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A History of the Pigeon

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One hundred and seventy-five years ago, Charles Darwin set out with a survey voyage, aboard the HMS Beagle, in what would be a groundbreaking expedition for his own theories, and the way the world would come to see the origin of species. Intrigued by the vast differences in the closely-related mockingbirds and finches on the Galapagos, Darwin brought this curiosity home to England, and found a way to test his thoughts on speciation, using an animal equally admired and despised: the pigeon. Specifically, “fancy pigeons,” the odd, often comical, sometimes scary-looking breeds of pigeon, whose popularity and availability was burgeoning just as Darwin needed specimens.

By crossbreeding the many species of fancy pigeon, he showed that contrary to the commonly-held belief that there were two different species which led to the diverse lot of the domestic pigeons, they all arose from just one wild species: the Rock Dove (Columba livia). Though he professed to never developing a true fondness for the creatures, his fascination with them and interest in their origins allowed him to show himself that the theories he was developing were, in fact, probable, and he was not mistaking coincidence for causation.

Pigeons and Civilization

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Long before Darwin, the rock doves of Mesopotamia and Sumer flocked to the fertile fields, pecking at seeds, and were soon encouraged to roost in nest-houses in cities and on farms. Their squabs (fat, nearly-grown nestlings) provided rich sources of protein, in a land where wild game had grown scarce. While domesticated red junglefowl (now our common chickens) were the poultry of choice in India and much of Asia, pigeons (rock doves) were the predominant meat bird and religious sacrifice in the Middle East and Europe for millennia.

Soon after their domestication, pigeons became far more than just sources of meat. People watched them and realized that their behavior mimicked that which we held in highest esteem in humans: they’re monogamous, each of a pair serving and caring for the other and their offspring; they have a strong homing instinct, and fierce protection instinct in the nest; yet they’re largely peaceful creatures, highly intelligent but living what humans saw as a simple and ideal life.

Humanity exploited these traits in breeding successful messenger pigeons as far back as ancient Phoenicia. In many lands, we deified and exalted the species. Noah released a dove from his ark, which returned to him. The goddesses Ishtar, Venus, and Aphrodite are all represented by doves. In Christian iconography, the dove is said to represent the Holy Spirit, and in China, doves were said to represent fidelity and longevity. Doves even found their way into the questionable “cures” of old, supposedly warding off the plague and palsies.

The ubiquitous pigeons that populate our cities and towns are all descendants of escaped domesticated pigeons, and cross-breeding with the wild rock doves in their native European habitats has led to a near-extinction of the pure-type Columba livia. In the Americas, however, no such cross-breeding has occurred. Why? Well, our only native pigeon was the Passenger Pigeon, and they’ve been extinct for over a hundred years. Yep, all of our American pigeons are “imports,” just like dandelions. Wildly successful, adaptable, and reproducing faster than we can control, feral pigeons spread to every corner of the inhabited world, outside of Antarctica.

But even as the escaped or released pigeons overtook our cities, the ones who stayed captive proved their usefulness. In wartime, messenger pigeons have been used successfully for thousands of years, back to the battles of the Greek city-states. More recently, WWI saw heavy action with these fast-flying “thoroughbreds of the sky.” The pigeons could deliver messages faster and more effectively (with a 95 percent arrival rate) than any human messenger, and one pigeon, named Cher Ami, even delivered a message after it lost a leg and got a bullet fragment lodged in its chest, saving 500 Allied soldiers. As recently as the War of Independence in Palestine/Israel, the Israeli forces successfully used pigeons to deliver messages when all other means of communication were cut off.

Pigeon Fancy

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Throughout their domestication, pigeons have both been allowed to breed freely, and have been bred with hand-picked mates with the most desirable traits. During this selective breeding, pigeon fanciers noticed how manipulable many of the physical traits were in these birds. First recorded in the 16th century by the Italian natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi, groups of pigeon bred specifically for their looks likely existed as far back as the Late Medieval period of Western Europe. Though many were enamored with the species, one of the greatest pleasure breeders was the 16th-century Mughal ruler, Akbar the Great. His flock of 10,000 pigeons moved with him wherever he went, and he spent many hours in his dovecotes, picking mates for young squabs, and escaping the pressures of ruling an empire.

