PIGEON (Columba). The pigeon is one of those birds which, from its great fecundity, has in some measure been reclaimed from a state of nature, and taught to live in habits of dependance. It is true, indeed, its fecundity seems to be increased by human assiduity, since those pigeons that live in their native state, in the woods, are not near so fruitful as those in our pigeon only upon the quantity, but also the quality, of their food. Many instances may be shown, that man, by a judicious alteration of diet, and supplying food in plenty, and allowing the animal a proper share of freedom, has brought some of those kinds which seldom lay but once a vear, to become much more prolific.
The beautiful varietiesof the tame pigeon are so numerous, that it would be a fruitless attempt to describe them all; for human art has so much altered the colour and figure of this bird, that pigeon fanciers, by pairing a male and female of different sorts, can, as they express it, " breed them to a feather." Hence we have the various names expressive of their several properties, such as, carriers, tumblers, Pouters, horse peters, dragons, &c. all birds that at first might have accidentally varied from the Stock-dove ; and, by having these varieties still improved by pairing, food, and climate, the different species have been propagated. The dove-house pigeon breeds every month; but, when the weather is severe and the fields covered with snow, it must be supplied with food. At other times it may be left to itself; and generally repays the owner for his protection. The pigeon lays two white eggs, which produce young ones of different sexes. When the eggs are laid, the female sits fifteen days, not including the three days she is employed in laying, and is relieved at intervals by the male. The turns are generally pretty regular. The female usually sits from about five in the evening till nine the next morning ; at which time the male supplies her place, while she is seeking refreshment abroad. Thus they sit alternately till the young are hatched. When hatched, the young only require warmth for the first three days; a task which the female takes entirely upon herself, and never leaves them except for a few minutes to lake a little food. After this they are fed for about ten days with what the old ones have picked up, and kept treasured in their crops, whence they satisfy the craving appetites of their young ones, who receive it very greedily.
This way of supplying the young with food from the crop, in birds of the pigeon-kind, differs from all others. The young usually receive this tribute of affection from the crop three times a day. The male for the most part feeds the young female, and the old female performs the same office for the young male. While the young are weak, the old ones supply them with food macerated, suitable to their tender frame; but as they gain strength the parents give it less preparation, and at last drive them out, when a craving appetite obliges them to shift for themselves; for, when pigeons have plenty of food, they do not wait for the total dismission of their young; it being a common thing to see young ones fledged, and eggs hatching, at the same time, and in the same nest.
So rapid is the fertility of this bird in its domestic state, however incredible it may appear, that from a single pair 14,760 may be produced in the space of four years. The stock-dove, however, very rarely breeds more than twice a year: for as the winter months approach their whole employ is for self-subsistence, so that they cannot transmit a progeny. Their attachment to their young is much stronger than in thosewhichoftenbreed. This is owing, perhaps, to their affections being less divided by so great a number of claims.
Pigeons are very quick of hearing, have a sharp sight, and when pursued by the hawk or kite, and obliged to exert themselves, are exceedingly swift in flight. It is the nature of pigeons to love company and assemble in flocks, to bill in their courtship, and to have a plaintive note.
Mr. Duhamel asserts, " that pigeons do not feed upon the green corn, and that their bills have not strength enough to search for its seeds in the earth; but only pick up the scattered grains, which would be parched up by the heat of the sun, or infallibly become the prey of other animals." He further adds, " that from the time of the sprouting of the corn, pigeons live chiefly upon the seeds of wild uncultivated plants, and therefore considerably lessen the quantity of weeds that would otherwise encumber the ground ; as is manifestly evident from a just estimate of the quantity of grain necessary to feed all the pigeons of a well-stocked dove-house." But the facts alleged by Mr. Worlidge and Mr. Lisle, in support of the contrary opinion, are incontrovertible. Mr. Lisle relates that a farmer of his acquaintance, who was a man of strict veracity, assured him he had been witness to an acre sowed with peas, and the wet weather prevented their being harrowed in, every pea was taken away in half a day's time by pigeons; and Mr. Woriidge says," it is to be observed, that, where the flight of pigeons fall, there they fill themselves and away, and return again where they first rose, and so proceed over a whole piece of ground if they like it. Although you cannot perceive any grain above the ground, they know how to find it, and consequently commit great depredations on the property of the farmer."
