I’ve kept pigeons of one sort or another off and on since I was about 13. Even in my nomadic years, if I looked like being in one spot for more than a couple of months I’d put together a small flock to keep my hand in.
Why? Because I like them, I suppose is the best I can offer in this brief introduction to a passion. People keep them for all sorts of reasons – some are hooked on racing them, others like to show them, still others enjoy the high-flying or aerobatic varieties. Me, I’ve always liked tumblers, aerial acrobats that do flips of various sorts while in flight. But I also like pigeons for the romance associated with them; the images they conjure up. They were domesticated long before the horse was tamed in Europe and were being bred for special attributes at least contemporarily with ancient Mesopotamia – famous in ancient times for its white ‘doves’. (In the strictest sense, the words ‘dove’ and ‘pigeon’ are interchangeable, the former coming to us from the Germanic languages, the latter from Latin via Old French. These days, however, dove is used mainly to describe the smaller members of its large tribe – except by poets who prefer it over pigeon on every occasion.)
Pigeons were carried with the caravans that plied the Silk Road and traded along the way. The ancient cities of Bokhara, Lahore, Damascus, Istanbul, Iskenderun and others are commemorated in the names of pigeons that first came to the West from them, sometimes carried among the chattels of returning crusaders.
There are pigeons bred in bewildering variety: for their voices; for their speed, endurance and ability to navigate over hundreds of miles; for their plumage; their aerobatic abilities; their colour – and yet they all share many common traits. They are intelligent and affectionate to their keepers, whom they recognise by their facial characteristics, and feral pigeons will remember for years the face of someone who once fed them.
I produce and edit the magazines of Australia’s National Pigeon Association and its US counterpart, and was commissioned by Ivy Press (UK) to write the text of a small coffee-table book titled Beautiful Pigeons. These days I keep “backyard tumblers”, Dewlaps – originally from the region around Syria – and Szegeds, a breed introduced to Hungary by the “Moors” and bred for its ability to fly above its loft at great heights for an extended time.
If you’d like to learn a little more about what Andrew D Blechman called “the world’s most reviled and revered bird” follow this (intermittent) blog. If not, then forgive us pigeon keepers our passion – it takes all sorts as my Grandmother would say