The origin of the Belgian racing pigeon: from rock dove to carrier pigeon - part I

In two articles we take you back to the origins of the racing pigeon as we know it today. We begin our journey in Ancient China, many years before the start of the Christian Calendar.

One of our readers is not a fancier himself; he is a dog breeder. He read an of my articles on the PIPA website about the so called sokpoot breed and he was impressed with the fact that simple pigeon fanciers had managed to create a breed of wonderful pigeons with excellent navigational abilities. He was especially amazed to see that they had created this breed in only 150 years’ time with what seems a very heterogeneous mix of domestic pigeon varieties. As a dog breeder he knows a lot about the different types of dogs and he knows that it takes a lot of time to carefully select animals for a breed. He also knows that it can sometimes be very disappointing if a long running project eventually fails. That is why he was very impressed.

The first dovecotes were found in Ancient Egypt

In the name of all fanciers I would like to thank him for his words of praise. But is has taken us quite a lot longer than 150 years. The pigeon was used already by the ancient Chinese as a messenger bird, long before the start of the Christian Calendar. This messenger was known in India and was used by all peoples in the Middle East, for instance the Egyptians, the Perzians and the Jews.

When Maria gave birth to Jesus she and Joseph brought doves to the temple of Jerusalem, as a gift for the poor. In fact the pigeon appears in many biblical stories, the first of which was the flood myth. Even then the pigeon acted as a winged messenger, carrying an olive branch. In the maritime culture of Phoenicia pigeons were used as messengers of prosperity and adversity. Initially their messages were written in their own alphabet or they used different signs. A white dove for instance would bring good news; a black pigeon brought sorrow. Later on they used small pieces of cloth or papyrus that contained written messages. They were attached to the dove’s paw. According to the tradition the Greek athlete Taurósthenes has used a dove to bring the news of his victory in the Olympic Games to his hometown Aequina. Pigeons were also used for military purposes, especially in Turkey, but also in the Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman army.

Pigeons were invaluable for the Mussulmans when their cities were besieged by crusaders. The government of sultan Noer-el-din-Mahmud defeated the mighty German Konrad III and the French Louis VII in the Second Crusade halfway through the twelfth century. In the most remote areas of the Muslim empire the government set up dovecotes, where pigeons were trained to become messengers for the army.

The Dutch magazine “Hollandsch Pluimveeblad" published an interesting article about this subject in 1880. I will include some parts of the article below. According to a statement in the Koran King Salomo is said to have used pigeons as messengers. It is a fact that the pigeon was used as a messenger already in Egypt and in the Middle East and Mesopotamia. This was before the Egyptian-Syrian authorities had come up with the idea of installing a system of pigeon messengers in their empire.

Khalil-Daheri, who was responsible for the horse mail service in Egypt also knew were the pigeon post services were located along the important roads. According to him these were the main pigeon mail lines: from Kahirah (in Cairo) to Alexandria and from Cairo to Damiate. Each of these lines had three stations. There was also a line that ran from Birah to the stations of Khalat-el-Rum and Bahasma all the way to Kaisariech in Byzantium. There was also a postal service from Haieb (Aleppo) over Kabkah and Tadmor (in Palmyra) to Rubath in the Syrian Desert. There was a line from Damascus to Tarabolas with four stations, a line to Baalbek (known for its ancient ruins) and one from Gazah to Karak with three stations. Some pieces of information about these postal services are somewhat imprecise. It does not make mention of the line between Cario and Upper Egypt whereas other sources mention a post service that ran from Assoean to Cairo, from where it reached all the way to the Euphrates river, where there was a permanent postal service with pigeons as well.

