In the Company of Pigeons

Rock dove.

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The following is excerpted from “Birdmania” by Bernd Brunner (Greystone Books, October 2017). Reproduced with permission from the publisher.

There is no doubt that artists have a special affinity with pigeons and doves. It is well known that Pablo Picasso grew up surrounded by them. His father, whose nickname was El Palomero (the Pigeon Fancier), raised them, and they were ubiquitous in Malaga, Picasso’s hometown. They perched in the sycamores around the Plaza de la Merced, where Pablo and his sisters used to play, and Pablo would use a stick to trace outlines of the birds in the dirt. Little Pablo was an inveterate sketcher, much to the dismay of his teachers. Once in a while, he would bring one of the birds to school and spend his time drawing his model instead of concentrating on his lessons. In 1949, a drawing Picasso had made of a fan-tailed pigeon given to him by his friend Henri Matisse was chosen for a poster for the First International Peace Conference in Paris. Picasso later reworked the image into a simple line sketch that became one of the world’s most recognizable symbols of peace.

Some creative people—Frank Zappa, Walt Disney, Yul Brynner, and even the boxing legend Mike Tyson—are or have been known for breeding pigeons. And the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) was famous for feeding the pigeons in Central Park a special seed mix prepared by the chef at the Hotel New Yorker, where he rented an apartment. His rooms became a popular destination for pigeons he had rescued and nursed back to health. He said that he loved one beguiling white female as “a man loves a woman,” and he was sure she loved him back. The bird’s death was a great blow to a man who seemed more comfortable in the company of these birds than with people.

Keeping pigeons is a hobby that transcends the borders of countries and the coastlines of continents; in the Middle East, it stretches back thousands of years. In Fikirtepe, a modest neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian side, almost half the inhabitants breed pigeons. Here, as in other regions of Turkey, people are particularly proud of the tumbling somersaults their pigeons execute to perfection. Many people in Iran also have a close relationship with pigeons, and the birds are almost everywhere in the villages that dot the countryside. Famous breeders such as Babak Arbab Khosro have devised codes of ethics for living with pigeons; in this part of the world, raising pigeons and the desire for self-improvement are inextricably intertwined. Those who own pigeons say that they love their birds. They breed them to select for beauty and stamina—for birds that can fly for up to eleven hours at a stretch and reach heights where they are no longer visible to the naked eye—and competitions to test the birds are held every August. Pigeon breeding has also long been a tradition in Egypt, where people soon noticed the birds’ exceptional sense of direction and deployed them to disseminate information. Early European travelers to Egypt often did not know what to make of the distinctive clay pigeon houses—often cone-shaped with rounded tops—that towered above the other buildings in the cities. To this day, pigeons are bred in cities such as Mit Gahmr, where they are used as food and their droppings are a valuable fertilizer.

At first, Charles Darwin (1809–82) was not particularly interested in fancy pigeon breeding, which was a popular pastime for certain segments of the British population in his day. Naturalists then had a distinct aversion to, and you might even say contempt for, these birds and the people who kept them. However, after Darwin joined fancy pigeon societies and attended several pigeon shows, the genial scientist put the intellectual and societal divides of the times behind him. Darwin—who once wrote, “We cannot change the structure of a bird as quickly as we can the fashion of our dress”— realized that pigeons are cheap and easy to breed in confined spaces. Now that he was in direct contact with pigeon breeders, who cultivated close relationships with their birds, he could personally observe the selection process at work in domestically bred pigeons.

Darwin began his first serious research into domesticated pigeons in 1855. He constructed a pigeon house in his garden, bought birds in Fleet Street in London, and built up contacts with breeders who sent him birds from as far away as Persia and India. The multiplicity of pigeon breeds helped him refine his theory of evolution. He gained key insights into what he called “methodical” and “unconscious” choices—that is, intervention by the breeder in order to breed for a certain characteristic as opposed to the mostly invisible processes that all breeders set in motion when they purchase only the best birds and then crossbreed them. At the same time, he came closer to recognizing the important role played by differences between individual birds.

Darwin soon realized that all domesticated pigeons were descended from a single wild species, the rock dove, and he drew up a family tree in which he divided domesticated pigeons into four separate groups based on morphology. So much for Darwin, the scientist, but just how far did his emotional involvement with pigeons go? He is known to have told his friend and mentor Charles Lyell that pigeons were “the greatest treat, in my opinion, which can be offered to a human being”—quite a turnaround from his initial reaction to these birds and their owners.


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October 21, 2017