Book review: ‘Darwin's Pigeons’ by Richard Bailey

Darwin's Pigeons

Had the Rev. Whitwell Elwin got his way, Charles Darwin would have left all his theorising about evolution ‘without the evidence’ out of On the Origin of Species, and written a popular book about pigeons instead. In fairness to Whitwell, he suggested that such a book might be ‘the best mode of preparing the way’ for Darwin's planned longer book—which Darwin never completed—expounding his theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection in far more detail. Fortunately, neither Darwin nor his publisher found Elwin's suggestion at all compelling.

Pigeons feature prominently in the first chapter of On the Origin of Species, in which Darwin explores the subject of variation of breeds under domestication. Discussing how humans have gradually produced new breeds of domesticated animals through selective breeding over many years is a useful analogy to how Nature has gradually evolved new species of wild animals through Natural Selection over far longer timescales.

Darwin spent many years researching all manner of animals under domestication, but showed a particular interest regarding pigeons. In chapter one of Origin, he explains:

Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have, after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons. I have kept every breed which I could purchase or obtain, and have been most kindly favoured with skins from several quarters of the world […]. Many treatises in different languages have been published on pigeons, and some of them are very important, as being of considerably antiquity. I have associated with several eminent fanciers, and have been permitted to join two of the London Pigeon Clubs.

Darwin then begins to wax lyrical about the wonderful variety to be found in domesticated pigeons:

The diversity of the breeds is something astonishing. Compare the English carrier and the short-faced tumbler, and see the wonderful difference in their beaks, entailing corresponding differences in their skulls. The carrier, more especially the male bird, is also remarkable from the wonderful development of the carunculated skin about the head, and this is accompanied by greatly elongated eyelids, very large external orifices to the nostrils, and a wide gape of mouth. The short-faced tumbler has a beak in outline almost like that of a finch; and the common tumbler has the singular and strictly inherited habit of flying at a great height in a compact flock, and tumbling in the air head over heels. The runt is a bird of great size, with long, massive beak and large feet; some of the sub-breeds of runts have very long necks, others very long wings and tails, others singularly short tails. The barb is allied to the carrier, but, instead of a very long beak, has a very short and very broad one. The pouter has a much elongated body, wings, and legs; and its enormously developed crop, which it glories in inflating, may well excite astonishment and even laughter. The turbit has a very short and conical beak, with a line of reversed feathers down the breast; and it has the habit of continually expanding slightly the upper part of the oesophagus. The Jacobin has the feathers so much reversed along the back of the neck that they form a hood, and it has, proportionally to its size, much elongated wing and tail feathers. The trumpeter and laugher, as their names express, utter a very different coo from the other breeds. The fantail has thirty or even forty tail-feathers, instead of twelve or fourteen, the normal number in all members of the great pigeon family; and these feathers are kept expanded, and are carried so erect that in good birds the head and tail touch; the oil-gland is quite aborted. Several other less distinct breeds might have been specified.

Photographer Richard Bailey's Kickstarter crowd-funded photobook Darwin's Pigeons sets out to illustrate some of this astonishing diversity for a modern audience. It contains sumptuous photographs of racers, tipplers, homers, scandaroons, turbits, fantails, jacobins, pouters, and a host of other pigeon varieties. The photographs, taken against plain, white backgrounds are wonderful, portraying the birds as real characters. As a keen photographer myself, I appreciate how challenging it must have been to capture these creatures in such striking poses.

Darwin's Pigeons is the outcome of an unusual photography project. It deserves to sell well.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book, and a second copy to give away as a prize.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…