Of all the varieties of the pigeon, the Carrier, perhaps, is the most extraordinary, from the wonderful faculty it possesses of winging its way, however distant, to the appointed destination. This bird is rather larger than most of the common sized pigeons, some of them measuring from the apex of the beak to the end of the tail fifteen inches, and weigh nineteen or twenty ounces; their feathers lie very close, even, and smooth, their flesh is firm, and their necks long and straight, so that when they stand upright on their legs, they show an elegant gentility of shape, far exceeding most other pigeons, who cringe themselves up in an uncouth manner. From the lower part of the head, to the middle of the lower chap, there grows out a white, naked, fungous flesh, which is called the wattle, and is generally met by two small protuberances of the same luxuriant flesh, rising on each side of the under chap; this flesh is always most valued when of a blackish colour.
The circle round the black pupil of the eyes, is commonly of a red brick-dust colour, though they are more esteemed when of a fiery red; these are also encompassed with the same sort of naked fungous matter, which is very thin, generally of the breadth of a shilling, and the broader
this spreads, the greater is the value set upon them ; but, when this luxuriant flesh round the eye is thick and broad, it denotes the carrier to be a good breeder, and one that will rear very fine young ones. The gentlemen of the fancy are unanimous in their opinion, in giving the bird the title of " the king of the pigeons," on account of its graceful appearance and uncommon sagacity.
Extraordinary attention was formerly paid to the training of these pigeons, in order to be sent from governors in a besieged city to generals that were coming to succour it: or from princes to their subjects with the news of some important transaction. In this country these aerial messengers have been made use of for a very singular purpose, being let loose at places of execution, at the moment the fatal cart was drawn away, to notify to distant friends the exit of the unhappy criminal ; like as, when some hero was to be interred, it was a custom among the ancient Romans to let fly an eagle with the funeral pile, to make his apotheosis complete.
In order to train a pigeon for this purpose, take a strong full-fledged, young carrier, and convey it in a basket or bag about half a mile from home, and there turn it loose ; having repeated this two or three times, then take it two, four, eight, ten, or twenty miles, and so on till they will return from the remote parts of the kingdom. For, if they are not practised when young, the best of them will fly but insecurely, and stand a chance of being lost; be careful that the pigeon, intended to be sent with the letter, is kept in the dark, and without food, for about eight hours before it is let loose, when it will immediately rise, and, turning round, as is their custom, will continue on the wing till it has reached its home.
To the many well-authenticated instances of the rapidity of flight of this little winged traveller, may be added the Antwerp match of July 3830 :—the pigeons, 110 in number, were despatched from London at three quarters past eight in the morning, with a pretty strong W. S. W. breeze. At eighteen minutes past two.the gold medal was gained; the second pigeon arrived thirty seconds later; by twenty-three minutes past two, six had arrived ; and all the prizes, eighteen in number, were gained by five o'clock. Thus the swiftest pigeons flew to Antwerp in five hours and a half: the distance, in a straight line, is sixty-two common leagues.
Having thus noticed the carrier, and its properties, we shall wind up our account by giving the best method for preventing pigeons from leaving their habitations. There is nothing superior to the true and genuine Salt Cat, if made as follows. Take sifted gravel, brick-maker's earth, and the rubbish of an old wall; a peck of earth, or, if you use lime instead of rubbish, half the quantity will do; add to this a pound and a half of cummin-seed, a quarter of a pound of bay salt or salt-petre : let these ingredients be well mixed together, with as much stale urine as will make a stiff cement. Let it be put into old tin pots, kettles, or stone jars, with holes in the sides for them to peck at it, only let the cement be covered at the top to prevent their dunging it.
Pigeons are remarkably fond of salt, nor is there a cure for scarcely any of the disorders to which they are subject, without the assistance of this ingredient; which proves the instinct that the wise Creator bestows on animals, for the necessary preservation of their welfare; and accounts for the extraordinary fondness pigeons have for the mortar that is found in old walls, which contains a salt little inferior to the common salt-petre ; for which reason some place cakes of salt candied against the walls of their pigeonhouses.
Harewood, Harry. A Dictionary of Sports. London: T. Tegg and son, 1835
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