March 12, 2013

Darwin’s Pigeons

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While many consider Galapagos finches to be Darwin’s primary inspiration for the theory of evolution, there is another bird who can take credit for the Origin of Species: pigeons. Yes, the city-dwelling “rats with wings” who will gladly ruin the most noble of statues are a fantastic example of domestic selection, natural selection’s close relative.

Domesticated pigeons come in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes. They may have feathered feet, fan-tails, small beaks, big beaks, tufts of feathers around their heads, big puffed-out chests or any combination of the above plus many more traits. The strange feather patterns and extravagant colors are the product of thousands of years of human breeding.

Pigeons were originally domesticated as a food source, but were later found to be useful messengers, and eventually, experimental breeding led to a wide variety of colors, styles, sizes and shapes. Today, there are hundreds of breeds of domestic pigeons that are maintained at high breed standards by pigeon fanciers all over the world.

Charles Darwin himself raised pigeons, as was popular in England during his lifetime. Their variety of plumage and style fascinated him, and when Darwin wrote the Origin of Species, the first chapter was about domestic selection of pigeons. Darwin used selective breeding by humans as an example of one kind of selective pressure on a species. The change over time of pigeons from drab, gray rock pigeons to the wide variety of domestic breeds was evidence that this selective breeding could induce change in the long run. If humans could induce this kind of change, Darwin reasoned, couldn’t nature? Humans were cutting out the birds who didn’t meet their breed standards just as nature was cutting out the weak and unfit specimens. Over time, this would lead to new species just as it led to ridiculous-looking pigeons.

So before cursing the existence of the average city-dwelling feral pigeon, take a moment to appreciate the role they played in helping Darwin develop his theory of evolution. And the next time the county or state fair rolls around, take a few minutes to visit the poultry building and admire the variety of pigeon breeds being exhibited. They may look completely absurd, but they are each the product of hundreds of years of careful selective breeding.

Original Author: Kathleen Bitter