China's pigeon fanciers race for fame and fortune

Pigeon racing is taking off in China.

Eight thousand of the birds were released into the winter sky in northern Hebei province last month, one of the many long-distance races holding out a promise of fame and fortune.

Pigeons have been raised in China since at least the 1600s.

But lately the ranks of hobbyists have swelled.

The Chinese Pigeon Association counts around 400,000 members, dwarfing the number in Belgium where the sport first got its start.

Zhao Zhiqiang breeds and trains pigeons in a coop on his parent's roof.

He looks for strong wings, a healthy constitution and bright eyes.

"The eyes are the window to their souls. The brightness of their eyes shows how healthy and clever the birds are," he said.

China's breeders have a reputation for their passion for pigeons.

But Zhao says there's a financial angle, as well.

"If we successfully raise a good racing pigeon, it's going to be very expensive. It'll be worth a lot of money," he said.

Bids flew at a recent auction in Beijing.

One pigeon - a racing champion - sold for more than $750,000.

For breeders like Mr. Ying, who bought six birds at the event, money is not an obstacle.

"I'm in love with pigeons. That's it, in a nutshell. Pigeons come first in my heart. My wife and children are second and third," he said.

The recent surge in enthusiasm for pigeons has pushed prices higher

One breeder made headlines last month when he splashed out $1.9 million for this pigeon - named "New Kim" - at an auction in Belgium.

Besides the cost of the birds, there's also the upkeep.

One pigeon fancier in Shanghai, Mr Yu, spends more than $30,000 a year on his flock of 500.

All worth it, he says.

One of his pigeons, "Little Ancestor", flew took first place in the recent race in Hebei Province.

"This pigeon broke the record in the national competition. It is unprecedented for a young pigeon to fly back in just one day."

A feat, he said, that still brings him joy.