Darwin's Pigeons

The dawn of an idea with the

aid of peristronic steps..........

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Darwin Specimens, Natural History Museum

Charles Darwin having completed his breeding and anatomical  research on pigeons decided to donate his collection of pigeon skeletons and skins to the Natural History Museum, London in 1868. This collection  comprises of the pigeon skeletons from 1855 with annotations in his own hand on the breastbones. The skins have  hand  written labels which are more like pieces of writing paper  and metal tags which Darwin used as a means of identification. Some of  the paper labels have been lost due to their fragile nature but the majority remain intact. The collection today is housed at the  Natural History Museum, Tring, Hertfordshire, England in the former museum of Lord Rothschild which he bequethed to the Nation in 1937.  The original building still houses the popular museum whilst a 1970's purpose built building houses the vast collection of birds and specimens, it is said to be the largest Avian collection in the world.

 

I was asked by Randal Keynes to accompany him to veiw the Darwin pigeon specimens, spending the day with Dr Joanne Cooper, the Curator of Birds at the museum. We were taken behind the scenes to long corridors of locked steel cabinets, Dr Cooper unlocked one such cabinet and there were Darwin's pigeons laid in trays, on their backs, heads facing outwards. I am possibly the first fancy pigeon man to view these specimens in over a hundred years although Bonhote and Smalley, 1920's pigeon geneticists, examined them and only a few years ago the expert on pigeons and doves of the world, Derek Goodwin, viewed them however his expertise did not encompass fancy pigeons. It was very interesting to see how some breeds have changed very little whilst others, such as the Magpie, is much larger today although still retaining the same markings whilst the Jacobin looked more like a present day Capuchine, with a less ornate hood, lacking the chain in front and shorter in overall lenghth. I thought the Pouter was very similar to its modern counterpart but the English Carrier lacked the large wattle of todays birds, perhaps this was just a poor specimen or maybe after 150 years the large wattle has been damaged or shrunk. I saw Rollers which were again much larger than the birds we know as Rollers today however I think they may have been Oriental Rollers. I was also impressed with a white lace Fantail, an extremely popular breed of the time, Queen Victoria keeping some in her aviaries at Windsor castle.

 

After lunch, Randal and I inspected the skeletons and it was here that I got the real feel of just how conscientious and exact Darwin was. Each complete skeleton from the diminutive English Short-faced Tumbler to the large Scandaroon has pencil marks from measurement points and every bird has its breed name written on the sternum in ink.

Some of the specimens were sent to Darwin from India to help him with his research, these birds were mostly  grizzle and to me resemble Danish Tumblers in type being quite long, large birds.

In another corridor we were shown the skins of fancy pigeons collected by Dr Scully, a member of an expedition which visited Yarkand city, Turkestan in 1875.

 

In another set of cabinets we looked at a large amount of true Rock Doves {Columba Livia} which had been collected from their natural habitat throughout their range, Europe, Middle East, Asia and North Africa.

 

Very late in the day, after Randal had set off for his train to London,  Dr Cooper told me about a collection of stuffed and mounted  fancy pigeons she had discovered in another Natural History store on the outskirts of London.

She asked me if I had time to look at these birds as they were due to be sent for exhibition at Manchester Museum in November 2009 as part of their Darwin celebrations.

These birds were a bit of mystery until Dr Cooper worked out that they had formed part of an elaborate display  to depict Darwin's theory of evolution at the Kensington museum, London in 1899. This display showed the pigeons mounted around a pole dovecote with the larger, ornate breeds at ground level and the wild type pigeons set as flying above. As far as I am aware only  six pigeons from the original display have been found to date, in days gone by museums swapped and lent exhibits without detailed paperwork of where, to whom and how long they were going for. I was most impressed with these birds, Dr Cooper held them for me to take photographs.

 

The day passed very quickly, a day not being enough time to really take in and study further all the pigeon specimens related to Darwin and others. I feel most fortunate to have had the opportunity to handle  birds previously held and studied by Charles Darwin.

 

I would like to thank Randal Keynes for the invite and Dr Joanne Cooper from the Natural History Museum, Tring for giving her valuable time and making this possible.  

   

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All photographs on this page      The Natural History Museum,London

Natural History Museum Tring 19th Feb 2009 003 N.H.M. Picture Library More Photos in Gallery