CLOSE
Original image
Wikimedia Commons

9 Bizarre and Beautiful Fancy Pigeons

Original image
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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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

Wikimedia Commons

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.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES