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, hoping to get a decent price. She had won races in her younger days, and though now retired, he thought she might fetch £180. A bidding war began. By the end, she was the most valuable pigeon ever sold.

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

Pigeon racing is competitive. In July, 18 pigeons were found poisoned. Two years ago, two men were found cheating by putting their birds on a bullet train.

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

Pigeons were the first birds to be domesticated. Until the chicken industry, they were a source of food. Droppings were valued by farmers as fertiliser.

The birds have played a role in medical research. The hormone responsible for milk production in mammals was first isolated in pigeons.

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

Do we value the wrong things?

Perching purchase

Yes. it is ridiculous to spend so much on a pigeon. New Kim has no intrinsic value, it is only the competitive instinct of pigeon fanciers that has given her an enormous price tag.

No. Homing pigeons are more wonderful than anything we could create, the fact that New Kim is one of the best makes her worth her price. By paying it, her new owner has shown an appreciation of nature – those are the qualities we need to safeguard the future.

You Decide

  1. Is there any point in giving medals to animals?

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.

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

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”.

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