PIGEON FANCIERS
Written Fall Semester 1999
By Tom Cole
 
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In 1859 as part of Chapter One of  the work that would forever change the world and drag mankind's thinking from the centuries-old realm of darkness and ignorance into a new age of enlightenment, the most famous of all pigeon fanciers wrote:

"Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have, after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons. I have kept every breed which I could purchase or obtain and have been most kindly favoured with skins from several quarters of the world.... Many treatises in different languages have been published on pigeons and some of them are very important, as being of considerable antiquity. I have associated with several eminent fanciers, and have been permitted to join two of the London Pigeon Clubs."

This, as you may have already guessed, is how Charles Darwin kicked off The Origin of Species. They talk about Darwin's finches, but it was really his pigeons that are to credit for his insights. Kudos to the two pigeon clubs that let Chuck join, and be damned any snooty exclusive ones that didn't.

The pigeon was absolutely perfect for the development of Darwin's theory. He knew that the breeds of pigeon were so preposterously different in appearance that no sane person could place half of them in the same genus by their morphology alone -- much less call them the same species. There were giant "runts" with three-foot wingspans, broken-necked fantails, sliver-thin tipplers, chicken-like modenas, pug-faced Chinese "owls," and falcon-winged Urkrainian skycutters. And yet all scientists and fanciers universally agreed that they were all descendants of the common rock dove -- not because anyone knew a single thing about genetics at the time, but because it was obvious.

This all isn't much of an issue today, but in the past, if you took your thinking into such areas you would soon crash head-on into the card house of creation dogma and your children as today would be forever banned from membership in the Boy Scouts of America.
Darwin devised a wonderful experiment which perhaps it is best to let him explain himself as he did in the first chapter of Origins:

"I crossed some white fantails, which breed very true, with some black barbs -- and so it happens that blue varieties of barbs are so rare that I never heard of an instance in England; and the mongrels were black, brown, and mottled. I also crossed a barb with a spot, which is a white bird with a red tail and red spot on the forehead, and which notoriously breeds very true; the mongrels were dusky and mottled. I then crossed one of the mongrel barb-fantails with a mongrel barb-spot, and they produced a bird of as beautiful and blue colour, with the white loins, double black wingbar, and barred and white-edged tail-feathers, as any wild-rock pigeon!"

To sum up, the barb-spot-fantail mix reverted back to a classic blue bar street pigeon with no effort of any kind at selection on Darwin's part. The implications of this to the nineteeth century mind is pretty obvious and it would be hard to understate how great a part this experiment may have played in Darwin's work on diversity and evolution. But, then again, perhaps I exaggerate; Darwin was just as "into" growing varieties of cabbage as he was into pigeons. Origins is packed with experiment after experiment on every kind of natural phenomenon and this guy knew all of it inside out and without him, I would still have to go to some geology class and listen to how a million-year-old coral atoll was created already half eroded away just as we see it today.
Now that I have sketched a few facts about Darwin, the way is paved for me to start talking about pigeon fanciers and my friend Red.

The other day the phone rang and when I answered, I heard a slightly accusatory tone in the word: "Tom?"  It was Red, an old and dear friend and pigeon fancier who lives four blocks from me but whom I seldom see anymore. Red is a tremendously sentimental guy and he occasionally gets drunk and calls me and I come over at once and reminisce and pat his hand and it's months or years later before I see him again.

On this evening, I glide up in my 1990 Dodge Shadow with my dog Noodles and he gasps at how the car still looks new and at how the dog isn't dead yet. Red lives a rough life and the transitory nature of things is more obvious to him than to others and any sense of permanence is a thing for him to marvel at. He'll buy a brand-new truck and the next day you'll look at it and see that the mirror is smashed to pieces. You'll say, "What in the hell happened to your mirror?" And he'll say, "I was drinking a bottle of beer and when I threw it out the window I missed and hit the mirror. Pissed me off too!" So much for the mirror -- and don't expect a repair anytime soon.
His house is the same and the utter squalor and filth is far beyond anything even my friend Jan could come up with. On this evening, I look and see that Red is at least 260 pounds and at 5 foot 7 inches one of the fattest people I have seen in ages. He's smoking a cigarette and invites me to help him finish his second twelve-pack. I oblige.

Red's brother lived even harder and smoked Pall Malls and drank like a fish and he died a year or two ago of a heart attack at the ripe age of 52. The last thing he did in life was fire up a smoke in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. He had led a heck of a life, though. A helicopter pilot, he got shot down four times in Vietnam. Once while fighting a forest fire as a civilian pilot, his engine failed and he crashed into some trees and broke his back. The worst part was, he told me, that the earphones in his helmet had a short so he had tied the mike wire to his helmet. The helicopter crashed upside down and when he popped his seatbelt off, he fell out of the copter and hung from his helmet until the wire finally broke. I remember sitting around the TV with Red's family looking at a newscast of a helicopter crash that looked little more than a smudge in a cotton field. Red's brother survived that crash too, but not the Pall Malls.

