Pigeons in the National Geographic of 1926
Pigeons in the National Geographic of 1926
National Geographic: January, 1926
BY ELISHA HANSON
With illustrations in color from paintings by Hashime Murayama
Peoples of Every Clime and Age Have Lavished Care and Affection Upon Lovely Pigeons
Even before the dawn of history the breeding of fancy and racing pigeons was one of the favorite pursuits of man. Wherever historians delve and archeologists dig they find evidence of the interest of men of olden days in pigeons. That interest, in our own age of steam, electricity, and chemistry, seems to be growing.
There is a fascination about these birds that makes it possible for men and women in all stations of life to enjoy them. To some persons the breeding of pigeons opens the road along which to pursue an ideal, the ideal of beauty, in one of its highest forms.
Not all of us are artists, capable, by the use of brush and palette, of catching for a moment impressions of personality and of atmosphere which impregnate great canvases; but those of us who love pigeons have an opportunity to create something essentially satisfying through the infinite variety in which their colors may be blended.
TWO HUNDRED VARIETIES OF FANCY PIGEONS ARE BRED TODAY
No one knows how many varieties of pigeons are being bred in the world today, or how many have been bred and abandoned in the past, but it is estimated that of the fancy birds alone there are upward of 200 distinct kinds, and it is known that many of these have innumerable subdivisions, where the type is the same but the coloring of each is different.
In addition to fancy pigeons, where type and color make the variety and its sub classes, there are racing pigeons and utility pigeons. The latter are reared in large numbers, principally for food purposes, although during the last few years breeders have discovered that a purely utilitarian bird may be bred for beauty.
The popular name of the mosque of Sultan Bayezid II is especially fitting, though numbers of these birds flock around all the mosques. Moslems, in their preservation of the ancient Oriental reverence for pigeons do not disturb any bird that nests about the holly buildings.
The great square in Venice in front of the Cathedral of Saint Mark, which is dominated by the Campanile and flanked by the Palace of the Doges, is perhaps the most celebrated public square in the world for its pigeons. In the snapshot album of nearly every tourist who has visited the City of Canals, there is a picture of the traveler feeding these birds before Saint Mark’s.
These birds, as internationally famous as those of Saint Mark’s in Venice, are now in disgrace. Their continual pecking at the mortar between the stones of the cathedral has endangered the safety of the portico of the building, and city authorities plan to destroy all except a few, which, for reasons of sentiment, will be allowed to retain their old lofts. Since Parliament has long protected these pigeons, a special act is necessary before their numbers can be legally reduced.
Madison Square, New York; the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London from which an effort is now being made to bar these birds, and Lafayette Square, in Washington, are other famous congregating centers for the world’s pigeon population.
THE LUNCHEON HOUR IN LAFAYETTE SQUARE, WASHINGTON D.C.
In this famous congregating center for the Capital’s pigeon population, children with their nurses vie with retired admirals of the Navy and generals of the Army for the attention of these trusting birds. Their tameness and iridescent colors make these pets generally beloved.
MANY POETS HAVE SUNG OF PIGEONS
It is difficult for a pigeon fancier to analyze and describe the reasons for his strong attachment for these birds. The writer still recalls his first impression of them, nearly thirty years ago, when he saw the timid, white creatures, their dainty red feet folded back under their breasts as they flew overhead, in an old country woodshed.
From that moment birds of all kinds, but pigeons more especially, have held a place of deep affection in his heart.
This sentiment is far from unique. Wordsworth experienced it one day while walking through his favorite forest. A dove was singing to its mate. The great poet of Nature paused to listen, and then in the spirit of the moment, recorded his thoughts:
I heard a stock-dove sing or say
His homely tale, this very day;
His voice was buried among trees,
Yet to be come at by the breeze;
He did not cease, but cooed and cooed,
and somewhat pensively he wooed:
Slow to begin and never ending;
Of serious faith and inward glee,
That was the song, the song for me.
But Wordsworth was not the first poet to write of his love for pigeons. The Psalmists sang of them; Anacreon sang of them; Juvenal, Shakespeare. Mrs. Browning, Moore, and many others have recorded their love of pigeons in verse that will endure for all time. Some of the most charming strains of Liza Lehmann’s song cycles are those which seek to convey through music the sheer beauty of pigeons.
ARABIAN LEGEND EXPLAINS PIGEON’S RED FEET
Literature, legend, and history are rich in pigeon lore and in all the records of warfare, there is nothing more stirring than the accomplishments of our own little feathered warriors in the great World War.
In legend, there is nothing more beautiful to a pigeon fancier than the story of the dove which brought to Noah the message that the great flood had subsided. According to the Arabs, this bird, after carrying to the Ark the olive branch signifying that the waters were falling, flew away on a second trip, from which it returned with traces of red mud on its feet, thereby proving that it had been able to alight on the ground; and, as a result of this information, Noah prayed that the feet of these birds might forever continue of that reddish color. Noah’s prayer must have been heard, for the feet of all pigeons to this day are red!
We learn from Xenophon’s “Anabasis” that the love of pigeons was widespread in those parts of the world which the Greek army traversed. We also learn from the great Roman historian and naturalist, Pliny, that ancient Rome was as keen about these birds as is modern Belgium.
Pliny tells of Lucius Axius who was celebrated because of the quality of his birds and also for the high prices which they commanded—often as much as the equivalent of $75 a pair.
That price seemed high to Pliny, but a few months ago a Racing Homer brought more than $1,300 at auction in England. Since that time an American fancier imported a black Tumbler cock for which he paid $1,000, and I myself have paid more than the old Roman’s price for a pair of birds, and have also refused more than six times his price for one of my own breeding.
ENGLAND’S KING IS A PIGEON FANCIER
Probably the best-known pigeon fancier in the world today is King George of England, whose lofts at Sandringham contain the finest racing specimens obtainable. From those lofts birds have gone into many humble English homes, accompanied by the sovereign’s best wishes there to produce winners for their modest owners. His Majesty’s grandmother, Queen Victoria, was also an ardent fancier, visiting pigeon shows whenever possible and spending many hours in her aviary.
