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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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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
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Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]

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