During the Victorian era, “fancy pigeons” became the fascination of choice for many upper and middle-class hobbyists, and formal bird shows have been held nearly as long as formal dog shows. By the early 1900s, pigeons were popular pets even among the working classes—and they got into more than just the feral squabs that lived on their rooftops and windowsills. In London, one could buy a pair of the distinctive-looking Pouter pigeons for 10p, far cheaper than any other fancy breed of pet. Pigeons were a little luxury that almost anyone could enjoy.

Fancy pigeon breeding is still a major competitive circle, though not as wide a hobby outside of competition breeders. In the past year, major shows in the United States and UK have had over 30,000 pigeons shown. Some competitors will show over ten breeds in one competition, but most have their favorites, and many specialize in just one breed.

The Sport of Kings and Stars

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In addition to the fancy pigeon world, the homing pigeon scene is alive and well, too. While Europe and the Americas have had pigeon sport clubs for over 200 years, and formal races for at least 150, the biggest market for pigeon sport these days is, by far, China. The past 20 years have seen a massive boom in the “young money” of China, and the self-made billionaire crowd has its sport of choice: pigeon racing. Kits (flocks) of the best racers can be valued at over $100 million, with champion individuals selling for up to $330,000.

Though the world of elite pigeon racing is prohibitively expensive for most, it’s possible to set up a small dovecote (pigeon housing) and raise novice racers or fancies for under $250 in most places. Despite its small initial outset, the rich and famous don’t shy away from pigeons. The most visibly enthusiastic pigeon fancier these days is Mike Tyson, who has bred pigeons since boyhood. He’s in the company of Nikola Tesla, who far preferred his pigeons to humans; Yul Brynner, who would watch his racing flocks by helicopter; Queen Victoria, who had a particular affinity for Jacobins; and Pablo Picasso, who so loved his fantails that he named his daughter “Paloma,” meaning pigeon in Spanish.

And, of course, the inimitable Charles Darwin, who may not have fancied pigeons, but who bred them and cared for them with as much zeal for type and color as any lover of the breeds—and whose proof-of-concept specimens were the final building block in his manuscript, On the Origin of Species.

Additional Sources: Pigeons: the fascinating saga of the world's most revered and reviled birdThe Feather’s practical pigeon bookThe Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Elusive Butterfly Sighted in Scotland for the First Time in 133 Years

Conditions weren’t looking too promising for the white-letter hairstreak, an elusive butterfly that’s native to the UK. Threatened by habitat loss, the butterfly's numbers have dwindled by 96 percent since the 1970s, and the insect hasn’t even been spotted in Scotland since 1884. So you can imagine the surprise lepidopterists felt when a white-letter hairstreak was seen feeding in a field in Berwickshire, Scotland earlier in August, according to The Guardian.

A man named Iain Cowe noticed the butterfly and managed to capture it on camera. “It is not every day that something as special as this is found when out and about on a regular butterfly foray,” Cowe said in a statement provided by the UK's Butterfly Conservation. “It was a very ragged and worn individual found feeding on ragwort in the grassy edge of an arable field.”

The white-letter hairstreak is a small brown butterfly with a white “W”-shaped streak on the underside of its wings and a small orange spot on its hindwings. It’s not easily sighted, as it tends to spend most of its life feeding and breeding in treetops.

The butterfly’s preferred habitat is the elm tree, but an outbreak of Dutch elm disease—first noted the 1970s—forced the white-letter hairstreak to find new homes and food sources as millions of Britain's elm trees died. The threatened species has slowly spread north, and experts are now hopeful that Scotland could be a good home for the insect. (Dutch elm disease does exist in Scotland, but the nation also has a good amount of disease-resistant Wych elms.)

If a breeding colony is confirmed, the white-letter hairstreak will bump Scotland’s number of butterfly species that live and breed in the country up to 34. “We don’t have many butterfly species in Scotland so one more is very nice to have,” Paul Kirkland, director of Butterfly Conservation Scotland, said in a statement.

Prior to 1884, the only confirmed sighting of a white-letter hairstreak in Scotland was in 1859. However, the insect’s newfound presence in Scotland comes at a cost: The UK’s butterflies are moving north due to climate change, and the white-letter hairstreak’s arrival is “almost certainly due to the warming climate,” Kirkland said.

[h/t The Guardian]

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