The Rock Dove (Columba livia) is recognised as the original ancestor of all fancy and racing pigeons throughout the world. This shy, timid bird lived on rocky seacliffs around the British Isles, the Mediterranean coasts and further east.
How did this bird become so dependant on man ?
Despite being the number one enemy in towns and cities the world over it has survived and thrived and is mentioned in great books down the ages. In all the ancient civilisations, from early Mesopatamia through Greece, Egypt and Rome Columba livia had its admirers, breeders and keepers. But what led this bird from the rocks and cliffs to live with man ? Once man started city states between the Tigris and Euphrates, grain was needed to be grown and harvested, the wild rock doves would have taken advantage of this abundance of seed and bred more profusely, pigeons will breed as long as a good food supply is available. Man in turn, never slow to exploit a resource, would have climbed the cliffs and rocks to collect the eggs and squabs for food. Although a fairly timid bird in the wild if taken when young they showed a tendency to be domesticated or at least live in purpose built pigeon houses therefore providing a regular source of food during difficult times, also in a lot of middle eastern countries the manure was used as a fertiliser. Man has always been a collector and quick to spot the unusual so would have noticed the odd white feathered bird and as time passed these odd birds would have been spared the pot and then interbred to produce more varied and unusual birds. After many years of domestication and man's selective breeding of various colours, shapes and sizes developed. Breeds developed in isolation would have become established for the traits they had been admired for and would ulitmately breed true.
In times of war pigeons, fancy and message carriers, would be considered another spoil of war and taken back to the conquerors homeland e.g. Alexander the Great continued on to India after conquering Persia and he would have been offered rare breeds of pigeons as gifts along the way. Alexander is said to be a Turkish translation of the name Scandaroon so it is thought that the fancy pigeon breed Scandaroon is named after him.
The picture at top left is a rare photograph of Rock Doves in captivity, there are so few left that have not been tainted by domestic pigeons. If you look at the rumps you will notice the bird on the left has a white rump, this bird is the Columba livia originally found around the British shores, whilst the bird on the right has a dark rump often called the Intermedia, this bird was mainly used for domestication and found in the Mediterranean and further East into India.
If you bear in mind when the Romans came to Britain we were still very tribal compared to the East which had great civilisations with centres of learning, art and culture, the skill and knowledge held by scholars and priests would have been needed to produce and perpetuate these rare breeds.
Charles Darwin was a learned person to fall under the spell of the Rock Dove and the humble pigeon played a most important part in his work on both the Origin of Species, 1859 and the Variation in Domestication, 1868.
Does man control the pigeon or does the pigeon control man ? such is the fascination pigeons hold and have held over man for thousands of years.
Original Rock Doves on display in an aviary at the Nurnburg Show, Germany, December 2008.
Photo By Remco De Koster
By kind permission from Gefluegel-Borse magazine, Germany.
Pair of pigeons which have returned to live high on the cliffs in Peacehaven answering the call of the wild.
Pigeons such as these are far superior in condition to those living in our towns and cities. Their chequer marking improves their chances of escaping hawks and predators, few white or pied birds seem to last very long on this stretch of the coast. It is birds such as these which have interbred with the truly wild Rock Dove stock.