Further on Khalil-Daheri explains that the average distance between two service points was usually seven miles. But that is hard to believe: it would be impossible to cover the distance from Damascus to for instance Bagdad with only six stations in between. He might have meant 70 instead of seven miles. We know something about the stations as well: these stations were called berid, which means mail. They were located in a tower with a flat roof (mutar), from where the pigeons were released. There was also a guard who would take care of the pigeons, the so called mutair. These stations had a number of lofts for the pigeons that were used for the mail service. They also had mules, which were used to exchange pigeons between the nearby stations. In addition to this postal service, which used as many pigeons as there were stations, there was also a direct line between the capital and the provincial cities. If the sultan in Katviah wanted to send a message to the city owner of Damascus he did not have to use a fairly slow line with several stations in between. Instead he would use a direct line, for which he could use pigeons that came from Damascus and who would fly directly from Katviah to Damascus. These pigeons were carrier pigeons as we know them today: these pigeons were trained and selected to cover distances of hundreds of kilometres. Arabic writers called these pigeons hawadi (fast pigeon). The pigeons of the Sultan were marked on the cere above the beak with a hot stamp. Strangely enough this was a reason for the postal service to only use azure coloured pigeons. The tiny pieces of papers that the pigeons carried with them were always sealed: they sat in a small golden tube that was attached to the paw of the pigeon. According to the Egyptian historian Maqrizi almost 2000 pigeons were used in the station of Cairo alone in 1288!

For those interested we can tell you that the origin of today’s racing pigeon is a very fascinating object of study! Back in the time when Darwin lived it was generally believed that the main types of pigeons (for instance the carrier pigeons, the fantail pigeon or the cropper pigeon) had different origins and belonged to a separate breed. But there was some doubt about the origins of the so called colour pigeons: monk pigeons, the Thüringen field pigeon, the nun pigeon or the Dutch helmet, just to name a few. They originated from the rock dove but they all had a different colour. They had the impression that these varieties were mostly pure-bred. But despite a big difference in plume, in size, in beak and paws some people believed that these pigeons originated from one and the same stock pigeon breed.

The variability, or to be more precise the multiformity, was believed to be the result of a changing environment. On top of that it was often believed that the differences between different pigeons were the result of crossings between the different varieties. Some varieties only differed in colour, which is why some believed that they were crossings of different varieties who had a different colour as well. Cuvier was the last advocate of this theory. But Darwin did not agree, in particular for the following reasons: first of all the big differences between the main breeds (croppers, tumblers etc.) was no reason to believe that all races originate from the spontaneous variation the Columbia Livia. Darwin calls the different varieties of pigeons genetic variation. De Vries calls them mutations; Lotsy believed that the variability was the result of mutations in nature, as explained by Mendel.

Charles Robert Darwin (Shrewsbury, 12 February 1809 – Downe, 19 April 1882) was an English self-taught naturalist, biologist and geologist. He became famous for his theory that the evolution of a species is the result of natural selection. The existence of this evolution was embraced by quite some scientists during Darwin’s life. Scientists were less eager to accept the theory of natural selection as a mechanism of adaptation but it is generally accepted nowadays.

Darwin knew both the mutations and the crossed varieties. He also knew the doubted Lamarckian factor of inheritance of permanent abilities. But Darwin did not know Mendel, neither did he make an effort to understand the term “hereditary variation”. He believed that the environment, the general life requirements etc. (outside influences that could not be clearly pointed out) was the cause for genetic mutations to occur, irrespective of the force of natural selection, whether effective or ineffective. In the light of the study of Johanssen about pure lines, which makes clear that there are limits to variation and selection, we understand why other scientists considered it necessary to pay more attention to an explanation of genetic mutations. The origins of the racing pigeon as we know it today is a question of evolution, where initially (maybe!) only mutations and Darwins determinism have played their role. It was only later that humans have played an important role as well. This heralded a new chapter: domestication, hybridisation and cultural instead of natural selection. In this second chapter, which only lasts for a couple of thousand years, these mutations have become far less radical. Nowadays the countless varieties of domestic pigeons are the result of crossed varieties or hybridisation. But Darwin found it difficult to believe the influence of cultural selection. He could not find evidence for this theory so he did not agree.

This is what Darwin said: “If the purebreds are not the result of variation of one original breed they can only originate from a few different original breeds. But how could a crossing of six or seven wild pigeon breeds (that can be considered stock parents) result in such a wide variety of breeds such as croppers, carriers, tumblers etc.? How could a crossing possibly result in a cropper or a fantail if neither of the two parents has the remarkable features of one of the two varieties? Some natural scientists (for instance Pallas) believe that crossing has a strong tendency towards variation, irrespective of the inherited characteristics of either of the two parents. They think it would be easier to breed for instance a tumbler by crossing two different species, neither of which has one of the characteristics of a tumbler, instead of breeding two birds of one and the same species!

