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

To stick with the facts of Wittebouck: three of the four basic pigeon breeds, the tumbler, the ringbeater and the platneus pigeon have only been known since contemporary history. The tumbler was first mentioned by Aldrovandi and Willoughby.

The oldest book about carrier pigeons worldwide, written by the Arab writer Michail Sabbagh, does not give a clue about the origins of the carrier pigeon. We can recognise the ringbeater in a description by Willoughby (1677). Some writers think that the so called Cortbeck, which was thoroughly described by Ulysses Aldrovandi in 1600, is in fact a ringbeater. However, it is strange that the remarkable crop is not mentioned here. Yet it is possible that the crop or cravate only occurred in the 1600s and that the Cortbeck pigeon was indeed a ringbeater.  Still, it is hard to believe that the ringbeater already existed long before the 17th century: this breed originates from mutations, just like the Raadsheer pigeon and the fantail pigeon. The Camus or platneus pigeon that was described by the Walloon doctor Chapuis is considerd to be a variety of the tumbler, which means this breed also originated in early modern times.

The Bursa tumbler

Since the carrier pigeon has been known for thousands of years we have to assume that the pure carrier pigeon traits (an excellent sense of orientation and homing skills) were inherited in the Belgian racing pigeon through an ancient pigeon stock. This stock can only be the carriers. According to Plinius, the Greeks and the Romans obtained their best messenger pigeons from the Persians. In one of his books Darwin discusses the Bagdad and Bassora pigeon. It might be possible that this ancient Persian breed was mostly preserved in the English Horseman breed.  

The "Meeuwtje"was one of the carrier pigeons
that could find its home very quickly

Wittouck says that the English Beak is a bird with a pure stock. This means that the stock is reproducing in a pure way; without too many interfering breeds. Indeed, the fast development of today’s carrier pigeon can only be explained by a high degree of pureness of the old eastern pigeons and their invaluable traits.

The question is how the old Eastern messenger pigeons, the probable stock parents of the so called English Beak or carrier have arrived in Great Britain. We also wonder why this breed has all but disappeared on the continent due to hybridization and the lack of selection and why it was relatively intact in Great-Britain. To answer that question we might have to go back to a glorious era in the world’s history; the era of Godfrey of Bouillon and Richard Lionheart!

It is understandable that the Arab Hawadi (messenger pigeons) were especially useful in times of war. Crusaders experienced more than once that the Byzantine army had an excellent secret service. Luckily for the crusaders there was dissention in the Islam army. In 1098 the Emir of Hasar, situated close to Haieb (Aleppo), was unfaithful to his leader, who deployed an army of 14,000 soldiers to punish the emir. The emir entrenched in his castle, sent out men to the crusaders of the Duke of Lorraine in the hope of forging an alliance with them. The Franks accepted the offer but they had no idea how to tell their entrenched ally that they had. They were surprised to see the envoys of the emir carry messenger pigeons with them. They tied small notes underneath the wings of the pigeons and they released them, knowing that the message would reach the castle within a few hours time. The emir knew that a message was coming soon so he managed to offer resistance against the enemy until the Franks came to the rescue. Everything went as planned: The Franks' army surged to the battlefield to drive out the enemy forces, the emir declared his loyalty to the crusaders and he gave them his castle (Raumer: Geschichte der Hohenstaufen, 1823). The Christians managed to catch some of these messenger pigeons and they would soon make use of them as well. During the siege of the important city of Tyrus they managed to intercept a pigeon that was carrying a message from the emir of Damascus. The message said that a large army was approaching the city! The crusaders gave the bird a new, completely different message. This false message demoralized the confused enemy troops and they soon capitulated. Some time later they managed to catch another messenger pigeon. They used it to their own ends during the conquest of the city of akkan. Historical writer Nowairi explains how the fleet of Roger, king of Sicilia, had plundered a Saracan ship that was carrying a cage with racing pigeons on board. Again, the crusaders used these pigeons to send false information to their enemies. So ,in fact, Richard Lionheart and his men have brought the pigeons to Western Europe and England.