But to get back to Darwinism, if we haven't already, Red loves pigeons. In fact, he's mad about them. He is a pigeon nut, a fancier. But Red's pigeon raising is something like his housekeeping. The coop is a disaster and cats and skunks walk in at will and kill his best birds. I suppose I can't fault him for the fact that peregrine falcons recognize him and his as easy marks and knock his rollers out of the sky before his very eyes and leave him with nothing to do about it but stomp his feet. His scientific knowledge is nil and he knows diddle about simple pigeon genetics and refers to birds carrying a single recessive color gene as "recessive pigeons."

Now here we come to an advantage that contemporary breeders have over Darwin. Let me explain this advantage with the following: there was a department head at a major university who was kind of deranged and used to hire only Baptist preachers to teach biology. These neo-professors would get up and have the undergraduates take notes as they said various things. One of the things they always said was "If Darwin had known about Gregor Mendel, he would never have developed his theory of evolution." The undergraduates would write these words down in their notebooks and carefully review them later. Then, there would be a test.

In actuality, though, Darwin would have loved to have known about his contemporary Mendel because he could have explained in part the problem people confronted him with regarding the selection of favored characteristics in plant and animal populations. Some people noted that while the beneficial characteristics of an animal would admittedly prevail in the offspring of any individual, they would quickly be watered down to nothing and disappear from the population by the sheer weight and number of the characteristics of the next generations of parents. In other words, there was no mechanism to keep the favored characteristic from being quickly winnowed away. Darwin replied to this with something like, "Sure, that would appear to be true, but since I am obviously correct in this by all the evidence we see, we can only assume that there may be somewhere an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel whose fledgling science of genetics  will explain much of this with its dominant and recessive genes and so on."

Darwin would have liked Mendel's work for a better reason than that it upheld his theory; he would have liked it for the sheer fun it provides the pigeon fancier. For example, Darwin would have liked to know about the dilute, sex-linked gene that turned his blue birds to silver and his red ones to yellow. Here's how it works:

Pigeons have no Y chromosome, so to figure out sex-linked genes, you just write a zero for it instead: XX is a hen and X0 is a cock. Since the dilute gene is recessive, a female will need two of them for the dilute color trait to show up in her appearance -- her phenotype. She must get a dilute gene on the X chromosome from the father and one on the X chromosome from the mother. Thus, an otherwise XX red hen becomes diluted to a cool-looking yellow colored bird when the dilute gene (indicated by a little "d") is present on both X chromosomes:  red+Xd Xd = yellow hen.
The male with a dilute gene always shows the trait in his phenotype because the recessive gene has only a zero to compete with it. Thus, using a zero for the Y chromosome, an otherwise X0 red cock becomes a cool-looking yellow colored bird when the dilute gene is present on the X chromosome: red+Xd0 = yellow cock.

But there is more fun to come. Some females carry the trait but do not show it. Here's an example:

PARENTS:
  Male:  Xd0  (Showing Trait)  Female XX (no dilute gene)
OFFSPRING:
male combinations: X0  X0  female combinations: XdX   XdX
                            no dilute gene                         carry trait

As you can see above, the males will not possess the color diluting gene and will not show the trait and will not be diluted from either red to yellow or from blue to silver. The females will carry the trait because the only X chromosome the male can give them is one with the trait. They won't show the trait because it's recessive and they have to have two d's and they didn't get one from their mom. If they have genes for being blue, they'll stay blue and not turn silver; if they have genes for being red, they'll stay red and not turn yellow.

But there's much more. Let's say you cross a plain-colored red or blue X0 cock with a yellow or silver XdXd hen. In such a case, you can instantly tell which sex the hatchlings are because dilute birds have almost no down while nondilute ones have the regular thick yellow fuzz and all the males will show the trait and all the females simply carry it:
 
 

PARENTS:
  Male:  X0                            Female XdXd
  (plain blue or red bird)     (silver or yellow; showing trait)

OFFSPRING:
 male combinations: Xd0  Xd0   female combinations: XdX   XdX
  all show trait                                                          all carry trait

 In the case above, you know that any hatchlings without fuzz are male and the others are female. Cool or what?

Most pigeon fanciers love working on their genetics. You'll see  guy painstakingly trying to get a single white spot on the end of each tail feather of his "new breed."

"Whatcha gonna name 'em?" you'll ask.

"RANGLERS!" he'll say.

"Ranglers?" you'll ask. "What the hell for? What do they rangle?"

"Nothing. I just like the name."

Fine with me. It's his "new breed." It's the same with gardeners trying to develop a new variety of rose. They don't usually succeed in developing it but it is a lot of fun.

