This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
When you think of a pigeon, maybe you picture a scruffy looking bird trying its best to fly into your bicycle wheel while simultaneously shitting on you. You probably don't think of a multi-million dollar industry. But pigeons could earn you some serious cash: earlier this year, one bird was sold for €1.25 million by Belgian pigeon fanciers (pigeon keepers or breeders). Not bad for a flying rat.
Thirty-one-year-old pigeon fancier Lorenzo van Russel is from Dordrecht, 30 kilometres south of Rotterdam. He has been practising the art of pigeon keeping since he was ten years old. I asked him how lucrative the pigeon business is in the Netherlands.
VICE: Hey Lorenzo, are you able to live off pigeon keeping?
Lorenzo van Russel: I am, but many pigeon fanciers aren’t. For most people it’s just a hobby. I’m also a pigeon broker: I mediate between pigeon keepers and their customers. It adds up to almost €10,000 in profits a month.
How old were you when you first started out?
I started doing this when I was ten years old. When I was 14, one of my pigeons became the Dutch champion. I could have sold it for a lot of money, but I didn’t. If you want to make it as a pigeon fancier, you have to keep your best pigeons for breeding.
What’s more profitable, being a pigeon broker or a pigeon fancier?
I generally earn more with my own pigeons, but it varies a bit. As a pigeon broker, I get a 10 per cent minimum commission. I recently mediated an €800,000 sale. That’s suddenly €80,000 in the bank.
How does a pigeon race work?
Thousands of pigeons are taken to Belgium or France and let loose. Then they have to fly back home as far as possible. Their speed is measured with an electronic device – that’s why all pigeons are chipped. The pigeon’s speed is registered online. The better a pigeon performs, the more valuable it becomes.
So it’s kind of like a Pigeons League.
It’s just like football: there are smaller competitions, then the Premier League and finally the National Championship. If you win nationals, your pigeon can compete in the European Championship and on to the World Cup.
How do you sell them?
If I want to sell a pigeon, I’ll email my regular customers the asking price. I’ve got a lot of customers worldwide: in China and Taiwan, but also in Iraq where the pigeon industry is booming. Once they’re sold, I ship them via plane in a travel basket.
How much time and money do you spend on your pigeons?
I spend ten hours a day, seven days a week training pigeons, cleaning their cages and maintaining contact with customers. If you’re just doing it for fun, it won’t cost you a lot. We support new members within our community, especially young members, because we don’t want the sport to die out. So we’ll often hand out a cage and a couple of pigeons to new members for free. If you want to do it professionally, it's a different story. Building my cages alone set me back €35,000.
So how do you train a pigeon?
You don’t have to teach them how to fly home, they just do it. In July they are taken to Belgium and released for the first time. Pigeons are incredibly smart: they are blindfolded and brought to a place where they’ve never been before and they can find their way back home just by trusting their inner-compass.
How do you reward them?
With food. They also come back for the females. Usually, only males participate in competitions and I keep the females at home. Before a game I let the males sit with the females for a bit. Then they’re all loved up so they’ll fly extra fast.
What do you get when you win?
Some competitions just have an honorary prize, but often you win a cash prize, about €10,000. Back in March, I participated in a competition with a €100,000 cash prize. One of my pigeons made it into the finals but unfortunately never returned home. He probably got lost or was eaten by a bird of prey. Too bad, because there is nothing like seeing your pigeon come home after a 700-kilometre flight.
You can have some fun with that amount of cash.
I could, but I don’t. Six years ago I bought a Mercedes-Benz CLA 200, but I was constantly pulled over by the police. They think a young man like me in an expensive car is suspicious, so I got rid of the car. Since then, I just reinvest all of my money in pigeons.
All that cash, and you never take time off?
Of course! I go on holiday now and again, but it’s always a pigeon-related holiday: like Portugal, Spain or Tenerife to watch the European Championship. But it’s hard to be away from home, because I want to be there when my pigeons return.