KING GEORGE’S PIGEON LOFT AT SANDRINGHAM, ENGLAND
It is feeding time and the birds are waiting for the “dining hall doors” to open. Although the Old World’s love of pigeons goes back to prehistoric times, these birds were not used as couriers until the First Crusade, when Christian commanders found the Saracens employing them to convey information.
Queen Victoria prized the Jacobin (Color Plate IV) above all other varieties and made a point of obtaining outstanding specimens from time to time to improve her own birds. She did not compete in the shows, but Jacobin fanciers sent some of their best birds to her lofts and frequently received for their own even better individuals, produced under the Queen’s loving supervision.
Thousands of years before the days of King George, another king, Rameses III of Egypt, gloried in his donations of pigeons to the temples of Thebes, Heliopolis, and Memphis. Since his time, down to the present, the Orient, especially Mohammedan countries, has regarded pigeons as sacred. Only recently a riot occurred in Bombay because some Europeans killed the revered pigeons in one of the city squares.
PIGEONS FEEDING BEFORE THE POST OFFICE IN BOMBAY
Mohammedan reverence for these birds is so great that two European boys nearly provoked a riot in Bombay recently by ignorantly killing some street pigeons. The stock exchange and general market closed and workmen threatened a widespread strike. In remote parts of the Mohammedan world the birds have almost come to be worshiped, and at the pigeon shrine of Kaptar Mazzar, in Chinese Turkestan, good Moslems are supposed to dismount and approach the spot reverently.
PIGEON RACING IS BELGIUM’S SPORT
In Belgium, pigeon racing is the national sport, in which as many Belgians, in proportion to the country’s population are as keenly interested as are Americans in baseball, football, golf, or horse racing. The Grand National of Belgium, in which pigeon fanciers from all parts of the country participate, provokes far more interest there than a world’s series in baseball, the Kentucky Derby, or a Harvard-Yale football game excites in the United States.
Every village has its Homing Pigeon club, and throughout the racing season thousands of birds are shipped to France and other adjoining countries each week for the fly back home.
So keen is the interest in these races that some clubs now employ airplanes to carry their birds to the releasing station, thus reducing the time they are enroute and thereby giving them additional strength for the flight.
THE ORIGIN OF THE DOMESTIC PIGEON IS IN DOUBT
Naturalists look for the original stock of all domesticated pigeons in some wild variety, but they are not in accord as to whether it is the Stockdove (Columba anas) or the ledge-roosting Blue Rock Dove (Columba livia), varieties of which are found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The more general view inclines to the latter, for when domesticated birds are bred promiscuously, without regard to type or color, their offspring will revert rapidly into birds of the type of the wild Blue Rock Dove.
The love of pigeons is universal. It is older than the love of flowers, and certain varieties of pigeons shown today probably have been distinct in color and type characteristics longer than the most distinct varieties of any other domestic bird, flower, or highly bred animal now known.
Common pigeons are found everywhere. They look after themselves, with only incidental attention from men, and while they are inhabitants of cities and smaller urban communities, their lives, in so far as selective breeding is concerned, vary not at all from the lives and existence of wild birds generally. This article deals only with the domesticated birds.
PIGEON LOFTS ARE FOUND FROM CELLARS TO SKYSCRAPER ROOFS
The house in which pigeons are kept is called a loft—a name probably derived from the fact that the Common pigeons usually nest in the highest parts of buildings.
Lofts are of various kinds and sizes. In New York there are lofts on top of some of the tallest skyscrapers, but across the river, in Jersey City, a Racing Pigeon enthusiast for a time kept his birds in the basement and actually flew them from his cellar window. In Belgium many fanciers use the top story of their homes, and in England breeders utilize attic and outdoor lofts, as well as housetop lofts.
In the loft each pair of pigeons has its individual nesting compartment, as shown on the left, where the male assumes the family duties during the day and the female from late afternoon to mid morning. There should also be perches or stalls for those off home duty, as on the right. The proprietary instinct is strong in pigeons. and once a nest or perch is taken by a male, he will defend it against intruders and, if assistance be needed, his mate will join in the defense.
The chief essentials of a loft are light, air, cleanliness, and plenty of room. It should be protected from drafts and secured against such natural enemies as rats and snakes.
In the loft, the domestic life of pigeons is similar to that of men. The birds mate in pairs, and unless separated by man they will remain loyal until death. Unlike practically all other birds and contrary to an old superstition that they will not breed in February, they will breed the year round.
No fancier, however, who is striving for improvement in his variety will permit his birds to breed continuously, as the parents are weakened thereby, resulting in defective young. To prevent this the fancier usually mates his birds in February or March and separates them in July or August, keeping the cocks and hens in different lofts over the autumn and winter months.
If satisfied with the results of his breeding operations in one season, a fancier may remate the same birds the next season. If not satisfied, he will change mates, but to be successful he must keep the broken pair separated; otherwise they will go back to each other.
THE MALE PIGEON SELECTS THE HOME SITE
When the birds are mated the male selects a nesting place and immediately drives his mate toward it. Both share in the work of building the nest, and the first egg is laid from 8 to 10 days after mating. Until this egg comes, the male bird never ceases in his attentions to his mate, and fights off any other male which approaches her.
Pigeons lay but two eggs (sometimes only one), about 48 hours apart. The young, if all goes well, hatch 18 days after the second egg is laid, and reach full size in four weeks, when they are weaned. Before that time the mother lays another pair of eggs, and thus begins rearing a second family before the first is grown; The female pigeon sits on the eggs from late afternoon until mid-morning. The male bird assumes the responsibility for the remaining hours.
After the young come the male parent is by far the best provider. The squabs are fed in a most unusual way. The parents eat first, digest the food, then regurgitate it for the young. At first this food looks like milk, and is often called “pigeon milk,” but as the squabs grow older their food hardens, and just before they leave the nest, whole, undigested grains are fed to them. Pigeons should be fed hard, whole, dry grains, and grit and fresh water should be kept before them constantly.
In warm weather they should be given baths. No matter how hot or cold the weather may be, pigeons will bathe every day of the year if the facilities are provided; but winter bathing should be carefully regulated, so that the birds will not remain in the water too long and take cold. My birds are never given a bath in winter except on bright, sunny days, and even then the water is left before them for a few minutes only.