And there many breeds of pigeon indeed, some of which would cause a stir and calls to the local Audubon chapter if a flock of them showed up in a city park because they don't look especially like pigeons. Archangels would cause such a stir. They are crested, bronze-breasted birds with black backs and black wings and a shimmering emerald iridescence.

Tipplers are like rollers but the trick is to get them not to roll but to stay as long and as high in the air as possible. Often a white fantail pigeon is used as a signal to have them come down. The birds have been trained to associate the fantail with food and so tossing him out on the lawn rings the dinner bell for the eagle-eyed tipplers high high in the sky. Some fanciers use real bells and horns to do the same thing.

The domestic flight is another amazing breed. Flights, crazy-eyed, long-faced birds, are bred to "kit up" and lure other pigeon fanciers' birds to their loft. The birds of competitors are sent out over cities in the Eastern US and in other places like China and the flocks combine and mix and the breeder's goal is to get as many of the other guy's birds in his coop as possible. Then he holds them for ransom. It's a strange sport.

There are also Ice Pigeons whose patterns are like frost on a window or icebergs scattered on a black sea, there are Tiger Swallows who flutter like moths and whose tail feathers alternate black white black white, there are Trumpeters with voices like trumpets and outrageously feathered feet, and Modenas shaped like chickens and colored with the most beautiful and starkly contrasting pastels. Carriers are long-necked birds with a large brain-like growth on the bill and house pigeons are huge, ridiculously feathered birds which can be best pictured by imagining a very large fat house cat and then pretending it's a pigeon. There are Chinese owls, whose beaks are so short and finch-like that they cannot feed their own offspring; the breeder must place their eggs in the surrogate parents' nest. There are White Kings, large, pure white chicken-shaped birds bred to be slaughtered and served as squab -- eatin' pigeons.

And then there are the kind that Red likes to have around. Besides his beloved and short-lived rollers he also once got some racing homers -- the proverbial homing pigeon of popular discourse. The fact is, however, that all pigeons will home -- and why not? Try this experiment: take a wild Tempe Bridge pigeon as I have done and put him in your coop. Wait a week. Then try to throw him out. Just try to! He'll be clinging to the chicken wire begging to get back in. Three squares, a social life, no hawks or cats? I never feel sorry for cooped pigeons. They love it in there.

But I was going to say that the kind of common sense homing that the Tempe Bridge pigeon shows is nothing compared to what has been bred into the racing homer. To illustrate, consider what happened when Red traded an over-under 4-10 shotgun and .22 hornet rifle through the mail for some really prime racing homers. The birds came Emery Air Freight and the guy wrote and said he really felt Red got the best of the deal but he didn't mind. When Red locked the birds up that night his dogs broke into the coop (What else is new?) and ran them out and late the next day those racing homers had made it clean back to Brownsville, Texas.

Red also raises runts, named so as a joke the way big men are sometimes called "Tiny." Runts weigh a number of pounds and have a three-foot wingspread. They look like a regular street pigeon  under a huge magnifying glass. The only thing wrong with them is that they're so heavy that they couldn't outfly a Rhode Island Red. There is an ongoing effort to produce a flying runt, but to date all breeders have failed despite ruthless -- I said ruthless -- culling. It's easy to understand the breeder's motivation. What could be cooler than a pigeon as big as a red-tailed hawk soaring around City Hall? I think even the Wright brothers would have trouble with this one though. It must be a tremendously frustrating to try to breed a flying runt. The better they fly the smaller they get, the bigger they get the worse they fly.

Red doesn't even try to breed his birds. He just buys new pigeons when the old ones get killed, lost, or eaten. When I bought my house in 1981, Red came over and gave me advice on where and how to build the new coop. He insisted that I used the boards from the old family hacienda pigeon coop that he remembered so well. Red, as I mentioned, is a very sentimental guy and he waxes nostalgic at any chance.

"You have to use the boards from the old coop, " he pleaded.

I disappointed him, but I was sentimental enough myself to keep all the boards to this day and I have the tin roof as well.

The original coop was built in 1959 in our Tempe backyard. It was the scene of many traumas and heartbreaks but mostly of wonderful memories. It was there that Twizzie, the World's Greatest Twizzler made his home.

Twizzie was a gentle soul and the best pigeon I ever owned. My dad and I bought him from a guy named Jim Martin at a gas station and I named him Twizzie because he didn't roll but twizzled. Let me explain.

Twizzie was a roller and as such was supposed to fly to good altitude and roll backwards straight down thirty feet or more and recover. The deep rolling rollers such as the Birmingham or Pensom rollers did just that, but it was also a hazardous habit because if the bird rolled too far it would hit the ground and die. Twizzie's mate, a blue check hen, hit the roof of our house on a roll and was knocked out cold. We put her in a recovery cage and she finally woke up and was put back in the coop. She survived for many years, but never rolled again. Ever.