This does not mean that domestic pigeons did not exist here before then; the Romans already had domestic pigeons. They are said to be used for the first time in the year 43 AD. Gaius Plinius the second, better known as Pliny the Elder, was the only person to make mention of pigeons used as messengers in ancient history. He describes how pigeons were used during the siege of Modena. Plinius was born in Combo, in northern Italy and he lived from 23 AD to 79 AD, the year in which he sailed to death aboard a galleon, heading for the erupting Vesuvius, while dictating notes to his writer. He was a warlord and civil servant and judging by his works, a hardworking man. In his depiction of the siege of Modena, Plinius describes how Brutus himself attached the messages to the feet of the pigeons.

The first clear indication for the use of pigeons dates back to the year 43 AD.
Gaius Plinius the second is the only person from ancient history who writes
about pigeons being used as messengers, during the siege of the Modena fort.

In Modena, Consul Hiritius released the pigeons as closely to the fortifications as possible. The Roman legions made good use of the carrier pigeon. A messenger pigeon warned Caesar about the revolt of the Gauls under the king of kings, Vercingetorix. A roman historian proclaimed: “What is the use of Antonius’ blockade, his attentive sentries and the traps along the waterways, if the enemy’s messenger flies high above us?” The Roman emperors greatly appreciated their messenger pigeons. They built luxury lofts for them, some of which were real pigeon palaces.

Under Emperor Varro, the Roman army commanders sold pigeons for 400 dinar per pair. This is what Plinius said: “I can see the dovecotes of Rome on top of high towers: I can hear the Roman people discuss the origins of one pigeon and the performances of the other.” When the Romans started to use pigeons for military purposes they kept pedigrees and family ties as well. The organised use of pigeons might date back from the time of Alexander the Great. According to the Greek writer Plutarch there was a proposal for Alexander to organise a messenger service that stretched throughout his entire empire, with the help of discrete messengers, who could not betray you. It is assumed that they were talking about pigeon messengers.

During early medieval times in western Europe there was probably not much left of the ancient Roman pigeon breed. In the fourteenth century there was a nobleman who lived in the Nesle castle and who owned about 1,200 pigeons. He always had a few pigeons from friends and relatives who were always ready to take a message to them: “Everything okay in Nesle. How is my niece in her castle along the Rhone?” He would also send war related messages: “We are under siege and we are running out of food supply. Please send forces to help us out!” But it is impossible to tell the origin of these pigeons: were they Roman or Turkish? It is also difficult to tell why the English pigeon breed was preserved the most. Little is known about the evolution of the carrier pigeon in the middle ages and early modern times. We do know that pigeons were used as messengers, for instance in the Netherlands during the Spanish siege of Haarlem (1573) and Leiden (1574). The inhabitants of Leiden were exhausted and hungry and they were about to surrender to the Spanish commander Fransesco de Valdez. Right at that time a pigeon arrived in the city with a message for the brave major Pieter Van der Werf. He was informed that the Prince of Orange had breached the dams of the Maas and Ijsel river and that a powerful fleet with a large supply was approaching the city! They found courage to fight back and the enemy soon retreated. The pigeons proved very useful here and it was decided that the government would finance the care of the pigeons from then on. If a pigeon died it was even given a prominent place in the city hall.

Still, the pigeons of Willem Cornelisz, who played an important role in the liberation of Leiden, were not the carrier pigeons as we know them today. Willem Cornelisz was often called Speelman and his image can still be found in a shield in an ancient house in Leiden. According to Wittouck there were two Frenchmen (Buflon and Lacipède) who wrote several books about pigeons in the 18th century. Temminck published their works in Paris and Amsterdam in the years 1813 - 1815.

Silvain Wittouck was born in Hulste near Kortrijk. At the end of the 19th century
he had written several books that have helped us to trace back the origins
of the Belgian racing pigeons. You can read more about him here:
De Geschiedenis van de Belgische duivensport, 1838 - 1924 Sylvain Wittouck - Hulste (BE)

We found an interesting quote from Veuillot: “It seems that nature has given the creatures that humans hold most dear, for instance dogs, pigeons, chickens etc, the ability to change themselves to the infinity, on behalf of the inconstancy, unpredictability and the diversity of the human race.” The enormous variability and multiformity, which is the result of crossings of different stocks, seems to have been quite remarkable back then.

