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Pigeons

PIGEONS IN THE ZOO

by Richard O'Grady

The 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.

One 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 pigeons.

To 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.

Our 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.

From 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!

Against 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!

After 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!

As 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.