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China’s birds of war & peace

This month, China’s air force will exhibit warplanes to mark its 60th anniversary. But the world’s biggest and secretive military won’t reveal certain less sophisticated birds of war trained in Yunnan near northeast India — military pigeons, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Nov 07, 2009 23:55 IST
Reshma Patil

This month, China’s air force will exhibit warplanes to mark its 60th anniversary. But the world’s biggest and secretive military won’t reveal certain less sophisticated birds of war trained in Yunnan near northeast India — military pigeons.

The birds can hit 170 kmph even over mountainous borders, sometimes acting as messengers delivering memory chips attached to their legs. (See box).

But pigeons with a natural homing instinct to find their way home are best known in China as race birds that can cover over 1,000 km like Beijing to Shanghai in a day or two.

“Sometimes the pigeons come home first while we’re stuck in traffic,’’ says Li Da. As founder of one of over 100 pigeon-racing clubs in Beijing, Li drives his club’s pigeons in a truck to a rural racing point.

“The race starts when I open the truck and free the birds,’’ says Li. “Then we just go home and watch the sky for their return.’’

The fastest bird to return over routes that average 300-500 km wins prizes from 1,000 yuan (Rs 7,000) to millions. Every autumn and spring in Beijing — capital of the nation with the world’s maximum pigeon breeders but few wild pigeons — about 1,000 birds wearing identity chips compete in weekly races.

On October 1, 60,000 homing pigeons were released at Tiananmen Square to mark China’s 60th anniversary. Almost all the pigeons returned to their rooftop cages in centuries-old alleys with puzzling layouts like Old Delhi. Ten birds swooped within ‘two minutes’ on a one-room house where trophies topped with golden doves are stacked beside the refrigerator. The home is a shanty but Wu Chong Liang’s pigeons are German imports worth almost Rs 50,000 each.

Trained pigeons could fly home from Hong Kong if need be. The simple training dates to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). “We sit and watch the droppings for signs of health,’’ says Wu, who clambers up a rusted ladder to feed his ‘babies’ corn, beans and seeds. “A day before the race, we pair the males and females so the males get excited and fly fast.’’

The racers told HT that a pigeon racer was temporarily jailed for defying a ban on flying pigeons ahead of China’s 60th anniversary. Pigeon races were also banned as capitalistic during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). When the races restarted, few birds would return. “The economy was not strong, so the birds were not strong and well-fed,” says Li.

China has over three lakh pigeon racers, with over 30,000 in Beijing. The bird races are monitored by GPS and the richer owners invest in electronic landing pads to time the flight.

A recent Chinese media report said that a top pigeon could fetch six million yuan. But sometimes, an unlucky race bird may end up as a neighbour’s dinner.