Charles Darwin first had to read as much as he could on how to keep and house pigeons, for reference he used several good books of the time E. S. Dixon's "The Dovecote and the Aviary", 1851 and the more comprehensive J. M. Eaton's "Treatise on the Art of Breeding Pigeons",1852 as well as other older books. He asked his cousin, William D Fox, the best place to secure breeding stock as his cousin had a large collection of domestic animals, in particular did he by chance keep Fantail pigeons. Charles was concerned that because of his lack of knowledge he may be sold inferior stock as can happen when buying from livestock dealers.
A pigeon loft had to be constructed, the job being undertaken by the local Downe carpenter, John Lewis. This was based on a hexagonal design found in the old books with 3 foot wide x 20 inch deep x 18 inch high breeding boxes arranged 4 high all around the walls, taller, larger boxes were built at floor level, to accomodate such birds as pouters, with a large 9 foot aviary on the side to allow the birds exercise or if Charles particularly wanted to study the habits of an individual pair.
Charles' first pigeons consisted of a pair of Pouters and a pair of Fantails, these being secured from a reputable pigeon dealer in London named John Baily, possibly in the first week of May 1855. By May 23rd the birds had setlted into the new loft and laid eggs and by the end of July Darwin had already begun taking measurements from 10 day old nestlings. He did not enjoy having to despatch such young creatures and tried other quicker ways to humanely carry this out.
By August the pigeons had turned from just another subject to be studied to giving Charles 'great amusement'. He would always inspect the pigeons on his daily walk around the sandwalk, breeds such as Pouters are particularly fond of attention from their owner/keepers and will leave their nesting compartment to greet a visitor to the loft.
More breeds followed quickly and by August 1855 Darwin had added Tumblers, Jacobins, Swallows, Runts [maybe Scandaroons?], Barbs and Carriers. Darwin would have been fascinated not only by the diversity in the breeds: shape; colour; markings but also would have noticed their great similarity to people in as much as they have a whole range of temperaments. They can be wild, greedy, selfish, expansionist and cruel to each other as well as loyal, caring and good parents. It is widely believed that pigeons pair for life, however if a young hen is with a old male and no chicks are forthcoming she will find a younger more vigorous mate to replace him or at least fertilise her eggs. A male pigeon drives his hen to nest, often stopping her from eating and drinking, until she lays the first egg of a clutch of two. He will then relax his often merciless pursuit thus giving her the freedom to mate with a vigorous male should she choose to. If the male bird does not keep his dominace in the loft being unable to protect his nest site due to old age injury or sickness the hen will move to a better prospect.
In early 1855 Charles had lacked any practical knowledge about fancy pigeons, without the hands on breeding experience it would have taken him many years to understand stock selection and results. Darwin excelled in careful observation and meticulous record keeping. I think that one of his best attributes was his letter writing, he wrote to naturalists and zoologists around the British Isles as well as the far flung reaches of the British Empire and the rest of the world. If he happened to get replies from these experts he always thanked them profusely and in this way he built up a rapport with like-minded people. He would then request skins or specimens of pigeons which he was unable to procure in England. One of his correspondents was W.B. Tegetmeir, a pigeon and chicken expert, who edited various livestock magazines of the time. Darwin had initially asked him about chickens and this led to a long working relationship during Darwin's study of pigeons. Darwin met Tegetmeier after being introduced to him by William Yarrell at the large Anerley show in Kent which was not many miles from Down House and was at the time one of the biggest poultry shows in England. Needless to say Darwin, much like pigeon fanciers today could not resist bringing back two more pairs of fancy pigeons to add to his ever growing flock.
Charles would have met other pigeon fanciers at this show and would have mixed with all types of characters from all walks of life, some of which were said to be "very queer, odd little fellows", Charles himself was well over 6 foot tall and most men would have been shorter, however their expertise in specialist breeds such as the Almond Short Faced Tumbler and the much larger Carrier pigeon would have been invaluable to him. Charles would have to embrace the fanciers and the hobby as a whole if he was to proceed quickly so in November 1855 he travelled to London with the intention of joining a pigeon club, the Columbarian Society, which met in premises near London Bridge.
So, in less than 9 months Charles had embarked on a new study which in his words would be "a horrible bore" and ended the year proclaiming, "It was a fine and noble pursuit".
Anerley Gardens which held a large Poultry and Pigeon Show in 1855-6 where Charles Darwin visited and bought 4 pairs of pigeons, from a painting by B. Constable.
Bromley Museum Service with their kind permission