TAIPEI, Taiwan Jurgen Bayer is a silent man. He works his magic in a different way. The world’s most famous pigeon whisperer, he examines hundreds of birds to find the perfect combination, bringing fame and fortune to the bird owners who can afford his expertise.
In Taiwan, where pigeon racing has been national obsession for the past 40 years, Mr. Bayer is nothing less than a living legend. When, at last, he does speak, the island’s pigeon fanciers hang on his every word.
On a whirlwind tour of Taiwan last month, Mr. Bayer matched hundreds of birds, while basking in the adulation of his happy clients at one 14-course banquet after another. One of his clients, a Taipei restaurateur, recently won the first 50 places in a big Chinese race from Guangzhou to Shantou using pigeons bred with Mr. Bayer’s uncanny selections.
A few years ago, a high-ranking yakuza leader in the Japanese underworld, having won a regional championship with birds he had bought from Mr. Bayer, invited him and his wife for a two-week stay in Japan.
“The treatment we received was unbelievable,” he said.
One of the stops on Mr. Bayer’s Taiwan tour was a loft in Ba Li, north of Taipei, where, on a drizzly, melancholy Sunday morning, a few dozen pigeon fanciers awaited the return of their prized birds, released from a boat off Taiwan’s northern coast at 6:30 that morning.
At 9:04 a.m., pigeon No. 6783, owned by Hsieh San-lang, a pigeon fancier of 43 years, circled two laps before making a nose dive into the loft, where a scanner recorded its victory and computed its speed at miles per hour over the course.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, Lu Fang-yuan’s second bird had not yet returned. “My pigeons are very rotten,” Mr. Lu complained to his old friend Mr. Hsieh. For his victory, Mr. Hsieh, a welder by profession, received a check for 50,000 Taiwan dollars, far short of the $2 million prize money he won in a pigeon race in 1990.
Mr. Hsieh seemed content. Early on, he knew that when it came to racing pigeons, the gods were on his side. In his very first race in 1958, his pigeon was the only bird in a field of 700 to return. “I got all the prizes,” he recalls. “A bicycle, a sewing machine, a radio.”
“The Taiwanese are the greatest pigeon racers in the world,” said Amadeus David Tao, a German pigeon broker who arrived in Taiwan 12 years ago to study Chinese and got into pigeon racing to make ends meet.
He has hosted the satellite television program “Racing Pigeons Around the World” on Taiwan’s High Energy Channel, which has close to 3 million viewers; organizes the annual pigeon auction, “World Auction of the Dream League”; and brokers deals between Taiwanese pigeon racers and European owners to bring the best birds in Europe to Taiwan for breeding.
“Hong Kong people bet on horses,” said Mr. Tao. “The Taiwanese bet on pigeons. And the pigeon betting is much, much larger than the horse betting.”
He could be right. When it comes to gambling, the Fukienese of Taiwan are perhaps the only people who can rival the passion of their Cantonese neighbors. That Taiwan has outlawed virtually all gambling only increases the itch.
In Hsin Hsing, near the southern city Kaohsiung, a couple of years ago, about $13 million was wagered on a single race. (The Taiwan dollar is worth about 2.86 U.S. cents; all amounts in this story are in U.S. dollars.)
Dedicated pigeon racers can pay up to $350,000 for a prized bird.
Criminal gangs regularly kidnap racing pigeons, demanding $75 to $150 for a bird’s safe return.
In October, six persons in I-Lan were charged with having forged official seals and documents to request emergency medical transportion by helicopter in order to win a pigeon race from I-Lan to Chunghua.
Liu Wan-lai, secretary-general of the Asian Federation of Pigeon Associations, says the number of racing-pigeon owners in Taiwan has fallen from about 100,000 in the 1980s to about 20,000 today.
“The main reasons are urbanization and industrialization,” he said. “City dwellers simply don’t have any place to erect a loft for their pigeons.”
Mr. Liu also laments the decline in the intricate combination of skills needed to breed and train a winning pigeon. In the old days, many owners raised their own birds, a craft that requires experience and patience, as well as a few secret potions and tricks.
“Training a pigeon is a great science,” said Mr. Liu. These days, more and more owners entrust their pigeons to commercial lofts such as the one in Ba Li, where all the birds are fed and trained in a uniform manner.
“It’s a communism of sorts,” said one of the owners.
The demise of the art of raising and training pigeons notwithstanding, the Taiwanese remain the most fervent pigeon racers in the world, and gambling is the main reason.
Between the island’s more than 160 private clubs, hundreds of millions of dollars are up for grabs each year.
The betting starts two months before the races, when the designated bank accounts begin to swell. In July, a racing official in Taipei absconded to the mainland with about $600,000 in betting money days before the race.
But the pigeon fanciers’ greatest foes are the pigeon kidnappers. On race days, the kidnappers have been known to erect nets up to 50 yards high and 100 yards wide in the inaccessible valleys and gorges between Taiwan’s many mountains, firing rockets into the air to scare the pigeons into the nets.
To thwart the kidnappers, more and more races have been begun at sea in recent years, so now the kidnappers snatch the birds during training sessions instead.
In September, pigeon fanciers in Kaohsiung caught three suspected kidnappers and brought them in for questioning. It grew into a lynching, and when the dust had settled, three suspected pigeon-nappers lay injured, and one lay dead.