If dogs are man’s best friend, pigeons are probably one of his oldest friends.
Just think of the dove bringing back an Olive branch to Noah’s Ark in Genesis during the Deluge and carrier pigeons which have served as a one way messenger service delivering post, news and military intelligence for centuries.
Pigeons can take the credit for making the first air mail in the world possible as they flew between New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef Island.
The internet has now rendered pigeon mail largely obsolete, but pigeon racing and fancy pigeon breeding and showing remain enormously popular as they have been since Victorian times. In an era fascinated by exotic breeds Charles Darwin kept fancy pigeons which informed his ground breaking Origin of Species and which featured in a chapter of his book 1868 “Variation of animals and plants under domestication.”
With over 900 different fancy breeds (those are the known breeds) the birds certainly have variety appeal, as I discovered when I met up with a few of South Africa’s thousands of pigeon fanciers, (the term includes both racing and fancy pigeon breeders.)
Now a sport, pigeon fancying is nothing if not inclusive – enthusiasts include everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to inmates at Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town, while membership of SANPO (South African National Pigeon Organisation) and the National Fancy Pigeon Association includes junior sections where youngsters between the ages of 8-18 can compete in shows.
Some uses of pigeons have been less happy – for pigeons that is, for in the Middle Ages they were kept as a food source. For the Lord of the manor (especially in France ownership of a dove cote or pigeonnier) was a status symbol and birds were kept for their eggs, meat and guano which was a valuable source of fertiliser. These days substantial pigeon houses are often converted in gites or holiday homes.
Pigeons have earned their place in history, and provided a vital service during the Normandy landings in WWII when radio couldn’t be used. Several dozen pigeons were decorated with the Dickin medal for their war efforts during WWII.
And one of the most remarkable pigeon contests in the world must be the age old manoeuvres of the Egyptian Swift pigeons. Kits (groups) of birds, the underside of their wings died in different colours to indicate which loft they belong to. They are flown near dusk on winter evenings in the Middle East. These kits will try to ‘capture’ or attract birds from other lofts to return home with them. The loft that ends up with the most birds wins.
What can one say except maybe… Coo!
Words: Marianne Heron