Pigeons are long-lived. Some are said to have been bred at 16 years, but usually before that time such improvement has been made that the fancier has discarded them for younger specimens.
A PIGEON WITH A CHINESE WHISTLE
The whistles are of two types, one consisting of bamboo tubes placed side by side, the other based on the principle of tubes attached to a gourd. Though they look clumsy, they are very light, and are attached to the tails of young pigeons by means of a fine copper wire. When the bird flies, the wind blows through the whistles and sets them vibrating. The Chinese explain their love of this aerial music by saying that the sounds keep the flock together and frighten off birds of prey.
BEAUX AND POLITICIANS IN THE PIGEON WORLD
For sheer magnetism and intelligence, pigeons are equaled by no other bird. There are politicians among them, just as among men. Any loft of Pigmy Pouters gives one an impression of visiting a dignified conclave on a gala debate day. One will see a lordly little fellow holding his place in disdain of the goings on around him. Close by, a strutting cock parades up and down, bowing and scraping, preening himself, and eying the gallery all the while. If the slightest attention is given him, he will strut and blow all the more.
There is also sure to be a quarrelsome chap, who delights to upset the reserve of the dignified gentlemen and to trip up the grandstander on his parade, while up in the nesting compartments will be interested observers.
The scene in a loft of Carriers, where the birds are not penned in individual compartments, will often suggest a veritable battle royal in the prize ring, and one peep at dainty little Fantails at play stirs the imagination to visions of Colonial days. of the minuet, hoop skirt, and crinoline. Every variety has its distinct characteristics; every bird has its personality.
Beauty of form and coloring, but especially their simple confidence and gameness, give pigeons an undeniable charm for persons in all stations of life. They have enriched literature legend, and history, and they provide mankind with food, amusement, and a reliable means of communication. Their record of sheer grit and brilliancy of performance with the Allied troops during the World War is a striking story.
While pigeons have been used in war since the siege of Troy, not until the World War was widespread interest focused on these little feathered soldiers of the air.
The modern Racing Pigeon was developed in Belgium, probably in Antwerp, within the last century; but this racing specimen is entirely different from the birds used to carry messages in the olden days. Whatever the earlier varieties of Racing or Homing Pigeons may have been, that now used for racing during times of peace and for communication during periods of war is one of the most marvelous results of selective breeding accomplished by man in any line of naturalistic endeavor.
The modern Racing Homer weighs about 16 ounces. It may be blue, blue checker, black checker, black, red, red checker, mealy, silver, dun, and splashes, since it is not bred for color, but for type and racing ability. The best fanciers of Homing Pigeons seldom mate two birds of the same color, since emphasis of color breeding is believed to minimize strength and racing ability.
These birds, huddling beneath a tree on Boston Common during a severe blizzard, look after themselves, as a rule, but their friendliness causes them to respond readily to incidental attention from man.
PIGEONS OUTDO FAST TRAINS IN SPEED
Racing pigeons are flown successfully from distances of 1O to 1,OOO miles; but, as with race horses, different types are used for the various distances. There are sprinters among pigeons, just as among men and horses; there are also distance birds, just as there are Marathon runners from Finland and Derby horses from England.
Light birds make the sprinters, but the big ones go the route. They make various speeds, according to weather and atmospheric conditions. A good average speed under fair racing conditions, is a little more than 1,200 yards a minute.
Pigeons are capable of thirteen hours’ sustained flight, and can fly as far as from Chicago to Washington within that period. This means that they travel more swiftly than our fastest trains.
It takes the Capitol Limited, the crack train of the Baltimore and Ohio, 3 hours and 29 minutes to travel from Cumberland to Washington; but a pigeon from my loft, several years ago, flew practically the same distance through the air in one hour and 54 minutes. Yet this pigeon did not win his race, because birds from other lofts made even better time!
The sport of racing pigeons was revolutionized coincidentally with the revolution in transportation, beginning in the early days of the nineteenth century with the progress, first, of the steamboat, then of the railroad, and still later of the airplane. Where formerly pigeons were raced only short distances—from 10 to 30 miles— they are now flown from 500 to 1,000 miles.
Until about twenty years ago, Racing Pigeon breeders believed that their birds would fly to a fixed loft only, and that if either the loft or the birds were moved, flying days were over. During the Russo-Japanese War, however, the pigeon service of the Japanese Army used mobile lofts, which kept pace with the troops; and the same was done in the World War.
The discovery of the mobile loft resulted from a very simple observation. A Japanese officer had noticed that practically all sailing craft in the Orient had pigeons on them and that the birds, if released in the morning, would return to their own ship later in the day, irrespective of the distance it had traveled. He therefore experimented with racing birds in movable land lofts and found that they would do the same on land as at sea.
PIGEONS PERFORMED BRILLIANTLY DURING WORLD WAR
Pigeons are naturally much afraid of gunfire; yet, for sheer grit, brilliancy of performance, and consistency in results accomplished, their work in the recent world conflict was astonishing.
The first extensive use of birds in battle by the American Expeditionary Forces, according to data compiled by the U. S. War Department, was during the Aisne-Marne offensive, when mobile lofts were used. Due to the rapid advance of the American troops, the front line was constantly changing, yet the Army reports show that of 72 birds used during this action not a single one failed to return with its message bearing on the military situation during the advance! A total of 78 vitally important messages was carried by these birds.
When one stops to consider that pigeons were used only under the most extraordinary conditions, when it was impossible to employ any other form of communication, this record of accomplishment needs no further comment.
In the Saint-Mihiel drive, notwithstanding fog and rain, constant use of gas, artillery, shrapnel, and machine guns, 90 important messages were delivered by pigeons from the front line of the American Army to the General Headquarters. In this offensive, 24 out of 202 birds used in the tanks were either lost or killed in action, but not a single message failed of delivery, as the precaution was taken to send messages in duplicate by two birds.
The speed of these birds averaged a kilometer a minute, despite flying conditions that were the worst imaginable.