But I was going to say that Twizzie twizzled instead of rolling. He'd just do back flips as he flew and that was twizzling and not rolling-- but oh, how dependable and excellent he was in everything he did! Once we had a party and every kid drew a lot with a pigeon's name on it: Snippy Sniderson, Big Red, King, Twizzie, etc. Then each kid was handed the corresponding bird and the whole crowd marched two blocks down the street and released them all at once. Which bird would get back in the coop first? No contest. Twizzie did, of course, and the kid who had drawn his name won a prize.

I used to take Twizzie to school with me and release him out on the playground. He'd circle and do back flips before heading home with the flash of his white wing tips contrasting against his nearly black body. Sometimes I'd go out for recess and see him high up in the sky flying and doing flips. When Twizzie took his turn sitting on eggs he would barely even peck you if you put your hand in there. Oh, he knew he had to peck a little just on general principles, but he pecked so lightly and with the most apologetic expression on his face. His coo was also the perfect pigeon coo: Guadalupe, Guadalupe...

Twizzie got killed by the irrigation man's truck. The dumb driver gunned his pick-up at the birds who were feeding in the alley. He thought they were faster than they were. A couple were squashed flat, but the tea-patterned roller with the white wing tips fluttered away into the farmer's field and was never seen again. On the ground was one damp patch with half-digested grain in it -- obviously from a ruptured crop. As I said, Twizzie was a gentle soul and the best pigeon I ever owned.
 

Fat Modena (left) and (arrow) Twizzie, the World's Greatest Twizzler
 

I'm not sure Red ever cared very much for his birds. In fact, he took to raising fighting cocks for a number of years. The reason was that pigeons for all their beauty and variety and wonder do not sell for much. You can buy a pair of nice Archangels for a song. I remember ten dollars a pair being the price in the seventies and even then that was not much money.

Fighting cocks, on the other hand, sell for more. Red could make a little money with the chickens whereas his pigeons just weren't worth very much. One day Red asked me if I wanted to go to the cock fights and I said, "Are you nuts?" I don't want to be arrested for fighting animals to the death."

"It's legal," he said.

"Oh, it is not," I said.

"Is too," he insisted.

I was wary. I remembered how Red had once taken up raising bees and he wanted to get some honey out of a chimney where there was a hive. I guess maybe his bees weren't producing any or something, but anyway he wanted that honey and he and I went to the hardware store where he bought a big sledge hammer.

"Are you sure you've got permission to knock that chimney down?" I asked.

"I'm telling you the guy said I could."

"Are you sure?"

"Well," he hedged. "Let's put it this way: I'm over ninety percent sure I have permission."

It sounded fishy but I went with him and stayed in the car. He was out there on the roof with a ridiculous hat on with white mesh pinned to the brim and tucked into his shirt to keep the bees out and every time he'd hit that chimney the bees would just boil up around him until you could only see his silhouette. The chimney began to give way and the bricks parted and I swear that golden honey comb looked like a view into Fort Knox.

It was then that the owner came up screaming bloody murder and Red had to get down off the roof and confront him -- only he brought about twelve thousand bees with him and as he leaned on the sledge hammer and peered through his mesh veil they stung the guy on the top of his head about eighteen times and he had to run for his car. Red ran for his.

The cock fights were different. Here Red was on firm ground. The fights were utterly legal and there were hot-dog stands and cotton candy for the kids. There were also a lot of turkey vultures circling overhead. A sign in front read: No Gambling. Have fun. You could hear people shouting side bets from the gate.

It was rather strange, but not so horrific as I had thought. I think what made it all seem less barbaric was the fact that chickens are so incredibly dumb that one doesn't experience the angst one might at seeing a common door mouse bite the dust. Just the same it is an unhealthy and disgusting sport. Short knives long knives or spikes are fastened to the chicken's feet. These are pocket-knife-sized blades that are razor sharp. The fight doesn't last very long.

"Don't tell anyone you came here," Red warned. "They'll just scream and grab their wrists."

"Well, I've seen a bullfight," I told him. "And no one said a thing and it was a thousand times more horrible."

That last evening a few days ago when Red called and I drove over, we talked about cock fighting again. He swilled his beer and said, "They made it illegal."

I told him I'd voted against the fights.

He said, "I don't mind. What bothers me is that the day after that election the police were here raising hell with me. I'm mouthy and it was nothing but trouble. I had a few birds out there and when they left I packed them up and got rid of every last one of them. I don't need any trouble. Do you know how many chickens I've fought all these years?"

"How many?"

"Two. Two in all these years. Sure am a big cock fighter, aren't I? I'm just going to raise my pigeons from now on."

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