Zhao Tongqing is alone in life. At 57, he's never married, never had children, never worked. He lives in a tiny Beijing apartment. He says he doesn't see his family much. His only company is the flock of more than 100 homing pigeons he keeps on his roof.

"I've spent my whole life on it," Zhao said. "I have nothing but I can't leave my pigeons. This is my entertainment. If I didn't have this entertainment, what would I do?"

Zhao spends most days clambering shirtless up and down the ladder between his room and the pigeon cote. The cote is nearly as big as his apartment.

He feeds the birds, cleans their nests and checks on the new chicks. Twice a day, he whistles and waves his arms, urging the birds into flight.

They rise up as a flock. Zhao smokes and watches them fly in a swift circle over his neighborhood.

"Pigeons are the pillar of my life," Zhao said. "I don't have any other hobbies. I just love my pigeons. When I see them, I feel comfortable and happy inside."

Zhao is registered with the government as disabled and receives $58 in welfare each month. He says he spends $130 each month on bird seed. The pigeons pay for themselves. Zhao breeds them and sells birds at a market in West Beijing. The profits pay for bird feed, bird medication and a couple of beers for the breeder.

Raising homing pigeons is one of the oldest sports in China. The hobby goes back to the Ming Dynasty when homing pigeons were used by the military to deliver messages.

Its popularity endures. In 2005, the Beijing Homing Pigeon Committee estimated that there were more than 1 million birds kept in the city.

This report was originally published on Oregonlive.com

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