scientist (1809-1882) who developed the theory of evolution.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.