Changing faces: Liu Changsheng. Beijing pigeon raiser

Liu Changsheng has raised homing pigeons for decades and still keeps 500 on his Beijing roof - an antidote to the pressures of big city life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 5:24am

Flocks of homing pigeons crossing blue skies and whistling past buildings used to be a common sight in Beijing. But it's getting harder to raise birds in the capital as the number of high-rise buildings grows, air quality deteriorates and electromagnetic interference from military radar and mobile phone base stations rises. Liu Changsheng , 67, is a fourth-generation member of a pigeon-raising family. He tells how the city's changing environment has affected pigeons and why the fun they bring can never be replaced by other pets.

Your family has a long tradition of raising pigeons. How did you come to be a pigeon lover?

My family used to live in a traditional Chinese quadrangle on the site of today's National Centre for the Performing Arts near Tiananmen Square. Both my grandfather and my father love pigeons. So do I. Pigeons are sentient animals and they took to me as a friend. Every day when I got home from school, some of them would fly down and perch on my shoulder to greet me. In the 1990s, we were asked to move out of our home as the city centre was being rebuilt. The developer offered me several apartments to choose from, all in high-rise buildings, but I didn't go because there were no places to settle my pigeons. Finally, I moved to this apartment, which is on the top floor, so I can keep my pigeon cages on the roof. It's about 200 square metres and ideal for my 500-plus pigeons. Of course, the traditional Chinese quadrangle is a much better place to raise birds. In high-rises, the place is much smaller and your neighbours may regard them as a nuisance.

What are your happiest moments when raising pigeons?

When I get up on a sunny morning, open the cages and let the pigeons fly high, I just forget all my worries, seeing them wheel in the air above my head. Sometimes when I'm tired, it's most relaxing to see them walking, singing and eating around me. I've lived in Beijing for many years, but I have never stayed overnight elsewhere. It's all to take care of my pigeons. My son is not interested in this. But my elder brother is also a big fan of pigeons and I may give all my birds to him one day.

Where did you get your pigeons? Have you participated in any homing pigeon races?

I acquired most of my pigeons from my friends overseas. They are breeds from the United States, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Malta and other countries. In 1996, I bought 12 homing pigeons from my friend in the US for 117,000 yuan (HK$143,680). It's impossible for others to get such a cheap price for that breed. Most people have to attend auctions and bid for the good ones. In the 1980s, I took my birds to a number of long-distance races. One of them won second place in a 1,500-kilometre race from Xiangfan in Hubei province to Beijing. After that I joined the Homing Pigeon Association in Beijing's Xicheng district, which also organises races. There are many good breeds of pigeon that originated in China. I collected information about them and pictures and compiled a book, Fancy Pigeons. I hope more people can learn about the beauty of Chinese pigeons.

What changes have you seen in the capital over the past decades that affect the living environment for homing pigeons?

One major thing is there's more and more electromagnetic interference. Homing pigeons rely on their ability to detect the earth's magnetic field to find their way home, even over extremely long distances. However, radars and mobile phone stations generate electromagnetic interference that may make pigeons lose their way. So we especially skip some periods, like the National Day holidays in October and the "double conferences" [of the National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference] in March, when planning races because the military radars on the outskirts of Beijing are usually turned on during such times. In addition, it's obvious that the air quality in Beijing is worse than 20 or 30 years ago. The pigeons are slouchy and unwilling to fly on a smoggy day.

Have you ever seen people harming pigeons?

Yes. In the past, there were always a number of pigeons that went missing during races. Some were shot by poachers. In one race, many years ago, a pigeon of mine flew back and I heard it fall on my roof, with a bang. I climbed up to check what had happened to it and found it had actually been shot in the legs. It died shortly afterwards. In recent years, there have been fewer such incidents. However, more people are kidnapping pigeons during races and then blackmailing their owners for ransoms ranging from hundreds to thousands of yuan. These people learn about the time and route of the race beforehand and hang a large net from hydrogen balloons in the middle of the route. They can easily catch the fastest pigeons and then ring up their owners, demanding money. Even the police have no effective way to deal with them.

Has the number of pigeon fans in Beijing grown or fallen in the past two or three decades?

There are fewer pigeon-raisers in inner-city areas. But there are more people breeding birds in the suburbs because they often have more space in their homes. Many of them are very rich but have little knowledge about pigeons. They are willing to pay surprisingly high prices for an ordinary pigeon at auction. They have boosted pigeon prices in Beijing and the best pigeons now cost more than one million yuan.

Pigeons often play a role in open-air, public celebrations, performances and some films. Have you ever taken part in such activities?

Many. The request often comes as "a political task". Every year we organise the association members to take part in the National Day celebrations on Tiananmen Square. We have to take the pigeons to the place very early in the morning. Each pigeon will receive a "security check", with security guards touching them one by one to see if there's anything unusual on them. After the celebrations, the government gives us a few yuan per pigeon. Sometimes, the local government also asks us to assist in the making of films. We cannot say no.


Liu Changsheng spoke to Celine Sun