When the Meuse-Argonne offensive was determined upon, only five days were allowed for the training and settling of Homing Pigeons in their mobile lofts, yet the 442 American birds used delivered 403 messages safely, and the distance flown constantly changed with the advance of the American troops, varying from 12 to 30 miles. The Army estimates that less than 10 per cent of the birds were lost or failed to return to their lofts by reason of the short period of training!
The outstanding fact to be noted is that not a single important message entrusted to pigeons in this vital action went astray or fell into the hands of the enemy.
Preeminent among the work of the birds was that performed by “Big Tom.” Released at Grandprë at 2:35 one afternoon, this bird had to make his flight during intense machine-gun and artillery action; yet 25 minutes later he delivered his important message at a village 24 miles away!
When examined, it was found that one of the bird’s legs had been shot away and a part of his breast ripped open by a machine-gun bullet, which was still lodged there. The message tube, intact, was hanging by the ligaments of the torn leg.
“The Mocker” was hit by a machine-gun bullet which destroyed one eye, yet he homed in record time on the morning of September 12, 1918, carrying with him a message giving the location of several heavy German batteries which, at that time, were doing terrible execution on advancing American troops. This information thus conveyed enabled the American artillery to silence the enemy’s guns within 20 minutes.
“The Spike,” another Homing Pigeon, was more fortunate than “Big Tom” and “The Mocker.” During American offensives he made 52 trips from the front lines to his loft without being touched, and every one of the messages which he carried contained vital information.
“President Wilson” was a bird used at first by the Tank Corps, but was later transferred to the Meuse-Argonne sector. Like “The Spike,” he made many important trips from the front to headquarters.
On the morning of November 5, when the situation in his sector was desperate, he was released with a message, the delivery of which probably meant success or failure to his command. There was a heavy fog at the time, and in addition to the difficulty of flying through it, constant artillery and machine-gun fire had to be encountered on the way home. This bird lost one leg in flight, but he brought the message through, after which he was sent to the hospital for treatment.
The French and the British during the war decorated some of their birds, but the American pigeons could not receive medals of honor or distinction because Congress had not authorized an award for heroism to any but human beings. The accomplishments of pigeons on land were equaled by those of pigeons at sea. Every allied aviator carried these messengers with him.
A WINGED MESSENGER IS CAST OFF FROM A NAVY PLANE
At the time of the World War armistice the forces of the United States and Allied armies had approximately 320,000 pigeons for use in emergencies as a means of communication when all other methods failed.
RELEASING A PIGEON FROM A NAVY PLANE DURING FLIGHT
The Navy birds taken to the Arctic by the MacMillan Arctic Expedition (see the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for November, 1925) were especially selected and trained for their arduous work in the Far North. A special loft was constructed for their use and a large quantity of pigeon feed was provided. Unfortunately, all but four of these birds were killed by Arctic falcons during their first flight in Greenland.
The British, French, and Belgian governments commandeered the services of every Homing Pigeon in their respective countries. Even the Royal loft was taken over by the British Navy, and the king’s birds were assigned to trawlers, scout ships, and other craft in the North Sea, from which they carried many important messages to Sandringham.
RACING PIGEONS TRAIN EARLY FOR THE RACE COURSE
Racing Pigeons have pedigrees like racing horses, and they are bred and trained with care equal to that bestowed upon their equine brothers. The enthusiast watches the feeding of his young birds from the moment they leave the shell. Four weeks later, when they leave the nest, fully feathered, he takes particular care to see that they do not go hungry while their parents are weaning them.
After they are weaned, the birds are placed in a separate loft, where they soon learn to know that the approach of their owner means food, water, or kindly attention of some sort. From the young bird loft they are given their first flying experience.
A Racing Pigeon loft is equipped with a window made of wires which are easily pushed in, but not out. These permit the bird to enter the loft, but prevent his exit. Outside of the window is a landing board, on which the birds alight when returning from a spin through the air.
“BILL”, OF ATLANTA, WINS AN AERIAL DERBY
A bird is not considered “home” until it passes through the window of its loft, when the owner removes the leg band and puts it into an automatic clock to record the time of arrival. Racing Pigeons are flown successfully from distances of 10 to 1,000 miles, and a good average speed for distances birds is 1,200 yards a minute.
After the youngster is happily settled in his loft, his first experience outside comes some morning when his owner, before feeding him, places him on the landing board. Food is then scattered on the loft floor, and the “young man,” before he realizes what he has done, pushes a wire to one side and comes in for his breakfast.
THREE LIDS PROTECT THE PIGEON’S EYES
After two or three repetitions of this first lesson, the bird wakes up some morning to find that the window has been removed during the night. Out he goes and up into the air, but before long, he becomes tired, he hears the familiar call for breakfast. Down he comes in a hurry, scampering over and among his comrades, as all try to get inside at once. For several weeks he makes these early morning turns in the air; then in the evening.
When the bird is from nine to twelve weeks old his hard work begins, preceded by a careful physical examination. The head is examined first. It should be strong and powerful in appearance, with plenty of room between the eyes for a keen brain. The eyes, covered by three lids, should be prominent and bright and should look straight ahead. When flying conditions are normal, all lids are open, but in bad weather the bird can close one or two lids and continue flight with protection to the eyes.
The wings are the most essential part of a Homing Pigeon’s body. When these are spread, the feathers should overlap each other without any breaks. Good length and breadth of feather are desirable, and at full spread the wing should look like an inverted letter V.
Each wing contains twenty feathers, ten primary at the outer edge and ten secondary on the inner side toward the body. The Homing Pigeon’s tail, which is its rudder, is also important. It has twelve flight feathers in two sets of six each When the bird is at the top of its flight the tail has the appearance of containing but one feather.
Pigeon flyers watch the molt, or changing of feathers, closely. When a bird is six weeks old it begins to drop its nest feathers and its first set of adult feathers begins to appear. It should never be flown while in heavy molt.
The new feathers, if food and housing conditions are satisfactory, will all be in within eight or ten weeks from the start of the molt. When the molt is sufficiently advanced, the youngster’s training on the road begins.
After the birds grow familiar with their surroundings they are taken a mile or more from home in a basket and released. The distance is increased from day to day up to 25 miles. When this stage is reached, instead of being released in a group from the basket, they should be single tossed—that is, one bird should be taken out at a time—and there should be a delay of two or three minutes before another bird is freed.
