Dr. Michael Shapiro et.al. at The University of Utah recently published some major news: his lab has run the genome of the rock dove and compared it to a number of domestic fancy pigeon breeds to begin the process of identifying exactly what is happening in the DNA of pigeons which exhibit various form, color, and feather traits. This is a BIG deal for the pigeon fancier, and potentially a big deal for the field of medicine as well as genetics and molecular biology.
Pigeons have been important over the centuries as pets, messengers, food, and a prominent source of high nitrogen fertilizer (saltpeter, over which wars once broke out); not to mention high flying sports and acrobatics as well as living artistry for royalty all over the world. Add in Darwin’s studies of pigeons due to their genetic malleability and how much they influenced his thinking on evolution and one is seriously left to wonder why the pigeon genome wasn’t one of the first genomes to be unwound by scientists when it finally became possible to do such a thing.
This development may completely demystify the subjective and mysterious artistry of fancy pigeon breeding. One will be able to send in a blood sample or throat swab from a bird and define every mutation and predict every possible combination of traits and patterns the bird can produce in offspring when paired with any other bird. The difficult to define subjective characteristics of the best blood lines may not, however, become easier to define genetically. The pleasure of doing the work of careful observation and breeding to eventually create “perfect” form and function will still take luck and a good eye. Variations in gene expression, environment, and nutrition will always create obstacles for our goal of creating the finest specimen in the show hall even if we happen to know the precise genetic makeup of our birds.
The story with racing pigeons, though, could be different. With racers we are not looking for form per se, but rather a specific physiology, and it could quickly become apparent which genetic mutations result in the most stamina and speed, and the race would be on to acquire primarily those birds in everyone’s loft. The competition would go on, of course, and many other factors would come into play, but the competition could get ever more keen, with the edge between winners and losers becoming increasingly tight. The same could hold true for other types of flying competitions.
No matter the blood line though, no matter the proof of genetic makeup, what one cannot predict is the random chanciness of genetic pairing and mutation and the subtle shifts in the way genes are expressed, and it is exactly THAT that will—no matter what the science—keep the pigeon fancy not only interesting but challenging. Even genetically identical twins do not precisely express the message of their genes in exactly the same way, so even though the competition may be tougher, there will still always be a special bird or two in the line-up that has that extra undefinable something that forces the judge to put a ribbon on him.
Yes, pigeon fanciers need to be scientists, even if they raise their birds only because they love them for their own personal reasons. Observations matter. Who knows – any one of us might accidentally stumble across some new thing in our loft that has a significant impact in the world in some way. Pigeons may be little and seem insignificant, but they’re not. They have changed the course of world history in the past, and they continue to provide a great source of inspiration as well as scientific information today. For all we know they may offer insight into scientific and medical breakthroughs in the future that will again modulate the course of human history. We should all stay tuned in to these new developments. Our little pets matter a lot more than many ever imagined.
David Coster M.D.
Editor, The Seraphim Club International