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The Domestic Pigeons (Columba livia domestica) were derived from the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), and are believed to be the world’s oldest domesticated bird. The Scientific name "Columba" is Latin for dove or pigeon; "livia" meaning blue or blue-gray color. Research suggests that Rock Pigeons originated in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Although the exact date of domestication is unknown, human use of pigeons as a food source goes back to as early as the Pleistocene (~10,000 years ago) in the Fertile Crescent. By careful selective breeding, the various domestic varieties were created. However, this was all in the dim reaches of the past, and what really took place and where, will probably forever remain hidden. All we know is that the origin of our domestic pigeon is monophyletic, that is, from a single wild species; and that the present-day differences have arisen as a result of mutations which have occurred “spontaneously” under domestication. The process of domestication of any species starts with intensive directional selection for particular phenotypes, followed by stabilizing or purifying selection; similar evolutionary processes operate during selective sweeps and sexual selection in natural populations. In pigeons, these processes arguably have produced the greatest phenotypic diversity within any single avian species.

Although over 350 different pigeon breeds are currently recognized in the World, there are also many reported extinct pigeon breeds. For instance Francis Willughby in his Ornithologia (1676, p. 121) describes 17 domestic breeds: Runts, Croppers, Broad-tailed Shakers, Narrow-tailed Shakers, Carriers, Jacobins, Turbits, Barbay Pigeons, Tumblers, Helmets, Light Horsemen, Bastard Bills, Turners, Finnikins, Mawmets, Spots, and Smiters. Six of these pigeon breeds (Narrow-tailed Shakers, Smiters, Turners, Finnikins, Light Horsemen, Bastard Bills) have disappeared or been absorbed into subsequent breeds. Just as domesticated breeds disappear or deteriorate from neglect, new breeds are created according to the fanciers' desire. There are many breeds now very popular which have been created within the last one hundred years, and some within the last fifty.

The publications regarding pigeon breeds have not used a uniform order in their enumeration and description of domesticated pigeons. Some described breeds in a sequence according to their temporal popularity while others grouped them according to their physical attributes, i.e., their color markings, peculiar feathering, body conformation, etc. Some categorized them according to family affiliations, country of origin, for food, exhibition, or flying/sporting, while others ordered them in a haphazard fashion. Pigeons bred for meat are generally called squabs and harvested as young birds. These types of pigeons grow to a very large size in the nest before they are fledged and able to fly, and in this stage of their development (when they are called squabs) they are prized as food. Breeds of pigeons developed for their meat are collectively known as Utility Pigeons. Since the domestication of the Rock Pigeon, pigeon fanciers have developed many exotic forms of pigeons - generally classed as fancy pigeons. The fanciers compete against each other at exhibitions or shows and the different forms or breeds are judged to a standard to decide who has the best bird. Pigeons are also kept by enthusiasts for the enjoyment of flying/sporting competitions. Pigeon-raising is a worldwide hobby, and business as well. National preferences are evident; hundreds of varieties of complicated lineage represent centuries of development.

Domestic pigeons also can be categorized by physical appearance and flying pattern characteristics. Form pigeons are distinguished by their body form such as the Roman and the Hungarian Giant, and normal-sized pigeons such as Briver Blackhead, German Show Homer, Coburg Lark, Lahore, Strasser, Show Racer Polish Lynxes and the Damascene - the oldest and best-known pigeon breed. Form pigeons could show a variety of feather mutants, muffs, round tufts, crests, etc. Wattle pigeons consist of very small and exclusive group because of their nose wattles and, in some cases, the enlarged eye ceres. Wattle breeds include the Indian, the Carrier and the Bagdad. Some preparation and experience is required to breed and keep these somewhat idiosyncratic breeds. Wattle pigeons flourish best from their second or third year. Hen pigeons are known to hold their tail aloft, which gives them a chicken-like appearance. The German Modena is the smallest breed of hen pigeon and is no larger than a field pigeon. King Pigeons are some of the real heavyweights among show pigeons. These heavier breeds rarely fly and can happily be kept outdoors. Cropper pigeons originated from the cocks' ability to fill their crop with air and coo around the females with an inflated crop. Croppers are known to form a close bond with their owner, making them very enjoyable to keep. In addition to the well-known breeds such as the Old German Cropper, the Pomeranian Pouter, the Silesian Pouter, the Voorburg Shield Cropper, the Steiger Pouter, the English Pouter, and the Brunner Pouter, there is a lot of interest in more specific breeds such as the Ghent Cropper and the Dutch Cropper. Trumpeter pigeons are able to produce a trumpeting sound which makes them very different from other pigeon breeds. Apart from the Altenburg Trumpeter, which has a smooth head and bare feet, most trumpeters have dense muffs and a beak rosette (crown of feathers on the beak wattles). However, the Arabian Trumpeter is a small pigeon with no plumage decoration and has a drumming voice which is best compared with ‘laughing’. Structure pigeons are one of the best-known show pigeons, including the Fantails, the Schmalkalden Moorhead, the Jacobin and the Old Dutch Capuchin. Frills and Owls are considered to be among the oldest show pigeon breeds. They have a neck frill (collar of feathers at the front of the throat) and are short but broad in stature. The beak may vary from short (Mo Owl, German Colourtail Owl, and Oriental Frill) to medium-long (Old German Owl, Aachen Lacquer Shield Owl). Owls are very calm show pigeons and love receiving all the attention they can get. Tumblers and Highflyers are considered the largest of all domestic pigeons. Tumblers are divided into breeds with long, medium-long and short beaks. In addition to the widespread breeds such as the Cologne Tumbler, the German Long Face Tumbler, the Danish Tumbler, the Magpie Tumbler and the Dutch Highflyer, many less-common tumbler breeds with a short beak, such as the Ancient Tumbler and Königsberg Moorhead, have a growing number of fans.

Performing Pigeons and Ringbeaters are probably one of the most known group of pigeon breeds. As the name suggests, these pigeons have an extremely interesting flight pattern. During the mating season the cocks of the Rhine and Belgian Ringbeater fly in circles around the females. The Groninger Slenke makes swinging movements in the air as it flies. Rollers have the ability to do rapid backward summersaults while flying and nowadays are categorized as Parlor Rollers, Oriental Rollers, Birmingham Rollers, Show Rollers and American Rollers. Ever since the Rock Pigeon was domesticated its ability to find home from a distance was noticed by man quickly and they have been kept for sending messages back home from war zones, and distant cities. It is documented that during the first Olympic Games in Greece in 776 B.C., a pigeon carried winners' names to the empire's farthest reaches. Although messenger pigeons known to exist throughout the history a breed called the Homing Pigeon, also known as the Racing Pigeon, was created in the late 1800s by crosses of a number of flying breeds (possibly messenger pigeons, and others) and selected for fast homing ability over hundreds of miles. While many breeds of flying pigeons, or even ferals, will home to some extent none come close to Racing Homers for either speed or long distances. Nowadays, the Racing Homers are one of the best known pigeon breeds in the World, and they can be categorized as Racing Homers, Beauty Homers, Show Homers, American Homers, American Giant Homers, Saddle Homers, etc.

References:

1. Fulton, R. L. (1895). Fulton's book of pigeons, with standards for judging.
2. Levi, W. M. (1963). The pigeon (2d ed.). Sumter, S.C.: Levi Pub. Co.

Copyright September, 2013 by Arif Mümtaz. All rights reserved.

 
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