This single-tossing process, repeated many times, puts the individual bird on his mettle. It also trains him to fly from a given point to a given point, notwithstanding the number of birds in a flock at the time he is released in a race, or the number he may meet flying in an opposite direction.
PIGEONS WITH MESSAGES ARRIVING AT THE ANACOSTIA NAVAL AIR STATION
Racing Pigeon fanciers usually like to have what is called an “overflight” loft, or one at a greater distance than the average to be covered between starting point and home terminal, because a bird flies fastest when it is near home, and the overflight lofts, under normal conditions, usually produce the race-winners. But under bad conditions the short loft has the advantage. Its birds can better fight wind, rain, and darkness and may get home at the close of a hard day, whereas the birds from the overflight lofts may have to wait until the next morning.
From the 25 mile stage a jump may be made to 50 miles, usually the last training stage for a young bird. The next step is ordinarily the 100 mile race, where the bird gets his first test for speed and endurance.
The racing of pigeons is unlike any other sport, in that the birds start from a given point, but finish at different points. When they are shipped to the race, a countermark, or small band, with a secret number is placed on the leg of each contestant. When the bird reaches its home, it should go into the loft without delay, where its owner removes this band and puts it into an automatic clock, which records the time of arrival.
The distance to each loft from the starting point is measured, and the winner of the race is the bird which flies the greatest number of yards per minute.
PARENTAL INSTINCT PLAYS PART IN RACING
When old birds are raced, the hen flies best when her eggs are from eight to ten days old, and the cock when their young are from ten to twelve days old. While the cock is driving his hen, neither bird can be raced successfully, as the spirit of love-making is all-engrossing. It is also inadvisable to fly either a male or female for several days after the eggs come, as the birds do not settle down immediately after the hen lays.
On the longer courses pigeons usually terminate their race during the evening, so the female with eggs is anxious to get home to her nest and flies hardest to get there. If there are youngsters to be given their evening meal, the male bird strains every muscle and nerve to see that they do not go hungry over night.
On clear, quiet days pigeons fly high in the air, almost out of sight; when wind, rain, fog and clouds are against them, they fly close to the ground to take advantage of any chance shelter.
In well-bred pigeons the instinct for home is so strong that birds sold to other cities have been known to return to their old lofts upon being released several years later. Some of mine have returned from North Carolina to Washington six months after being shipped south. Others, which were never trained on the road, but were reserved for breeding, have returned to their homes after being shipped to distant points.
On the other hand, fine Racing Pigeons have been made so happy in their new homes that they could be settled and flown from them with complete success.
This is a familiar sight on Boston Common every morning at 9 o’clock, where this bird lover has fed the pigeons every day for l0 years. They gather by the thousands and wait for him.
ORCHIDS OP THE BIRD KINGDOM SCATTERED FROM DUNDEE
“They came in a ship to Dundee.” That brief sentence sums up the entry into Anglo-Saxon countries of many of the most beautiful birds in the whole realm of the fancy-pigeon world. From Calcutta, Bagdad, Hongkong, Archangel, Bokhara, Constantinople, Asia Minor, and the Barbary Coast these orchids of the bird kingdom reached Dundee. From there they were distributed throughout the British Empire and America.
Peking merchants display their feathered charges in the pigeon market
The Chinese are devoted bird fanciers, and a corner of many a city is given over to an interesting bird market, where several varieties are sold. Nearly every home has at least one bird, and pigeons vie in popularity with parrots, pheasants, and canaries. Pigeon eggs are also a prized article of food. Peking manufactures many of the ingenous pigeon whistles.
The “orchids” of the bird kingdom originated in the Orient, but there, as elsewhere the more humble types are still popular.
Notwithstanding man’s love of pigeons, little is known of the origin of many highly treasured varieties. In London, as long ago as 1676, the ornithologist Willughby published in Latin a treatise on pigeons. Two years later he translated it into English.
Sixty years later John Moore, a London apothecary and celebrated worm doctor, wrote a history of tame pigeons, and his descriptions of ideal birds, penned nearly 200 years ago, would fit well into our standards of today, although such tremendous strides in breeding have been accomplished since that time that the birds of his day would not be recognized by their present descendants.
The Carrier, the Tumbler, the Pouter, the Barb, the Fantail, the Runt, the Jacobin, and the Nun, all prized varieties of today, were f avorites with Englishmen in the time of Willughby and Moore. Yet none of these birds originated in England. Pigeon clubs and columbarian societies flourished then, and many importations from the Orient were first seen at the meetings of these clubs.
THE FANTAIL HAILS FROM HINDUSTAN
Of the ancestry of the Carrier, the Pouter, and the Tumbler we know little. The Fantail originated in Hindustan. But even as late as 75 years ago a shipment of these graceful little dancers, arriving in Dundee, completely revolutionized the Fantail fancy and started a war between Scotch and English breeders which ended only upon the outbreak of the World War. The English first saw the birds in the showroom, where they were exhibited by their Scotch competitors. From that moment the battle of styles was on.
PIGEONS DECORATING THE GARDEN OF DR. EDWIN A. GROSVENOR, OF AMHERST COLLEGE, MASSACHUSETTS
The Fantail is a bird of curves, distinguished by an enormous fan-shaped tail. Its beauty, grace, and spirit long ago won the affection of hosts of fanciers. It originated in Hindustan from unknown stock and arrived in Europe via “a ship to Dundee” .
The Fantail is a small, round-bodied bird which carries an enormous fan-shaped tail frequently having more than 30 feathers . As it stands on its toes and holds its tail erect the bird’s chest, and not the head, should be directly over the feet. The neck is long and fine, curved down and backward, and the head rests on a cushion at the base of the tail. When viewed from the front the head cannot be seen.
In other words the fantail is a bird of curves, whether one looks at the beautiful, circular tail, whose ends almost meet at the bottom, or at the body. When moving about the loft, it fairly quivers with excitement and dances blithely on its way about its business.
This description would have fitted Willughby’s and Moore’s ideal of a Fantail, which in those days was also called the “Broad-tailed Shaker.” But English breeders for a number of years concentrated on tail quality and forgot other properties. The result was that they produced birds with perfectly enormous tails, but coarse in all other respects.
