Canada's Pigeon Trade

Canada's pigeon exporting industry is not one that usually makes headlines. But when the Australian government recently imposed a temporary ban on all live bird exports from Canada–prompted by the discovery of unspecified avian flu antibodies in a small group of racing pigeons shipped there from Ontario–bird enthusiasts had their feathers in a ruffle. The ban, which was lifted a few days later, came despite the fact that none of the feathered flock tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of the influenza virus that has already killed more than 150 million birds and at least 62 people in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia. Granted, Canada's pigeon trade ranks lowest in the pecking order when it comes to annual export revenues–less than $700,000 compared to an overall figure of more than $52 million for all live birds–but pigeon fanciers (those who breed and show pigeons in competitions) argue it's a viable industry nonetheless. According to Robby Copeland, past president of the 103-year-old Canadian Pigeon Fanciers' Association, the pigeon-keeping and -racing industries in Canada each generate about $10 million a year in show revenues, prize money and pigeon sales. “If you happen to have a bird that wins, it's just like Northern Dancer [Canada's prize-winning thoroughbred racehorse] all over again–but on a smaller scale,” says the 65-year-old Nepean, Ont.-based electronic engineer. “For a racing pigeon that wins on a regular basis, you can get up into the $10,000 to $100,000 range.” Homing and carrier pigeons, however, command a decidedly more modest price: anywhere from $10 to $100 a pop. Copeland estimates there are about 2,500 pigeon fanciers and 2,000 pigeon racers across Canada, and says an owner of a winning racing bird takes home up to $5,000 in prize money. But don't expect to get rich off your Belgian racer (apparently, Belgian breeds are particularly speedy). By the time vaccination costs, veterinary bills and transportation expenses are factored in, profit margins are fairly slim. And how exactly are these birds transported? “I use WestJet,” Copeland says. “In the States, you can actually mail them [in] special cardboard boxes. The United States Postal Service ships them to where they're going.” Fancy that.