Pallas held to the idea that crossings had a mysterious influence on the breeds. He believed that some special varieties were actually the result of a crossing of two varieties. For example: it might be possible that the Barb pigeon is bred from a crossing of a long-beaked carrier and some type of short-beaked pigeon.

The Cropper exists in many different colours: white, white and brown, black, etc.

Akmanii tumbler

This very skilled racing pigeon is often described as the pigeon that nearly crashes when it lands. They come from Bulgaria but their name suggests Turkish origins. Despite their stout build with a tight plumage and a tail of at least twelve feathers this breed does not often appear in Bulgaria. But this is not our main concern. We would like to know the origins of the original breed of domestic pigeons that has led to the formation of the modern day racing pigeon 150 years later (in 1789 to be precise, the year of the French Revolution).

Darwin provides the answer: the rock dove or Columbia Livia. The pigeon distinguishes itself from other wild species with its slate grey colour with two black wing bars and its white tailbone. A rock dove lays two eggs and breeds for 18 to 19 days, just like any breed of domestic pigeon. All domestic breeds can withstand big differences in climate. They all favour the same feed: seeds and pod fruit rich in water and green. They are also fond of salt. A cock tries to woo the hen in the same fashion as any domesticated pigeon and they all coo with that same snoring sound. The Columbia Livia is the only pigeon with such a particular sound. Nearly all domesticated pigeon breeds originate from variations of the rock dove. It is not inconceivable that other wild breeds have further increased its genetic value.

Many ancient writers are convinced that the “field or rock pigeon” can be domesticated without much effort. They said that most of the lofts of the medieval lords of the castles housed field pigeons. But Blyth also said that wild rock pigeons would appear in remote lofts to breed with domesticated or half wild birds. According to Wittouck this “field or rock pigeon” can only be found in a few farms and ruins.

The Columba Livia or rock dove used to live in rocks but it seemed easy to domesticate

He noticed the white coloured tailbone as well as the two blue and black wing bars on pigeon blue feathers. Their short legs appear even shorter because “they tend to bend”. He thinks the bird is very timid and wild and has rude movements and a fast flight. Wittouck names four pigeon breeds of which the crossing and selection among descendants have led to the existence of the Belgian racing pigeon: the Irish pigeon, the tumbler, the French cravat and the platneus pigeon. Others would also mention the veldvluchter pigeon, the smijter pigeon (Rothschild's small croppers) etc. Wittouck described the Irish pigeon or carrier as a “pigeon with a pure breed who is often called English Beak by Flemish fanciers because of his wide and elongated beak and its bulky cere".

He describes the iris as being reddish. The eyes have an unusually black and knobby rim. The bird has a small and flat head, a fine neck and protruding shoulders, just like some birds of prey. This bird comes from the East! He is very attached to his place of birth. The English Beak is very proficient in exploring the environment. The bird would be used as a messenger in ancient times. The carrier is one of the stock breeds from which the “Antwerp pigeon” originates. Fulton, a fancier who lived in the 1850s and who was very successful, said that the carrier has had excellent flying qualities. Its strong build and skeleton and his well developed muscles made it a unique bird. British experts said no other pigeon breed could outdo the carrier pigeon. But these unique features gradually disappeared as the bird was selected on other characteristics.

On the other hand Baldamus writes that only ignorant people could consider the carrier a messenger pigeon. “No other pigeon has such good navigational abilities and attachment to its home loft as this fine thoroughbred pigeon that was bred for exhibitions.” Baldamus writes that English fanciers use dragoon pigeons in races. It is a fact that there is a lot of resemblance between the dragoon pigeon and the carrier. But over the last 50 years the carrier can no longer match the original Eastern stock breed. The carrier is only bred for its outside appearance, as a result of which his flying capabilities have faded. In his first years he will fly regularly but as it grows older the bird becomes slow and lazy and he can no longer be used as a racing bird. In some cases he would not even return home. At this moment he should no longer be considered as one of the stock fathers of the noble racing pigeon breed. Back in the days he had smaller eye rims and cere. Through uniform selection the English have accented these specific characteristics: the more developed the better!


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