Then another ship came to Dundee, and on it were Fantails with small, round bodies and fairly large tails. The Scotch fanciers at once began to ignore everything but body conformation, and the English everything but tails.
Meanwhile the Fantail established itself in America, where fanciers were quick to see that the ideal bird combined the good qualities of both a small body and a large tail. Today this country has many glorious Fantails with bodies even smaller than the old Scotch ideal and carrying large circular tails.
THE BARB IS A NATIVE OF NORTHERN AFRICA
The Barb , a pigeon beloved by Shakespeare and by Mary Queen of Scots, who pined for it while in prison, is rarer today than 300 years ago. It originated in northern Africa so long ago that all traces of its early history have been lost.
It is a small bird of the toy variety and is the only square-headed pigeon known. It has a short, stout beak, like that of a bullfinch, and is also distinguished by an eye cere, or wattle, which covers almost the whole side of its head. As the bird grows older, another heavy wattle appears on the upper and lower parts of its beak.
The usual colors in Barbs are beetle-green black, red, and yellow. The wattle, being of a flesh color, forms a pleasing contrast against the body color.
THE CARRIER, KING OF PIGEONS, LOOKS FOR BATTLE
The Carrier has for centuries been regarded as the king of pigeons. It is a large, bold bird, which probably got its name from its aggressive carriage and not from its flying ability. Like the Barb, it has both an exaggerated eye and nose wattle. The latter is so large that when the bird is fully matured, at three or four years, it has the appearance of having shoved its beak through a beautiful white rosebud.
The Carrier is the most quarrelsome of pigeons and will fight upon the slightest provocation. When he cannot find anyone else to quarrel with he may beat his wife. For this reason Carriers are usually bred in individual compartments, for in their constant conflicts they are apt to ruin their rose adornments, their chief claim to favor.
Of later origin than the Carrier is the Dragoon (also Color Plate V), a noble-looking bird with a bold head and eye. The Dragoon has well-developed eye and nose wattles, but they are not so large as those of the Carrier.
Another bird of like type, the Horseman, was much fancied centuries ago, but has now practically disappeared and its place given over to the Racing Homer.
Jacobins and Nuns, two very old varieties, wholly dissimilar in appearance, are shown in. The Jacobin has a hood which, in finely developed specimens, makes it almost impossible to see the head. Nuns have only a small hood, called a “shell crest” in pigeon terminology.
The Jacobin comes in solid colors, such as red, yellow, and black, with a white tail and white flight feathers on the wings. The Nun has a pure white body and crest with colored head, tail, and flight feathers. Nuns come in several colors, but black is most favored.
Queen Victoria of England kept many varieties of pigeons, but her favorites were the Jacobins, and many a prize winner ultimately found its way into the Royal lofts, from which in turn its offspring went back into the showroom and out into the fancy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was another pigeon fancier who frequently urged her friends to take up her hobby and share her pleasures. A proof of her friendship was a gift of a pair of her favorite pigeons.
THE POUTER IS THE ARISTOCRAT AND BUFFOON OF PIGEONS
The Pouter is not only the aristocrat but also the buffoon among pigeons. There are eight or ten varieties of pouting pigeons, but two the English Pouter and the Pigmy Pouter, have outstripped all others in popularity.
The former is a tall, thin-waisted bird some 18 inches in length, and stands on long, thin, storklike legs completely covered by stockings of feathers. He resembles a man wearing a full-dress coat with close-fitting white satin breeches and white spats. At his throat there is a crescent of white like an old-fashioned cravat. The wings are often colored black, red, yellow, and blue, with rosettes of white splashed on each shoulder
There are also pure white Pouters, but only during the last few years have they approached the colored birds in perfection of type.
The name of this variety comes from an ability to inflate its neck into a large circular globe, which, in poor specimens, is most grotesque, but in good ones exceedingly attractive. The name has no bearing on the bird’s personality, for the Pouter is a jovial chap, who can assume instantly an air of solemnity and dignity. He is never out of sorts, and if shown the slightest attention will strut and blow for all he is worth.
As may be expected, such a fellow is not a good husband or father, and a Pouter cock is always ready to neglect his home duties to go philandering. Consequently, Pouter fanciers must maintain a loft of auxiliary parents in order to insure the rearing of the young.
The Pigmy Pouter is a miniature, in every respect, of the English Pouter. While the latter has been known for centuries, the Pigmy is a creation of the last century. Originally it came from continental Europe and was not related to the large English Pouter. During recent years, however, Pigmy breeders have out-crossed and inbred on the English Pouter, so that today the only difference between them is not one of type, but of size.
The Tumbler has more friends the world over than any other variety of fancy pigeon. Man’s affection for it has lasted more than three centuries, although the prize Tumbler of 25 years ago is entirely different from the accepted type of today. If the old favorites of 1676 and 1736 should put in an appearance now, they would be driven out of the lofts of modern Tumbler fanciers as aliens.
ANCESTORS OF THE TUMBLER WERE ACROBATS
This pigeon derives its name from the ability of its ancestors to turn somersaults while flying through the air. There are still Tumblers which perform, but they are not the ones seen in the showroom. The acrobats themselves are divided into many classes, some of which make but one turn at a time, others two or three, still others side dips, and yet others which fly high in the air and descend (sometimes to an untimely death) by a series of backward revolutions.
In addition, there are Parlor Tumblers and Parlor Rollers, which cannot fly at all but perform on the ground. The single and double Tumblers can be trained to stand perfectly still until a signal is given upon which they will make their turn, come to attention, and wait for the next signal before turning again. The Parlor Rollers turn a series of backward somersaults along the ground. Those that roll the farthest are the best.
The Hindus originated the performing Tumbler, and in addition to the varieties known in this country, they have another called the Lowtan, which will not perform; until it is shaken up rather roughly several times in the hand.
The old-fashioned Tumbler was a plain-headed sort, but the modern bird has a large, broad, bulging forehead, the broader the better, and the beak should be set on at an almost direct right angle to the head. All other things being equal, the Tumbler with the best head wins today.
