Most people consider pigeons a nuisance, but for some Ruhr Valley natives the birds are a way of life: a family activity, an obsession, even a profession. Once a hobby for miners, pigeon racing now attracts the wealthy.
Pigeon sport costs a great deal of time and money
Thousands of peeled eyes and pricked ears follow the coveted first lot as it's brought to the auction block in Dortmund's expo center. Within a few minutes the bids reach 6,000 euros ($7,730), and then the item is "going once, going twice, going three times, sold." The crowd roars as the happy bidders step forward - to claim their new homing pigeon. This hullabaloo isn't about quicker postal service. The pigeon is for racing.
Twenty thousand pigeon fanciers visited Dortmund's annual homing pigeon fair and auction in the heart of the Ruhr Valley this year. Although the former mining region is European Capital of Culture for 2010, it is still richer in local color than high art. Case in point: the region is and remains Germany's pigeon-racing stronghold.
Pigeon sport is changing though, like the Ruhr area itself.
A whole new game
Pigeon-racing youth groups promote the sport
In his half century of pigeon racing, Dietmar Schulz has seen the sport change considerably. The 66-year-old retired locksmith from Bochum remembers the days when 30 pigeon fanciers lived on his street. Now there are only three. Back then, in the summertime, the weekly release and return of the pigeons was the primary source of entertainment and bonding.
"In the 40s, 50s and 60s, there were soccer clubs, pigeon clubs and rabbit clubs," he recounted. "That was it."
At the time of Germany's reunification in 1990, well after pigeon racing's heyday, there were still around 80,000 breeders in West Germany alone. Today the German Association of Homing Pigeon Breeders estimates around 60,000 in all of Germany.
Even so, the competition has become a good deal fiercer. Dietmar Schulz and his wife Heike no longer bring home the big prizes. They cannot keep up with today's wealthy breeders, some of whom can afford to buy single pigeons for the price of small houses and hire drivers to cart their birds hundreds of kilometers each day for training flights.
The doctor is in
With so much focus on success, it's hard to tell what pigeon breeders love more: their pigeons or winning.
As head veterinarian at the Pigeon Clinic in Essen - part of the extensive and evermore specialized homing-pigeon infrastructure - Ludger Kamphausen says the breeder-bird relationship plays a big role in his work.
"There are those who see the pigeons as pets that they love, and others who are just interested in the birds' performance, and who calculate every veterinary procedure as a financial investment," he said.
During the summer racing season, the clinic sees thousands of pigeons each day, as breeders try to figure out why their birds aren't winning. In view of the amount of money invested in the hobby, it's not surprising that the state-of-the-art clinic offers the kind of medical care unavailable to most humans.
Kamphausen's colleague, Elisabeth Peus, has a simple explanation for why her costly veterinary services are in such demand.
"The joy that breeders feel when their pigeons come home is what they invest so much in," she says. "I personally don't have pigeons, because I'd be too scared that they wouldn't come home!"
Money is no object for some pigeon racers
The next generation
Christian Nuesser doesn't share Dr. Peus' fear. A fourth-generation pigeon racer from Linnich, near the Dutch border, Nuesser is one of the few young people active in the sport. At 16, he spends two hours every weekday caring for his birds, and five hours a day on weekends.
"My dream," he said, "is to get a few good pigeons which fly very quick and to be on the top of the charts."
Nuesser doesn't know any pigeon breeders his own age. What puts off other kids, he thinks, is the large time investment that's necessary.
Indeed, attracting youth is the biggest challenge facing pigeon racing today, according to 23-year-old Ruben Hermans, president of the West European Youth Commission for Pigeon Sport.
"It takes a few years to win prizes, and many young people don't have the patience," he said.
Yet there is a youth pigeon-racing scene, even if small. Hermans came to the fair in Dortmund with several of his pigeon-buddies and had a hand in the youth section of the fair, which included games and even a young people's pigeon auction.
"The best pigeon experience is to make a lot of social contact with other people," Hermans said, "In pigeon sport there are lots of friends - also older people, also people from all over the world."
A complex love?
Pigeon breeding is usually a family activity
Back in Bochum, the Schulz family are trying their luck with a new flock. Their last flock of birds all ended in the saucepan - the fate of many racing pigeons who don't make the grade.
Mr. Schulz has high expectations of his birds' performance but says that his love of pigeons and his desire to win are one and the same. Mrs. Schulz, however, says that in the end it's not just about winning.
"When you have a stressful day or you're depressed, you can come in here and sit down," she said. "The pigeons come to you and you can cuddle with them. It makes you feel good."
While some of the sport's newer, wealthier participants may come and go, the old guard is in the game for good. Prizes or no prizes, the Schulzes say they will be raising and racing pigeons for as long as they're still standing.
Author: David Levitz
Editor: Nancy Isenson