The racing pigeon is fully domesticated, the result of two centuries of experimental breeding, and they are certainly not an invasive threat, as some claim.
According to current usage, a ‘feral animal’ is one that has been domesticated, but has escaped and ‘returned to the wild’. It becomes ‘invasive’ when it begins to range further and further afield. At this point it may become a threat to indigenous species, as well as crops and livestock.
Zoologists, it should be noted, exclude from the ‘feral’ category animals that were genuinely wild before they escaped from captivity. Think of a lion in a zoo. It will have a natural instinct to return to the wild when given the chance, as its domestication is forced or temporary.
The department of environmental affairs passes laws to control feral populations, and these are undoubtedly a good idea. But where do racing pigeons fit into the scheme of things? Are they to be regarded as ‘feral’, as new legislation seems to suggest?
First of all, there are indeed feral pigeons: those we see flying around cities and suburbs.
All belong to the Columba livia species and originate from the wild rock dove that naturally inhabits sea cliffs and mountainous terrain. But while racing pigeons have the same ancestor, they are not feral. This is because they never existed as a species ‘in the wild’.
People and pigeons
Racing pigeons are the modern ‘version’ of nearly 200 years of experimental breeding. Their successful domestication is a result of selecting for homing ability and the bird’s ability to attach to humans. According to Tony Gatonby of Blue Hills Lofts, in AD 1100 the Persians were using pigeons to transmit messages to Baghdad. Dutch sailors took ‘Baghdads’ to Europe from Persia. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders used the birds to transmit messages, and were probably responsible for their spread across Europe.
In 1574, the Dutch, besieged at Leyden, used a pigeon to summon help from the Spanish. By 1735, the English carrier pigeon was well established, having evolved by ‘selection’ into a distinct breed. The Belgians were the first to race pigeons. During the early 19th century, they had developed three distinct types of racing pigeon: the ‘Antwerp’, the ‘Liege’ and the ‘Brussels’. The Antwerp was a cross between the Smerle, Cumulet and English Dragoon strains.
The Liege was a cross between the Owl and Eastern Carrier. The Antwerp and Liege strains were crossed in turn to produce the Brussels, a short, broad pigeon. Then, in Antwerp, a certain Monsieur Ulens crossed the Persian Carrier, Cumulet and Smyter, and is regarded as the creator of the modern racing pigeon. This stock was exported throughout the world.
In 1856, the first race was held between Belgian, French and German fanciers from Rome (1 170km). Some 125 birds were liberated and the first pigeon arrived home seven days later. In all, only 12 birds made it home. By 1887, the race was attracting more than a thousand fanciers and that year 60 pigeons made it home. The winner, Rome 1, was bought by JW Logan, who founded the Logan pigeon family in England.
It is the stray racing pigeon that the NSPCA fears will become invasive. But, as already mentioned, it is not a domesticated wild animal that will return to the wild when given the opportunity. In any case, it is rare for anyone to catch a stray pigeon with an identity ring on its leg. These pigeons usually head homeward after resting a few days. Indeed, you’re more likely to find a ‘stray’ pigeon seeking shelter in another fancier’s loft! Kept with or without permission by the new owner, it often becomes a champion breeder.
Thus, not all stray pigeons are of inferior quality. Just as champion racers do not necessarily breed champions, so pigeons that do not do well in competitions can become breeders of champions. To iterate, racing pigeons are not the ones the NSPCA and others need to worry about. These birds will always try to return to the loft (even if it’s the wrong one), because they are truly domesticated. I hope to write a positive report about the outcome of the current negotiation to correct this incorrect identification in our law.
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