Tumblers come in solid colors of red, white, blue, black, yellow, and silver. There are also birds with colored bodies and white wings, called “whitesides,” and birds with mottling on the wings. One of the most fancied subvarieties is the “baldhead,” which has a pure white head, wing flights, and tail, with a colored body.
For many years the Almond, or short-faced Tumbler, was the most popular of these birds, but of late its vogue has declined. This pigeon, as its name implies, is of an almond color, interspersed with beetle-green black. By some it was called Ermine because of its color shading. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, good Almond Tumblers frequently commanded as high a price as a good horse.
A PUBLIC SQUARE IN WHICH CLEVELAND PIGEONS GET THEIR MIDDAY MEAL
The statue is that of Tom Johnson, one-time mayor of the Ohio metropolis.
TUMBLERS TAUGHT AVIATORS TO LOOP THE LOOP
Pigeon fanciers believe that the pioneer aviators learned to do many of their stunts, such as side dips and looping the loop, from their observations of Tumbler pigeons in flight. The Tumbler and the airplane loop the loop in exactly the same fashion. Both point their noses upward and fly gradually toward a vertical position; when they reach it, both cut off all power, apparently, and, with wings out-spread, turn over backward, catch themselves, and begin flying again.
Among pigeons, as among men, there are long-nosed and pug-nosed individuals. One of the most popular groups of fancy pigeons is made up of the “pug-noses,” or so-called “short-faces,” which includes the Turbits, Owls, and Oriental Frills among its favored members. Formerly they were unrelated, but during the last 50 years discriminating breeders have so crossed them upon one another that today, notwithstanding marked differences in color, structure, and feather properties, these birds may be grouped together.
The longest-nosed pigeon is the Scandaroon, which originated in Bagdad centuries ago. It is a large bird, with colored body and white wings, a long, Roman-curved beak, and a disposition compatible with its ferocious appearance. The Scandaroon still has many admirers, but its most valuable use has probably been in the crossing into other varieties where bold head appearance was lacking.
The Turbit is the oldest-known member of the short-faced family. He is a small bird with white body, wing flights, and tail and colored shoulders. The favorite colors are black, blue, silver, red, and yellow.
THE START OF A PIGEON DERBY IN GREAT BRITAIN
Five thousand birds have just been released from five railway cars. Although the first regular pigeon races did not begin in Great Britain until 1881, the birds have long enjoyed the affection of British fanciers. When the weather is clear and quiet, pigeons fly high, almost out of sight, but during wind, rain, and fog the birds stay close to the ground, to take advantage of any chance shelter.
The Turbit’s outstanding feature is his head, which should be large and bold, with a bullfinch beak and a small peak crest. There should be an unbroken curve from the tip of the beak to the crest. The eyes, instead of being set in the middle of the head, are placed well forward. Down the breast is a roselike frill of feathers. .The feet are free of feathers.
There are three varieties of Owls, so named for their resemblance to the nocturnal bird. They have no crests and their heads are more nearly round than the Turbits’. As in the case of the latter, the stouter their beaks, the more highly are they regarded. They come in solid colors and have no feathers on their feet.
The African Owl is the smallest the English Owl the largest. The Chinese Owl, the rarest of these birds, is between the African and English in size and carries a double rose frill on his breast, which in good specimens extends up around the neck on each side of the head. This group comes in standard colors, and also in exquisite powdered blues and silvers, wherein they have been bred to greater color perfection than any other variety.
THE ACCOUTERMENTS OF A PIGEON MESSENGER
Left, the capsule containing the message, which is attached to a leg of the bird, center, the loft and squadron numbers stenciled on the wing feathers; right, an identification marker.
ORIENTAL FRILLS ARE PEERLESS BIRDS FROM ASIA MINOR
Oriental Frills, regarded by their owners as gems of the Orient, were introduced into England about 75 years ago by H. P. Caridia, a former resident of Asia Minor. There this variety was originated hundreds of years ago and held sacred for centuries.
The Orientals have outstripped both the Turbit and the Owl in the race for popularity, and, without disparaging the others, appear to be entitled to the esteem they have won. In them the fancier has pigeons with at least three different shades of color on one feather; pigeons which come from the nest with one group of color tones and which assume an entirely new group on reaching maturity. The four subvarieties in greatest favor are the Satinette, the Blondinette, the Bluette, and the Silverette.
The Satinette has a white body with penciled or laced wings. The penciling may have the appearance of blue, black, dun, sulphur, or brown tracing, and the outspread wings resemble a fine piece of iridescent lacing. The blue-laced Satinettes have blue tails, with a white spot or moon, near the tip of each feather. In the others the tails are laced like the wings.
The Blondinettes are colored or laced all over. The Bluettes and Silverettes have white bodies and blue or silver wings. A peculiarity of their marking is that the bars of their wings are white edged with pink and not black, as in other varieties.
The heads of Orientals should resemble those of Turbits, but the Turbit peak, although desired, is not required, and a good plain-headed specimen will defeat a poorer bird with a peak. The legs and feet are covered with short, thick feathers, resembling the stockinged feet of a grouse.
The coloring on Orientals is so rare that many fanciers of other varieties have tried to introduce it into their birds, but, so far as is known, without success. On the other hand, if Owl or Turbit blood is introduced into the Orientals, the structural properties sought therefrom have been obtained and the pure Oriental coloring regained within a few generations
THEY ARE ALWAYS HUNGRY
The gentleness of these birds makes the Dove (or Pigeon) an appropriate symbol of peace in Christian lands. The Japanese, on the contrary, consider it a messenger of war.
The Russian or Bokhara Trumpeter is the greatest talker among pigeons. He is a heavy, booted fellow, with a rose crest, and, while busy about the loft, sounds like a trumpeter at practice with a low-pitched horn. There is another variety, now almost extinct, called the Laughter, whose cooing resembles a human chuckle.
TWO GOLD STAR MOTHER PIGEONS WHOSE CHILDREN NEVER CAME BACK FROM THE WAR
These birds were also couriers during the European conflict and might properly wear service stripes as well as stars. They, like many other Homing Pigeons, were entrusted with vital messages which they carried successfully throughout artillery barrage and machine-gun fire from the front-line trenches to headquarters during history-making offensives.
