Image credit: “Pigeon, sitting on a plank,” Jean Bernard, 1802, pencil and watercolor, Rijksmuseum
By Jason Zweig | 8:00 am ET Feb. 2, 2012
Last weekend, a Chinese shipping magnate paid 250,400 euros ($328,000) for a Dutch racing pigeon sold at an online auction.
Total Return has obtained an exclusive interview with the pigeon.
Total Return: It’s nice to meet you.
Pigeon: Chirpy’s my name, and flying’s my game.
Total Return (TR): Hu Zhen Yu of China paid 250,400 euros for you. What do you think of that valuation?
Chirpy (C): You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re a human being, and you’re asking me to explain valuations to you? What’s wrong, your Morgan Stanley broker hasn’t called you back yet about those shares you’re begging for in the Facebook IPO?
Let’s get something straight. I’m from the Netherlands—you know, the country where people paid over 5,000 guilders in 1637 for a single tulip bulb. A tulip bulb. You ever try eating one? Tastes like a raw onion marinated in rotten milk. Those things are nasty. And you humans thought they were solid gold or something.
Speaking of which, what’s up with gold? That stuff’s worth about 42.4 euros per gram. I weigh about 350 grams. You realize if I was made out of gold, Hu would have gotten stuck paying 14,875 euros for a stupid yellow pigeon statue that can’t even fly? I’m going to win races for him, and that produces income, which is a heck of a lot more than he’d ever get out of that barbarous relic.
TR: You seem very smart for a pigeon.
C: Oh, stop with that crap. You know how tired we are of all those “birdbrain” jokes?
C: Anyway, I’m worth way more than 250,400 stinking euros. I wish Hu had paid for me with ten tons of sunflower seeds or a quarter-million Snickers bars or a few million live crickets or a few thousand fresh-killed rats instead of those useless Euros, but I’ll take them. Pigeons are thieves, you know, so I get a little bit of whatever anybody forks over for me.
What am I worth? I’m a racing pigeon from the land of the original bubble, and I can whiz over the rooftops faster than you can flip a triple-leveraged ETF. There ain’t a hawk or falcon anywhere in Europe that can catch me—and forget about that weird German eagle with the two heads.
And can I hit the target. I can land a gob of hair gel right on Nicolas Sarkozy’s combover from 100 meters up. I’m a pigeon, man. I can do anything.
But let me get back to the “birdbrain” thing. Decades ago, before you were ever born, there was a famous guy named B.F. Skinner. He was a big-deal psychologist who supposedly figured out how the human mind works. Well, you know how he did that? By studying pigeons. That Skinner guy exploited my great-great-great-great grandparents in his experiments. He made them work for their food, and I gotta tell you, pigeons hate that.
TR: People do, too.
C: I’m getting to that. You ever read Skinner’s article “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon”?
C: That’s embarrassing, man. All of us have read it, believe me. Anyway, Skinner found out that if pigeons were doing some random thing right before he fed them, then they’d keep doing that same random thing over and over again, up to 10,000 times, in hopes that they’d get fed again.
Maybe one was hopping from right to left. Another might have been bobbing its head up and down. In any case, whatever they did when they first got fed, they just kept right on doing it—even though it had nothing to do with getting fed.
As Skinner said, “A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances.”
TR: Oh, hey, I get it! You mean like the way some stock traders will never write with a red pen, or the way former Lehman Bros. executive Bart McDade tried to make the stock market keep going up by parking his car in the same spot every day?
C: Yeah, that’s right. And a few years ago, some psychologists in Germany measured neurons in some of my cousins’ brains and found out that pigeons prefer to get a smaller reward sooner instead of waiting for a larger reward later.
TR: Kind of like people who trade too much, buying high and selling low, and turning capital gains they could have deferred indefinitely into short-term gains taxable immediately at higher rates?
C: You got it. Pigeons do the same kinds of dumb things that people do!
My biggest worry is now that Hu paid so much money for me, some of my pigeon pals might get the bright idea to start buying up people. Pigeons are already irrational enough without having to worry about keeping a flock of crazy humans around.
Source: WSJ.com, Total Return blog