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9 Bizarre and Beautiful Fancy Pigeons

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Wikimedia Commons

For at least 500 years—and maybe more—pigeon fanciers have bred wonderfully bizarre-looking pigeons. Today, there hundreds of breeds and colors, and, just like cats and dogs, there are competitions to see who most closely matches their “breed standard." Here are some of the gems of the fancy pigeon world.

1. Fantail

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These flashy birds are probably the most recognizable and well-known of the fancy pigeons. Their peacock-like tails, prominent chests, and curved necks are a hit in bird shows and fairground livestock shows around the world. They serve more purpose than just flashiness, though. Racing or homing pigeon breeders often keep fantails at the front of the dovecote while they’re training their new prospects. The highly-visible fantails guide the young ones home like a beacon. Some fantail breeds have less erect tail feathers (such as the Garden Fantails) and are much more capable in flight than the Exhibition Fantails. All of them are missing the oil preening gland at the base of their tails though, so they can be prone to cold when they get wet.

2. Scandaroon

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Possibly one of the oldest breeds of pigeon bred for its looks in addition to its utility as a food source, the Scandaroon is believed to date back to the time of Alexander the Great. They have large, downward-curved bills, which are covered by a large wattle (knobby fleshy covering) on top, their eyes are bright and accented, and surrounded by well-developed ceres (a fleshy red ring). They’re part white, or piebald, and larger than your average street pigeon.

3. Jacobin

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These were named because of their “mane,” which resembled the cowls of Jacobin monks back when the breed first gained popularity. These days, the mane of most Jacobin types is so pronounced you can’t see the head of the pigeon from the side. Aside from their giant mane, these are slender, shapely creatures, with long legs, a slim tail, and an upright posture. The birds who are most “showy” and who like to fluff up their feathers and strut are highly valued in competition.

4. Frillback

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These breeds are the earliest known pigeons to be bred solely for ornamental purposes, and not for meat. The curly top flight feathers of these breeds make it appear almost lacy, but come at the expense of effective flight. While they’re able to fly much better than chickens, and can fly “normally” to escape predators or get out of a rut, making some of their flight feathers essentially useless means that to do so, they have to expend more energy than your average pigeon. This factor, along with their larger size, means these birds generally prefer to walk or run, rather than fly. These fancy feathers also mean that the frillback breeds have no water resistance and are highly susceptible to cold if wet, like the fantails. The frillback mutation is autosomal dominant, so if one parent has just one copy of the gene, there’s a 50/50 chance that the offspring will have frilled feathers. The dominance of this gene means that the frill trait has been transferred to some types and families of other fancy breeds.

5. Cropper

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All pigeons inflate their crops (an organ in their throat that grinds up food) while strutting in front of others, but the croppers take this to the extreme. Their crops are highly-developed, and they love to puff their chests out when they’re in play, and not just when they’re trying to find a mate. Despite what looks like a top-heavy bird, the fact that the crop is filled with air means that they’re not going to tip over at any moment. Most Croppers have been bred to have a long back, stand up straight, and for their tendency to puff up. Some have other body shapes, but all are bred with the inflatable crop in mind. These breeds actually have more vertebrae and a larger ribcage than the Rock Dove. Croppers are also some of the more affectionate pigeons, known to bond and play with their handlers.

6. Hen

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Bred to look like their namesake, the “Hen” breeds, such as the small German Modena and the massive King Pigeon, look much like chickens on stilts. Their short tails are upright, and their plump bodies and necks curve in such a way that they look more like poultry than pigeons. The larger members of this family are generally ground-dwellers and not prone to fly off, and are often allowed outside in chicken-like coops.

7. Archangel

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This is one of the most striking “color” breeds. Their iridescent bodies and contrasting wings create an impressive sight, and it’s not hard to see why this breed was the most popular fancy pigeon in Germany and the Rhine for decades. While the color specifications for the breed standard have changed over the years, the body type has remained largely the same: a stately, large bird, with a well-formed head and proportionate beak. There are many color breeds out there, and they’re some of the most popular “starter” pigeons.

8. Trumpeters

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This diverse group of breeds is showcased primarily for their odd vocalizations and calls, and is known as the “voice” pigeons. Some of the breeds sound trumpet-like, while others make drumming or laughing sounds, but all have sounds that differ from your average pigeon. Though their sounds are important, they’re also judged on looks. Some, like the Arabian trumpeter, look like a fairly standard pigeon. Others, like the Bokhara trumpeter, look like their head was chopped off and they squished another pigeon beneath their ostentatiously-feathered feet. (An English trumpeter is featured above.)

9. Tumblers

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No, not Tumblrs! One of the most popular and prized show birds in the Victorian era was a “performance bird”—the Almond Tumbler. Like other Tumblers, the birds were originally bred because of their curious flight patterns. After flying very high up, they do a series of very fast, very impressive back flips, before flying straight up again. Of course, this bizarre flight would make them prime prey for hawks and falcons, but for their breeders, the most brilliant feathers and fastest spins are exactly what’s wanted for the next generation. One family of this breed, the Short-Faced Tumblers (of which the Almond Tumbler is a member), is loved for its very “dainty” look, but this look is at the expense of beak length; the tiny beaks of the family (and the Short-Faced types in other breeds and families) mean that they can no longer effectively feed their young, and the squabs must be hand-raised.

Despite some of the Fancies looking like a taxidermied light bulb, or a tiny peacock with a snake for a neck, the bizarre traits are only skin-deep. In writing The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin cross-bred many different pigeon breeds, and showed that within one or two generations, the majority of offspring would resemble “wild-type” Rock Doves—the iridescent head, bluish tint, and barred wings. But the genes of domesticity still exist in our feral pigeons today: The speckled white, piebald, unusually-shaped, and unusually-sized pigeons of our cities are the result of parents carrying the gene mutations humans exploited generations ago. In the natural habitat of the Rock Dove, these odd colors and shapes would surely be a disadvantage and would be swiftly eliminated by natural predators. But on the brownstone and concrete cliffs of humans, the oddities manage to survive and thrive, and pass their genes on to the next generation.

Sources: Darwin’s Pigeons; WysInfo Pigeons and Doves; Mumtaztic Pigeon Loft; Pigeons: the fascinating saga of the world's most revered and reviled birdThe Feather’s practical pigeon book; The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick.

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Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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