SHORT-FACED PIGEONS REQUIRE “WET NURSES”
It is impossible to describe all the varieties of fancy pigeons seen at shows. There is, for example, the great class of German toys, with more than twenty subvarieties, including Swallows , Frill Backs (whose feathers grow the reverse of those of all other birds), Helmets (Color Plate IV), and Priests. There are the Magpies (Color Plate XII), beautiful birds with wild magpie coloring, only richer; the Hungarians, parti-colored birds bred for centuries; the Mookees, Suabians, Sherajees, Chinese Dewlaps, Starlings, Modenas (said to come in sixty or more colors), and numerous others.
Fancy pigeons mate like the Homers and, as a rule, are good parents. The short-faced birds, however, need assistance to bring up their young, and unless “wet nurses” are provided, valuable youngsters may be lost. Fanciers who like several varieties can solve this problem by transferring the eggs from short-faced to long-faced birds and vice versa, for the short-faces, while apparently unable to rear their own young, are able to feed those with longer beaks.
If a fancier belongs to a pigeon club he marks his birds with a registered seamless band, which is placed on one leg when the baby pigeon is about five days old.
Pigeons are exhibited as youngsters and as old birds. Some, such as Carriers Barbs, and Orientals, do not appear at their best until they are from three to five years old. Others, such as Pouters and Fantails, coarsen with age.
THE WORLD’S CHAMPION UTILITY PIGEON AND SOME OF THE 75 CUPS HE HAS WON: A CALIFORNIA PRODUCT
In England pigeons are judged both in their single coops and in walking pens, and are marked on the double showing. In the United States only the walking pen is used. In this every bird has to display himself before the judges, just as a horse or dog performs in the tanbark ring.
THE FAMILY TREE OF A SILVER-COLORED FANTAIL
Up to ten years ago, American Fantail breeders had striven in vain for good silver-colored birds. In 1916 a pair of my blue Fantails hatched a beautifully colored silver sport, which, upon maturity, proved to be a hen. The next season the parents were remated, but produced only ordinary young and no silvers. Then a mating between the young silver hen and a blue cock of good type and light color gave me two blue youngsters, both cocks. The following year a mating of the better-colored of these two young cocks back to his mother gave two young, both silvers and both hens.
One of those hens has yet to be beaten in the showroom, and last season one of her sons was a champion silver and a grandson won first in his class.
In 1919 the process of inbreeding continued, the old hen being remated to her son, who had produced two silver hens, and the better young silver hen to her blue half-brother, who was also her uncle. These matings resulted in all silvers, both cocks and hens. Since then these birds have been inbred, line bred, and out-crossed (but only on the original family of blues ), and today the silvers are among the best in my large family of Fantails.
My success in producing this winning strain of silvers was due to several factors. One was the abandonment of the original parents and failure to use the old blue father with his silver daughter. Another was that, thanks to a brother fancier, the very best blues of that time were obtained for use. A third factor was that mere perversity caused me to reject completely the stock scientific formula that yellow mated to blue would give silver.
The offspring produced by this experiment were not only numerous after the second year, but of high quality and resulted in fine silver males which today, if bred to blues, produce more silver than blue youngsters.
Regressions constantly appear in the best of pigeon families. A strain of blue Fantails first utilized ten years ago has been bred ever since, with only two out-crosses, one on silver and the other on white. All of these birds were clean-legged, as Fantails are supposed to be; yet last season an excellent young blue hen with grouse-feathered feet appeared.
Also, Fantails are supposed to have fine smooth heads, with no sign of peak or crest, but a pair of birds whose ancestry was known for more than five generations produced a crested Fan.
With regard to breeding for color, yellow saddleback birds have produced reds, blacks, and checkers, but no yellows; red saddlebacks have given not only reds and blacks, but pure whites.
Last year, in an effort to improve blue saddles, a mating between a saddle cock with a solid-blue hen gave a pure white youngster which proved good enough to, win at a Fantail club meet.
The question naturally arises as to what one is to do with these sports and throw-backs. If they are outstanding in good quality, they should be kept and bred, as they possess dominant natures and will as a rule, influence their descendants for years to come. If bad, even though unusual, they should be killed, for breeding from an inferior causes birds to deteriorate.
A white pigeon takes part in a mourning procession: Persia
The Moharram, first month of the solar year, is sacred to Shia Mohammedans, who dedicate the first ten days as a period of mourning. Street processions and Persian passion plays increase the religious fervor of the zealous natives. Mohammed claimed that the dove, which he taught to perch on his shoulder and to pick seeds from his ear, imparted to him the counsels of Allah.
PIGEONS FOR PIE
Pigeons are good to eat, and if one breeds only from the best, there are certain to be plenty for the pot.
There are several varieties of pigeons bred mainly for the table, including Runts (the largest of all pigeons and one of the oldest), Carneaux, Kings, Mondaines (Color Plate VII), and Working Homers. The French were the first to rear squabs for culinary purposes, but within the last 25 years squab-breeding has spread over the world.
The young pigeon is heavier at four weeks, when it is just ready to leave the nest, than at any later period of its life. It is fat and soft and makes one of the finest delicacies served today, being especially good for convalescents and children. Squab breeders work the year round and are not separated in winter, as are the fancy and racing birds. If not crowded, they produce from 1O to 14 young yearly. The most profitable squab plants are those operated by workmen as a side issue, after regular hours, or one-man plants where the owner does all of his own work. Labor and building costs are so high that the expense of additional help and housing above the one-man plant size is almost prohibitive.
Not all lovers of pigeons are so situated that they can exhibit their birds; but while the showroom and race course provide the final test of a breeder’s accomplishments, one’s real pleasure and lasting delight are to be found among the birds in the loft. Formal exhibitions are soon over, but one’s own aviary furnishes a constant display of beauty and affection, and the fancier’s presence is always welcomed most heartily by his feathered friends.
The pigeon’s hour at the New York Public Library
Every day at noon hundreds of pigeons gather in front of the Public Library, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, and the 12-o’clock loungers on the benches throw them stray crumbs from their luncheons. The close of the noon hour sees the flocks of birds winging their way to nests and nooks in the neighborhood.
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