Last Thursday, 7,834 pigeons and their owners flocked to Ontario, California for the weekend’s 93rd Annual Grand National Pigeon Show. Far from the birds you find wobbling along city streets picking through trash, these pigeons are prized for their plumes and style.
This is the American Kennel Club for the bird world’s biggest underdog. The birds can cost hundreds, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars, and are treated as luxury items. (In the past, pigeon fanciers have come under scrutiny for killing raptors by the thousands to protect the birds they rear.)
Kicking off the “crown jewel of pigeon shows in the United States,” as it bills itself, was Mike Tyson — yes, that Mike Tyson — releasing 100 white homing pigeons outside the convention center. Tyson has raised pigeons since childhood, and got into the sport competitively after retiring from boxing.
The freed pigeons flew from the center to their home in Hacienda Heights, California, about 30 miles away. Many of the hundreds of breeds of pigeons featured—including more than 600 trumpeter pigeons, with feather-covered feet (“muffs”)—were shown off indoors by owners wearing white lab coats proudly embossed with “pigeon whisperer,” the given nickname for these enthusiasts.
Like any other pageant, the birds were competing based on their looks, hoping to win fame, prize money, and titles. An Oriental Frill took home the $500 grand prize for Best in Show, while an Fantail Pigeon was runner-up.
After the hoopla, these diva birds return to their lush lifestyles until the next pigeon show. Despite the obvious downsides of living in captivity, the birds are at least projected to have a longer life expectancy than wild pigeons.
“Our birds have been pampered,” says the show’s publicity director, Bob Nolan. “The pigeon that you see out on the street— that’s a survivor.”