Darwin’s Other Bird—The Domestic Pigeon
July 15, 2009
If you do a Google search for “Darwin bird” you will find endless references to the finches of the Galápagos Islands. But it took a long time for Charles Darwin to recognize their significance. When he collected them he did not even realize that they were related, considering some to be “grosbeaks,” others true finches, and others blackbirds. He even considered one warblerlike finch to be a kind of wren.
In fact, during and soon after the historic around-the-world voyage of the HMS Beagle, from 1831 to 1836, Darwin had not yet come to the idea that different islands might be inhabited by different species. As his biographer Janet Browne put it, “He experienced no legendary moment of inspiration.” He was more interested in butterflies. When he returned to London, Darwin dispersed his enormous collection of specimens to the specialists at the Royal Zoological Society. It was only then that ornithologist John Gould told him that the Galápagos birds he had thought were a mixture of blackbirds, grosbeaks, and finches were actually 12 species of finches.
A better case might be made that the most important bird in Darwin’s studies was the humble domestic pigeon. In fact, one of the first readers of the manuscript that would become On the Origin of Species, in 1859, disliked most of the book intensely. Whitwell Elwrin wrote to the publisher, John Murray, and called the text “a wild & foolish piece of imagination . . . for an outline it is too much & for a thorough discussion of the question it is not near enough.” Rather than tell the publisher to reject the manuscript, he consulted Darwin’s friend, geologist Charles Lyell, who had already suggested that the book should focus on Darwin’s observations on pigeons. Elwrin recommended that Darwin write a short book on pigeons. “Everybody is interested in pigeons,” he told him, and a book like this would “be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom and soon be on every table.”
The Origin of Pigeons? Although it sounds funny today, the breeding of fancy pigeons and other pedigreed animals was something of a craze in Victorian England, one that crossed class lines, attracting enthusiasts ranging from miners and weavers to Queen Victoria. When Darwin began studying and breeding pigeons in 1856, he soon became as enthusiastic about the wonderfully varied breeds as any working-class fancier. As Janet Browne says, “Darwin loved his pigeons . . . he spent hours reading self-help manuals and books by breeders to make sure he was doing the right thing and visiting shows and exhibitions to see what was available. He found it very entertaining hobnobbing with breeding experts and trying to exude an air of practical knowledge as he leaned over cages of absurdly ruffled feathers. The esoteric world of pigeon fanciers seemed to him delightfully fresh and curious.”
At first he was not without a little upper-class condescension. He wrote to Huxley, “I sat one evening in a gin palace in the Borrough amongst a set of pigeon fanciers, when it was hinted that Mr. Bolt had crossed his Pouters with Runts to gain size: and if you had seen the solemn, the mysterious, and awful shakes of the head, which all the fanciers gave at this scandalous proceeding, you would have recognized how little crossing has had to do with improving breeds, and how dangerous for endless generations the process was. All this was brought home far more vividly than by pages of mere statements & c.”
Soon, however, he met more scholarly and “respectable” fanciers. His most important friend in the pigeon world became the journalist and editor William Tegetmeier. Their association lasted for more than 10 years and was mutually beneficial. Tegetmeier provided Darwin with specimens, information, and contacts. Tegetmeier, who seems to have been a bit of a social climber, loved to brag about his intimacy with Darwin.
Darwin’s family fell in love with pigeons as well. His daughter Henrietta later wrote, “I can still recall their different characteristics: a cross old fantail when taking food from my hand liked to take a good peck & hurt me if he could. The Pouter pigeon was good-natured but not clever, and I remember a hen Jacobin which I considered rather feeble-minded.” Darwin wanted all of his friends to be as delighted with his pigeons as he was. He wrote Lyell, “I hope Lady Lyell & yourself will remember whenever you want a little rest & have time how very glad we should be to see you here. I will show you my pigeons! Which is the greatest treat, in my opinion, which can be offered to human beings.”
Although his study of pigeons informed The Origin of Species, Darwin’s real “pigeon book,” The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, did not come out until 1868. Its long and beautifully illustrated section on pigeons is still readable and relevant to both naturalists and pigeon fanciers today.
He begins, “I have been led to study domestic pigeons with particular care because the evidence that all the domestic races are descended from one known source is far clearer than with any other anciently domesticated animal. Secondly, because many treatises in several languages, some of them old, have been written on the pigeon, so that we are enabled to trace the history of several breeds. And lastly, because, the amount of variation has been extraordinarily great. . . . I have kept alive all the most distinct breeds, which I could procure in England or from the Continent; and have prepared skeletons of all. I received skins from Persia, and a large number from India and other quarters of the world. Since my admission to two of the London pigeon-clubs I have received the kindest assistance from some of the most eminent amateurs. . . . I do not hesitate to affirm that some domestic races of the rock-pigeon differ fully as much from each other in external characters as do the most distinct natural genera.”
