Darwin’s Pigeons

Charles Robert Darwin,?FRS?(12?February 1809?? 19?April 1882) was an English?naturalist?and?geologist?best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory. In fact it was pigeons that enabled some of the fundamental facts laid down in science today to be established.

A selection of fancy pigeon breeds that Darwin studied.

1855 Charles Darwin got his first pigeons, he was quoted as saying ‘This study would be a horrible bore’??Just under a year later he proclaimed that?it was a fine noble pursuit.

It was only a matter of months before Charles Darwin fell under spell of the magnetism of the humble pigeon, the more time he spent studying this magnificent creature and interacting with his pigeons, the more fascinating the study became. This became a lifelong fascination, wherever he went he always? returned with a new pigeon to add to his collection. He discovered that? the pigeon had almost human traits as every bird had it’s own individual? personality, some were aggressive, others were gentle, some were bossy others were placid. The humble pigeon was indeed an magnificent creature indeed, with great intelligence and very adaptable. The humble pigeon played a most important part in his work on both the Origin of? Species’, 1859 and the ‘Variation in Domestication’, 1868.

One thing that Charles Darwin did comment on was the necessity of culling birds, this was one part of the study he had a great dislike for, but deemed it necessary. Because if you did not dispatch birds from time to time you could very soon become overrun. But to be able to further ones breed of birds, you must rid yourself of the poor specimens and retain only the best. To be able to breed the perfect specimen, you will make many mistakes along the way, so one must only breed from the the finest specimens, to achieve the desired results.

Darwin learned much from the different breeds which he owned, how they quickly adapted to their new home and surroundings, he also learned that the pigeon had many traits, without actually having the knowledge of genes and genetics. He learned that truly to learn about any pigeon you had to have at least three generations of the same family, throughout these generations you will discover many hidden factors, or traits, sex linked factors, recessive factors, dominant factors with many of these at the time were great discoveries and once you could fix the factors through inheritance only then would your stock breed true. But even then their offspring from time to time would throw a new mutation.

?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. (1)


Charles Darwin’s pigeon loft was nothing more than a huge laboratory which he visited on a daily basis for over twenty years. He bred every domestic pigeon he could obtain. He proved that you could change the species by selective breeding? and then continue pairing certain mutations together to fix the type of bird to be bred. Careful selective breeding of a certain type over generations would cause these birds to breed true, true to type?

All you need is dove: pigeon breeds such as the Old German Owl (left) and Scandaroon (right) all derive from the wild rock Dove. Background shows the classification scheme proposed by Charles Darwin in 1868

Darwin in 1856 proved that all pigeon breeds do originate from the Rock Dove and through a process of regression you can recreate the Rock Dove, the ancestor of all pigeon breeds. Darwin proved this by doing many cross breeding exercises. The best result he had of this theory was when he crossed a fantail with a barbed pigeon.

(1) Accreditation for the quote (?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)
to John Ross