IN THE ZOO
zoo is home to a thriving flock of pigeons, or ' doos '
as the Scots insist on calling them. Most are garden fantails, i.e.,
white with half-opened tails. The true exhibition fantail is a cobby
little bird with a permanently spread fanlike tail. This is created
by the presence of an extra twenty tail feathers. The birds are
interesting to look at, but severely disadvantaged by their reduced
ability to fly. The garden fantails, on the other hand, can fly
almost as well as the traditional racing or homing pigeon.
hundred and fifty years ago, the famous Charles Darwin, in his efforts
to illustrate his Theory of Evolution, described how, if one was
to gather together some of the numerous breeds of fancy pigeons
there were then (and now) and let them breed as they wished in an
aviary for three generations, in that time you would create a bird
that closely resembled the wild rock dove, the ancestor of all domestic
most people such a bird looks like an ordinary grey chequer, street
pigeon, with the pale grey wings with two transverse, dark bars
across them. In Scotland such birds are referred to in urban areas
as ' hawkers ', for what reason I am not sure. Superficially,
these birds do resemble the wild rock dove, with one exception -
the true rock dove has a sparkling white rump, which most of these
birds do not. Nowadays, such has been the infusion of domestic pigeon
blood into the wild populations that pure rock doves are only to
be found in very remote areas possessing steep cliffs and caves.
Places like the island of St Kilda come to mind, though, even there,
domestic, storm-blown pigeons occasionally touch down to add their
genes to the resident population.
interest in these birds is such that we deliberately keep all the
birds which have crossed with feral pigeons or other breeds. These
crosses produce a white bird with a few dark markings, making it
instantly identifiable, and thus with the potential to develop a
recognisable ' personality ' of its own.
time to time, however, we are asked for the traditional, all-white
variety - for weddings. After a Scots couple of Italian descent
requested the release of a pair outside St Andrew's Cathedral in
Glasgow after their marriage, such has been the interest that we
have received many such requests since. We are unsure of the philosophical
or religious basis to these requests - one or two requests having
come from Moslem families just seeking to release one or two birds
in a quiet place to celebrate a family achievement - but we have
been happy to co-operate so far. All of the birds released have
returned to the zoo, even though some took so long, we started to
think they were walking back!
this background, then, it was with considerable interest that I
read in documents released by the Public Records' Office in London
on 27 th January 1999, under the Fifty Year Rule, that
Britain had, indeed, invoked homing pigeons as a secret weapon in
World War II. Apparently, Heinrich Himmler of Hitler's S.S. was
a ' life-long pigeon fancier ' and fully appreciated the
abilities of these birds. After the Nazi party assumed power in
Germany they took control of all pigeon lofts. Special agents sent
messages back to Germany by ' racing pigeon '. The British
trained a special flight of peregrine falcons to intercept them,
at least two of which became official ' prisoners of war
'! This unit was called the Army Pigeon Service Special Section
, no less!
a number of ' suspicious birds ' were seen passing the
Scilly Isles heading South, it was decided even more desperate measures
were needed. About 700 British pigeon fanciers were recruited with
orders to use their birds to decoy and entice down to their own
lofts any other passing pigeons. A so-called ' loft screen
' was set up around the English coast from Land's End in Cornwall
to Cromer in Norfolk!
I stand and watch a flock of our birds on sunny, windless mornings,
flying round and round in wide arcs, clearly enjoying the sheer
pleasure of the exercise, it is more than just an impression of
their beauty which passes through my mind.