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Making Pigeons Pay

April 23, 2009
Reinbeck Courier
Byline: Kevin Williams, Grundy County Conservation Director

I have had an interest in birds in general and pigeons specifically for just about my entire life. I remember going over to my great-grandfather's farm and watching the doves that he kept in a loft there. I always thought that it was a pretty cool cage being made out of a barn cupola. When I was old enough, I helped my dad make our own cage and then he and I went and picked out two pairs of doves for our cage from that loft. My dad had raised pigeons as a boy and like so many things in my life, if my father had done it, then I wanted to, as well. When my great-grandfather got too sick to care for his doves and pigeons, dad and I quickly built a large loft and brought those birds over to be ours, as well. There were all breeds of pigeons - racing pigeons, fantail pigeons, tumblers, to name just a few. I would go to the county library and check out Making Pigeons Pay. If I remember back, I think that I was one of the only people to check that book out. It had all sorts of chapters on raising pigeons, pigeon breeds, loft building plans, and even one on pigeon health. Sounds like it should have been on the best-seller list doesn't it? I went off to college, got married, found a job, and began to raise a family. When my son, Seth, joined 4-H a few years later (about 18 years ago) we built a loft together and he had pigeons as one of his projects. Over the next several years, my other two children, Sean and Shannon, both had pigeons as projects, too. And when all the kids fell out of love with pigeons, I continued to keep a few around. Pigeons are kind of like dogs. They have been domesticated for hundreds of years and bred into some pretty odd sizes and shapes and characteristics. The homing pigeons are probably the most famous with their ability to be taken long distances from home and when released travel back to that home in an almost non-stop trip. They have served as message carriers during wartime and great hobby fun during peacetime. The white dove releases that are popular at weddings or memorial services are actually white homing pigeons that fly around in circles for a few minutes (getting their bearings) and then head for their home loft. Many times they beat their owners back home. There are Roller Pigeons that have been bred to fly high into the air and then do a series of backwards summersaults. I had one once that would tumble all the way to the ground. There are breeds called Parlor Tumblers that actually roll right across the floor of the parlor or lawn. There are Pouters that can fill their large crops with air and puff up like balloons ready to burst. There are Carneaus and Kings that are the size of bantam chickens and were bred as meat providers. There are Owl and Nun Pigeons that have such small beaks that they have difficulty feeding their young. And they all come in such a wide array of colors and sizes. Breeds with extra long legs and breeds with short stubby tails. Ones with curly feathers and ones with extra long feathers on their feet or heads. When you look at some of the oddball breeds that exist, sometimes you even feel sorry for the pigeon and what man has done to it in the name of breeding but it has aided in man's understanding of genetics. And all of these many, many breeds are descendants of the wild pigeon, the rock dove. The same ancestor of the barn and bridge pigeon that we commonly see and many people consider pests. Whether you like or dislike them, they are a pretty intelligent bird. Pigeons are considered to be one of the most intelligent birds on the planet with pigeons being able to undertake tasks previously thought to be the sole preserve of humans and primates. The pigeon has also been found to pass the mirror test (being able to recognize its reflection in a mirror) and is one of only 6 species, and the only non-mammal, that has this ability. The pigeon can also recognize all 26 letters of the English language as well as being able to conceptualize. In scientific tests pigeons have been found to be able to differentiate between photographs and even differentiate between two different human beings in a photograph when rewarded with food for doing so. Now when I started out to write this column, I was going to be concentrating on birds in general and I had gathered all sorts of interesting birds facts to share with you (probably much more interesting than a rambling one about pigeons) but I guess that will have to wait until next time.



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