Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

The Value of Pigeons

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

The Value of Pigeons

Article excerpt

Since the theme for this month's issue of ABT is biodiversity, a column on pigeons wouldn't seem appropriate. Pigeons are commonplace, if not ubiquitous. They are hardly endangered, nor do they remind us of the rich stores of species to be found in biodiversity hotspots such as the Amazon River basin or the island of Mauritius. No, pigeons are ordinary and in many cases, annoying. However, they are very good examples of a particular kind of diversity: that generated by human breeders, and they provide contact with nature for many people who have few opportunities to experience more exotic species. In other words, pigeons deserve some attention because they represent a different face of the biodiversity issue from that ordinarily emphasized, so I've decided to present their case here.

I'm moved to do this in part because I recently read two great books on pigeons. Sometimes that happens, a subject catches the fancy of more than one author, and more than one publisher, at about the same time. I'm sure the people involved aren't happy about the coincidence, though I think it can work to their benefit. In this case, I bought the second pigeon book, appropriately called Pigeons (Blechman, 2006), because I had enjoyed Superdove (Humphries, 2008). They both cover much the same territory but with different emphases. Blechman is more interested in what could be termed "the underside of the pigeon world," giving attention to pigeon shooting and pigeon eradication. Humphries puts a little more emphasis on pigeon biology, though she does have many stories about pigeon culture as well; about the people who breed, race, and try to get rid of these birds.

Pigeon Breeds

Obviously Blechman and Humphries aren't the first to write about pigeons. It hardly seems necessary to mention, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of its publication this fail, that The Origin of Species begins with a chapter on pigeon breeding. But interest in pigeons began much earlier than Darwin, thousands of years earlier. There is evidence that they were the first birds domesticated and that this occurred over 5,000 years ago. Pigeons were used for food and also symbolically. They came to represent fertility and were considered sacred in some cultures. In ancient Egypt, they were raised by the thousands to be sacrificed to the god Amon. Pigeons are closely related to doves, both belonging to the family Columbidae. Doves tend to be the smaller of the two, but they share rounded breasts, bobbing heads, and short legs; in addition, they all make cooing sounds.

The pigeons we see strutting around are feral. Their ancestors were domesticated birds that escaped and did well on their own. Being domesticated, they were adapted to living with humans and continue to do so whether the humans want them or not. They are all descendents of the wild rock dove, Columba livia. I see pigeons as fine representatives of biodiversity because of the extraordinary number of different breeds that have been produced under domestication. Now this might not be everyone's idea of biodiversity, which ordinarily brings up images of hundreds of species of ants or dozens of parrot species in tropical rainforests. But the fact remains that pigeon breeds represent a diverse gene pool, and as Darwin points out, their creation by artificial selection mimics the process of natural selection.

A visit to a Web site such as Johan Opsomer's Fancy Pigeons (http://www.pbase.com/johanops/fancypigeon&page=all) will give you some indication of the diversity produced by breeders. There are capuchins with ruffed necks, fantails with imposing tail displays, and pouters shown with their crops impressively extended-and this is without getting into the wide range of colors and markings and feather patterns that have appeared in the species and been coaxed to extremes by breeders. Nor have I mentioned the pigeons bred less for looks that for tasks, such as racers, carriers, and even rollers, which do backward somersaults. …

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