Darwins’ Pigeons

Charles Darwin
Darwin pigeon line drawings
Line drawings of pigeons done by Darwin

Charles Darwin has come to be a household name thanks to his many scientific discoveries and theories, namely, his work with natural selection. Everyone knows of his journeys around the world on the HMS Beagle observing and studying a plethora of different animal species; however, many do not know of the particular importance of the pigeon in his research. The pigeon provided the perfect animal to test Darwin’s theory of selection for many reasons among which was its astonishing amount of trait diversity from wing structures to color patterns to size to flight patterns. The great variability and easily distinguishable altered traits provided an exceptional means whereby he could easily present his findings to the world both visually and in his own words. (16)

Darwin’s evolutionary tree of pigeons originating from a common ancestor; the rock pigeon

As the pigeon had been domesticated for thousands of years in many different places, it provided the unique benefit of being able to compare the influences caused specifically by man with those caused by nature, as seen in wild pigeons. This allowed Darwin to draw parallels between how humans were so drastically altering species and how nature might have been able to create such diversity. Darwin spent a great deal of time with fanciers, or pigeon breeders, while developing his ideas about natural selection. Pigeon breeding and care-taking for showing or racing was and continues to be a lifetime hobby of many people. Many individuals dedicate their lives to the goal of breeding the perfect show pigeon or the fastest racer in a manner that can be compared to that of horse or dog breeders. Pigeon fanciers are infatuated with their pigeons and raise many generations in hopes of striking it rich in the genetic lottery; however, in the process, they do not lose their love for each bird.(18)  Darwin was fascinated that breeders could select for specific traits that presented themselves randomly in a few birds and use these to create new breeds that all expressed the selected trait. (15) With the initial intention of gaining “no amusement” from his studies of pigeons, Darwin quickly became enthralled with them and began keeping pigeons of his own turning him into an avid pigeon fancier himself. He amassed quite a collection of pigeons from a multitude of species which allowed him to conduct his own observational studies using selective breeding. By analyzing the many different varieties of pigeons that exist, he was able to break pigeons down into categories and link them to a common ancestor; the rock pigeon.  (16)

Collier Pigeon Fanciers
A group of pigeon fanciers holding their pigeons

Using this data, he was able to create a theory whereby over millions of years just one or two simple organisms could, by natural selection of randomly occurring traits that make a species better suited for survival and reproduction, evolve in the astounding diversity of organisms on Earth today.  (17) As a result, one of the most talked about scientific discoveries from its initial publication through modern times owes much of its success to the pigeon. Thereby, the pigeon, with its exceptional variability, was able to shape the future of science by providing a springboard into knew ideas and methods for obtaining experimental data.

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