About fifteen years ago Werner Möbes wrote some interesting articles in the Zeitschrift für Brieftaubenkunde about high flyers and tumblers. His articles included pictures from the famous work Ornithologia by Ulysses Aldrovandi, published in Bonn in 1559 and 1603. Some other images came from Naturgeschichte der Vogel by Albin, published in 1734. Louis Vermeyen, a journalist for De Duif, noticed that these images had a lot of resemblances to many of today’s best carrier pigeons. He concluded: “A hundred years ago it was no longer necessary to cross an Antwerp Smierel and a Zwalper pigeon and to add a carrier pigeon to be able to fancy pigeons. The racing pigeon has existed since time immemorial. It does take some selection though: throughout the years, countless breeds have been crossed!” In the Italian city of Modena, where the last pigeon Olympiad was organised, there is a racing pigeon breed that has existed for more than 2,000 years, and which is quite peculiar. The fanciers and racers of these pigeons are the so called triganieri. Professor Bonizzi has published an exhaustive book about this special pigeon breed from Modena. 

This book explains that the goal of this game is to have your own pigeons attract and take home a bird of another fancier. This game is still popular among fanciers from The Netherlands and Belgium as well. The pigeons are in fact trained to fly with the pigeons from other fanciers.

When the fancier gives a sign the bird leaves the other group immediately, in an attempt to attract some of the less well raised pigeons of that other group. If the pigeon is successful he will take one of the birds of that group to his loft. The pigeons are trained in dovecotes that are built on the roof of houses. They are trained to enter the loft as soon as possible. The fancier uses similar techniques: he whistles and he rattles the feeding tray. When the game is under way you can hear the different fanciers call their pigeons, who join larger groups or who try to detach from the group, depending on the signs of the fancier. The pigeons from Modena are very intelligent. They are well trained, disciplined, they always fly over the city and they are always trying to attract pigeons from other lofts. It is probably an interesting spectacle: the fanciers on the rooftops, waving a flag to change direction and to encourage pigeons that have not attracted other birds to try again. The pigeons of Modena and this particular game date back from ancient Roman times. Plinius said that the inhabitants of Modena “are mad about building dovecotes on top of their roofs. Some would even keep pedigrees of their pigeons.” Malmusi had the opportunity to read the city archives of Modena, which date back to 1327. That was the year when the government had introduced a law that forbids the killing of pigeons of an opposing team. In the 16th century Alessandro Tassoni, a poet from Modena, discusses the growing popularity of the game. He is not fond of it and he thinks that the so called triganieri are “daylight thieves”. Again, it is impossible to say whether today’s racing pigeon has any connection with the intelligent pigeons from northern Italy.

The Modena pigeon and the game of attracting other pigeons date back from Roman times.

AT the beginning of the 19th century, the news agency Reuters started making use of some type of pouter pigeons to deliver telegrams. At that time these so called pouters were omnipresent in the south of The Netherlands. Bankers and speculators from the Coffee Exchange in Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, London and Frankfurt (Rothschild) purchased the best racers and tried to outsmart their opponents, who still used couriers and stage coaches to exchange information, world news, prizes and quotations. People from The Netherlands sometimes used their horse-drawn trekschuit or tugboat. The news of Napoleon’s defeat in Waterloo against the allied forces of Wellington, Orange and Blüher was reported to the Rothschild house in London with a pouter pigeon as well. Soon a growing number of bankers decided to purchase English government bonds, which were not very valuable at that time. The Rothschild house must have earned a future with these transactions. The Antwerp newspaper Handelsblad was the first daily paper that used carrier pigeons for news coverage in 1848. These news reports were called pigeon news and it was usually financial news from London, Paris, Frankfurt and sometimes even Madrid (in relay) that was transferred with pigeons. The first pigeons that were bred for races as we know them today occurred at the beginning of the 19th century. Initially this was a sport for the wealthier man. Later on, after the invention of James Watt’s steam machine, pigeon fancying became increasingly popular. Thanks to the lower cost of dispatching and postal delivery almost anyone could become a fancier. Throughout the years pigeon fancying has become a people’s sport practiced by thousands of people!