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Flying the Doos

Charles Darwin said that if you put several breeds of domestic pigeon in an aviary, within three generations the birds would resemble their ancestor - the wild rock dove.
This observation holds true today. The wild rock dove is an andangered species because most have visible mixtures of pigeon blood.
The true form looks just like a street hawker, but with a clear white rump.
I have been reminded of all this over the past few weeks, as I have spent a lot of time discussing and working with pigeons.
They fascinate me, as they do many people from all walks of life. Even the Royal Family were at one time well-known for their quality racing pigeons.
In the urban areas of Scotland, and especially the central belt, the hobby of " flying the doos " still flourishes.
In the rest of Britain, except for places such as Corby, with a strong Scots contingent, and parts of the north east of Scotland, it is unknown.
Visitors to Scotland - from England in particular - must wonder about the 4 metre high structures sited in gardens and on wasteland in urban areas, particularly in the Central Belt. I was told, on enquiring, that they were 'pigeon huts'. for 'flying the doos'.

When told they are doo-cots, I would guess that 99% believe this means a place where pigeons live.
Most are astonished when they discover the birds are usually kept elsewhere, frequently in individual hutches in flats and sometimes in cages in the bedroom.

To English people, this immediately suggests racing, homing pigeons, of which the most celebrated participants are the Royal Family: H.M the Queen (although she no longer, apparently, maintains any at Sandringham) and H.M. the Queen Mother. At a guess, this goes back to the World Wars when providing homing pigeons for communication purposes was considered a very patriotic thing to do and officially recognised as such. Nothing could be further from the truth. 'Flying the doos' is a particularly Scottish pastime. It involves a breed of pouter pigeon known as the Horseman. I'm not sure of the spelling, which could be derived from the German Horsmann. I was told they were descended from pouters (e.g., the Norwich cropper and racing pigeons). In any event, they are true pouters, tall, with large, apple-sized crops which they inflate in flight. Unlike the modern Norwich cropper, they can fly very well, and that is the secret; these birds are flown.

According to the 'Encyclopaedia of Pigeons' they are referrred to as 'thief pouters'! Developed in France in the fifteenth century, this pursuit has never waned in popularity and perhaps entered Scotland from France, as part of the 'Auld Alliance' and the brandy and wine trade.

It consists of flying a bird from one of these 'doohuts'. This bird, male of female 'entices', by a variety of strategems, a rival bird back to its home hut, where it lands on a small varandah (clearly visible in some of the photographs). On entering the hut, it is captured and becomes the property of the capturer. Huts are usually sited 200 metres from the next one. The birds are kept elsewhere in lofts, bedroom, outhouses, etc. They often live one bird to a rabbit hutch-sized cage. Preparing a bird for flying is meticulous, utilising females in an 'interesting condition', birds with added colouring, very aggressive males, etc. Particularly skilful males become famous, and eventually may be moved out of the district (e.g., from Glasgow to Edinburgh) to give other people a chance. Breeding is usually done elsewhere by specialists who utilise other breeds, such as garden fantails and homers, as feeder-foster parents.


Flying the doos consists of letting one bird out to bring a neighbour's bird back to your doo-cot.
All sorts of techniques are used, of which seduction is one of the most common.
A female in a particularly attractive condition seduces another person's amorous male back to her loft or to his, depending which one wins.
If seduction doesn't work, then aggressive males will bully another bird back to their loft, often with heavy blows from the leading edge of their wings.
Pigeons developed for flying in this way are bred to fly round and round in wide arcs above their point of release.
They don't home, like racing pigeons, and are traditionally described as thief pouters.
Flying pouters in this way goes back to the 15th century at least, and is believed to have originated on the continent.
It could even be yet another manifestation of the Auld Alliance . Perhaps it was brought here by workers in the wine and sherry importing trades.
Whatever the history - and as yet I haven't unravelled it, but would be very interested to hear from readers who have - the rest of Britain is blissfully unaware of a very, very Scottish pursuit.

doocot Whiteinch
doocot Garscadden
Roger Edwards, of Glasgow Zoopark took the following snaps of these original doocots around the Glasgow area in 1997.

Pouters, Doos

Watching an old episode of Taggart recently the one where the Maryhill butcher did it I wondered again what non-Scottish audiences made of the scene where the butcher crawls in and out of his "doo-house". In England, and many other parts of the world, pigeon huts or lofts are regarded in general by non-fanciers as for homing or racing pigeons. But not here in Scotland. Here nearly everyone knows they are for doos, which means pouters.

Reading the reports of Mike Tyson's infamous visit to Glasgow, I was struck by how his expedition to an East End of Glasgow pigeon loft was shrugged off by the media as some sort of inexplicable aberration.

There are two cities in the world famous in pigeon circles for the competitive flying of high-flying pigeons from the roofs of tall tenement buildings. These two cities are New York and Glasgow.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different breeds of domestic pigeons in the world today. Every country and nearly every region in every country has its own favoured variaties.

In Italy, the Modena was developed as far back as the 14th century as a flying bird which enticed the birds of rivals back to its own loft where they could be either held to ransom, or kept. Horsemen, the breed Tyson wanted to see, fly in roughly the same manner today in nearly every corner of urban Scotland.

In New York, the favoured breed is the Domestic Flight, derived from a variety of German Roller.

Tyson almost certainly grew up flying up the Domestic Flight pigeons of New York just as young Scots do today with the Horsemen. No wonder one of the major attractions of Glasgow which he wanted to see when he visited was a "doo-house".

The Racing Homer which crossed the Atlantic twice happily ensconced on the QEII recently after losing its way on a 1000-mile flight back from Nantes, in France, also had Horsemen blood in its distant ancestry.

Back then, the Horsemen was a variety of carrier pigeon. Homing pigeons are almost a national sport in Belgium as anyone visiting Euro 2000 may have noticed. In Brussels Airport is a vast poster containing paintings of a dozen or so of the most famous Belgian racing pigeons.

In Scotland, it is reputed that at one time fotball results used to be sent back from Hampden Park to newspapers in Hope Street by pigeon. I would love to interview anyone who knows about this or, better still, has any photographs.