The best pigeons now and in the past

About a hundred years ago (not two hundred years) we already had some pigeons that performed very well. They would in fact cover the distance between Bordeaux and Anwerp as fast as a pigeon could do today.

They did well in short distances as well and they were generally stronger and healthier compared to their contemporaries. I do not want you to think I am nostalgic for the old days; the contrary is true. I am glad that we have so many perfectly healthy pigeons out here today. But I think that there is even a larger number of birds that are kept alive with medicines. Back in the days a sick pigeon would eventually drop out; nowadays fanciers try to keep the sick bird alive at all costs.

The reason I bring up the subject is because it shows us that we have not been able to learn a lot from genetics. The best pigeons of today are not significantly stronger than the best pigeons from earlier days. The same applies to other animals as well. Species have been evolving over the years. But 100 years ago some animals were exceptionally strong (some sort of prodigies) compared to their fellow species, just like today. What has changed is that the number of so called prodigies, animals that are a lot stronger than normal, has increased a lot.

Take for instance the race from Bordeaux. The best pigeon of today will not be much faster than the winner from previous times. But it is a fact that the competition is over much sooner. It means that we have much more strong and talented pigeons compared to previous generations. In fact this applies to all species. There is no significant difference between the best ones now and the best ones from previous generations.

Why do we have more strong birds compared to previous generations?

First of all the number of pigeons has increased a lot. Secondly we have a healthier environment nowadays and thirdly we have been breeding more of the better pigeons, with or without genetics. I would not say that genetics has not been useful to us. Big improvements have been made in plant breeding thanks to genetics. Not only has Mendelian inheritance (Mendelism) helped to explain a series of phenomena in plant breeding; it has also helped in improving plants. When it comes to animal (and pigeon) breeding we could say that the laws of inheritance have helped to explain phenomena as well. But I would not say it has helped us to breed better animals. Improvement in this field is rather the result of experience that we gained from breeding animals (and pigeons).

Why has plant breeding improved a lot more than animal breeding?

Johann Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)
You can read more about Mendel’s laws below the article.

First of all crossbreeding animals is much more expensive. This does not only involve white mice but also cows, horses etc. Scientific tests that are reliable and accurate come with a high price tag.

Secondly you get a lot less descendants from animals than from plants. If you create a friendly environment for your plants you can increase the number of descendants a lot. This is not possible for animals. Cows will breed one calf per year, a horse breeds one foal, pigeons breed twenty piglets and pigeons breed 10 to 12 youngsters. This makes experiments on animal breeding a difficult and time consuming task.

A third reason is that it takes a long time before a youngster has developed and matured. When do we know anything about a calf? It takes five to six years before it produces milk and it can gestate. This is necessary if you want to examine for instance a number of milk lines. Pigeons need about two years to mature. You can judge a pigeon by its performances or by its vitality, which can be measured by its lifespan. For a plant things are much easier. Scientists can already learn a lot after six months or a year. In fact some tests give results in only a few weeks’ time.

Fourthly plant breeding allows for self-pollination. Animals cannot self-pollinate since they are not hermaphrodite. Plants have pure lines, animals have not. We always have to cross two animals with different ingenuities; we have no other options. Monozygotic (identical) twins have the same genetic tendencies yet they cannot breed with each other: they have the same sex; otherwise they would not be monozygotic twins. But it is a fact that at the time of the discovery of the laws of genetics animal husbandry had already reached an advanced stage, especially compared to plant breeding.

That explains why scientists were less eager to look for improvements in the field of animal breeding. As a result there is still a long way to go in implementing our knowledge of genetics into real life animal breeding and the breeding of pigeons. This is not a good thing. Still there is a good chance that animal breeding will increasingly apply the laws of genetics in the future.  For a fancier it would be interesting to understand the basic principles of genetics and the influence of inbreed, environment as well as genetic tendencies. It could also be useful to learn from the experience of previous champions, for instance:

a. The best with the best
b. Performance-based selection
c. Health-based selection

We can use this as a guidebook. But it would be useful to have a good understanding of the laws of genetics. In pigeon racing there are many uncertainties and questions we do not know the answer to.

There is so much we do not know about our sport. It reminds me of a champions’ day where a fancier had brought along his pigeons. He had some decent results but only one or two top results. Yet fanciers came to him and asked him all sorts of questions. But the fancier could not give one solid good answer. This shows that his top prizes had been a lucky coincidence. He had never heard of biology, life, genetics, feed etc. I think it is important that we know what we are doing when breeding, feeding or coupling our pigeons. I think that is the least we should expect from a good fancier.

I think a lack of knowledge causes a lot of fanciers to be unsuccessful. That is also why fanciers who have had some good results do not manage to sustain their success. I know plenty of fanciers who are smart and who try to find a solution to their problems in books, which is often a good idea. But to some this is too much of an effort. They would rather just copy other fanciers...

Pigeon racing back in the days...

And pigeon racing today ....

De Mendelwetten

Johann Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) was a monk and he is one of the founding fathers of genetics. In the garden of his monastery he cultivated and tested pea plants. He noticed that the inheritance of certain traits follows particular patterns. He published the results of his study in 1865 but initially scientist did not understand his findings. Sixteen years after his death three scientists rediscovered his theories of genetics. As a tribute to his research his laws are now referred to as the laws of Mendelian inheritance.

The first law: if you cross two homozygous parents that differ in one trait you will have a generation of descendants that are all equal to each other.
The second law: when you cross the individuals from the F1 generation from two homozygous parents you will have an F2 generation with a different phenotype (the observable characteristics or traits). But he noticed that the offspring ratio was always 3:1 in case of dominant and recessive inheritance and 1:2:1 in case of co-dominant inheritance. The strange thing is that Mendel had never heard of genes, chromosomes and alleles!