Every one of the illustrated breeds in Variation exists and is shown today. Some, such as the English pouter and the African owl, have not visibly changed in the last 150 years. Others, such as the carrier, barb, and fantail, have become even more exaggerated and differentiated from the ancestral Rock Pigeon by the strange and unnatural selection of shows, just as dogs and other domestic animals have. The carriers’ already exaggerated beak wattle has grown larger than a walnut; such birds are prone to colds and eye diseases—so much so that in Germany legislation was passed limiting the size of the wattle in the breed! The barb, in Darwin’s day a short-billed bird with large circular eye ceres, now has such a short bill that it is unable to feed its own young (foster parents are required) and has a carrier-like wattle cramped between the short bill and its forehead. The engraving of the fantail in Variation shows a bird with a turkeylike fan that today’s birds possess, but Darwin’s bird has a graceful, erect, swan-like neck. Today’s birds carry their heads so far back against their tails that from the front their heads are invisible. From that vantage point they look like a headless ball in front of a circular tail.
Such changes would probably have fascinated Darwin, who wrote, “There is hardly any exception to the rule that those characters vary most which are now most valued and attended to by fanciers, and which consequently are now being improved by continued selection.” Whether such exaggeration is good for the individual birds is another question. The breeding of domestic show animals is a biological art but can be warped by too much passion for the extreme and strange. One need not go to the lengths of the Germans. A pigeon fancier all my life, I gave up breeding modern carriers because curing their constant colds became depressing. Darwin himself showed that crossing the extreme varieties produced something very much like the ancestral Rock Pigeon. Most show pigeons would not survive long in the wild, but their descendents, common “street pigeons,” inhabit cities and cliffs everywhere in the world. Except for their variable colors and slightly larger size, they resemble the wild Rock Pigeon, which they have displaced in all but the most remote places. Some scientists consider them to be a “superdove,” a bird stronger and more adaptable than even its wild ancestors. Evolution, of course, is never stasis. I have seen wild Rock Pigeons only on remote cliffs on the Euphrates, but “superdoves” thrive in environments ranging from the sweltering streets of Houston to the 30-below-zero squares of Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia, in winter.
But the domestic pigeon still holds a unique charm for both fanciers and naturalists. The genetics of its colors alone support a quarterly newsletter for scientists and enthusiasts. Some show people, like dog breeders fixated on Westminster, pursue ever-more-exaggerated standards. Others prefer less “improved” birds. I started out with modern racing homers, a breed developed in Belgium and England in the early 1800s, originally a carrier of messages but also a racing competitor. It is a stout, athletic bird. Most non-fanciers see little difference between it and a common pigeon, though it is larger and more muscular, and has a larger head and wattles than the Rock Pigeon. Such a bird can survive very well in the wild. The genes of lost racers probably contribute to the continuing evolution of the “superdove.”
Over the past 20 or 30 years, naturalist and breeder friends of mine have become fascinated by the ancient, “unimproved” pigeon breeds of the Silk Road and the Mediterranean. Such breeds may have existed for thousands of years. They have enough diversity to satisfy Charles Darwin; in fact, many—such as the English barb—are exactly as Darwin, or Shakespeare (who wrote about them), saw them. I have Catalonian tumblers—small pigeons in a dazzling variety of colors—that are agile enough to evade marauding Cooper’s Hawks; Syrian owls that are short-beaked, similarly agile, and, unlike modern show owls, can feed their own young; and English barbs, which are virtual duplicates of the illustrations of them in Darwin’s Variation. I have Spanish pouters that inflate their globes just as much as do modern show pouters. But they must remain athletic, because they are used in the remarkable Spanish sport of “thieving” in which the males compete to seduce marked females to their home lofts. All of these breeds remain functional but retain enough diversity and beauty to satisfy the most aesthetically-minded fancier. And, unlike the often-inbred champions of pigeon and dog shows, they retain, as Darwin noted, enough genetic variation to make each new clutch a suspenseful delight. Show pigeons often resemble clones.
To a naturalist and biophiliac, the humble domestic pigeon can come to occupy a necessary place in one’s life, as it did in Darwin’s. Beautiful and ever-changing, they are a backyard microcosm that embodies Darwin’s most fundamental quote: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Stephen J. Bodio is the author of several books, including one on pigeons titledAloft: A Meditation on Pigeons and Pigeon Flying.