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Catalonian Tumblers

Taken from the book Aloft: A Meditation on Pigeons and Pigeon-Flying by Stephen Bodio.  

I don’t know why Catalonians are rare; they are a pigeon to disarm the pigeon-hater, and one so beautiful that, if you are inclined to keep animals, you will covet a pair immediately.  Most pigeons, however handsomely marked, are dull-colored, ranging in hue from brown to gray.  Some of the Cats were of more or less regulation pigeon color and pattern, though the reds, in most breeds an unremarkable brown, were the brilliant chestnut of an Irish setter.  But five of the new arrivals were carbon black, with their entire heads, necks, and breasts the reflective copper of a new penny.  I am not speaking metaphorically of normal pigeon iridescence, but of a whole new color, one I had never before seen on pigeons.  Several of the others had their entire bodies subtly burnished with deep red bronze.  Half of them had white tails on colored bodies.  And one of these last might have been the prettiest and most unusually colored pigeon I had ever seen: his body was black, his tail white, and his head and neck were pale yellow-gold with glosses of green and pale purple.  All these colors were painted on tight, athletic fliers’ bodies – no frills or crests or feathers on the feet here.  They had the pearly white tumbler eyes.  And they were small, no more than half the size of homers.  

Not only were they beautiful, but they could fly, for hours at a time; fly acrobatically, flipping and flaring and tumbling; fly in mock wars, “capturing” flocks of other pigeons and luring them in through my doors; fly, it was alleged, in “combat” against falcons in the islands off Spain, out vying their fierce competitors nine times out of ten.  Remembering my boredom, finally, at my old fancy breeds’ do-nothing ways, I was sure that I had found the perfect pigeon. 

They really did seem to have everything; their beauty, glimpsed so long ago in blurry black-and-white photos in my father’s pigeon books and fulfilled in so much blazing color in the back-porch loft, was only the beginning.  In Catalonian tumblers, I began to find, were intellectual and esthetic rewards beyond the beauty of golden neck feathers.  In them, in their habits and genes, were encoded the history of peoples as well as pigeon breeds, links with my beloved falcons, challenging sports, even benevolent experiments in modern science.  They pulled together my schizoid interests as no other domestic animal ever had.  

History? The Cats, as my pigeon-breeder friends called them, are as close to a Neolithic Ur-breed as exists today.  You can see elements of all the modern tumblers in their shapes and colors and markings: a “fish” eye here, the bronzing that foreshadows that of the modern marathon-flying (and nontumbling) tippler here, a white tail (shared by more specialized breeds from Eastern Europe and Arabia) there.  Nor do they resemble only tumblers.  They have rather wide eye ceres – those circles of bare skin around the eyes that, with their white eyes, gave them a perpetually startled look – and these ceres turn red at any exposure to the sun.  Such ceres are usually considered characteristic of the Baghdad-Barb (for Barbary) group rather than of tumblers.  But some Cats, especially stout black short-beaked males, look uncannily like small delicate Barbs.  Others sport frills, rows of reversed feathers along the fronts of their necks, like “owls”; or feathered feet; or high-set tails and low-held wings, like Oriental rollers or primitive fantails.  All are recognizable as Catalonians, but they are incredibly diverse, as though a hundred shadowy breeds lurk just below the surface. (pp. 54 – 56) 

I had been looking at photos of Catalonians for years and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted, a Platonic ideal of the Catalonian tumbler.  All breeders of domestic animals (and, I’m sure, plants) have such a template, sometimes purely in the mind, sometimes codified onto a standard of detailed description.  A standard will include an idealized picture and assign numerical values to various physical characters, adding up to a perfect, never-attained one hundred points.  To have a standard, though, you must have a group of dedicated breeders; with this breed, I was on my own. 

Still, the best of my birds, the ones that were simultaneously less like familiar English-type tumblers and more like one another, shared enough characteristics to give me a clue.  They were very small, smaller than any breed I had ever owned, stout, compact, and hard-feathered.  They had rather square heads, like the old “depressed-brain” homer of my youth, and stout, short conical bills.  They had broad eye ceres and pearl eyes.  Several had frills, and all these birds were at least brushed with bronze.  Some looked like their iron black plumage was just starting to rust; some were brilliant metallic bronze with green highlights; one, as mentioned, was gold.  Even the reds seemed to owe the unusual brilliance of their color to a touch of bronze.  

Not all my new birds shared these traits, although every one had at least a couple.  There was a hen who was richly bronzed but had the long thin bill, high forehead, skinny cere, and dark eyes of a roller – or a rock dove.  There was a beautiful blue cock with a white tail that had almost everything but bronzing – except that he was huge, almost as big as a homer.  And there was a sulfur yellow hen that might have been perfect but for her orange eyes.  Still, it was a start. 

My first matings were more or less random, though I did attempt to make up several pairs of “pure’-type Cats.  The first generation of young came out in an astounding rainbow of colors, but with many odd types: large ones, long skinny ones, a crested bird, and one with his breast and neck feathers all curled like a so-called “Chinese” owl.  Since the Chinese owl is actually descended from a Spanish bird known as a chorrera or Spanish frill, I took the appearance of this trait as more evidence of the Catalonian’s relation to everything.  

I didn’t even consider culling any of the first generation.  Recessive genetic traits were already appearing; that is, traits that were invisible beneath the dominant characteristics of the parent birds but, when carried by both parents, manifest in the young.  But now, to really fan the cards in the genetic deck, I would have to inbreed – mate brother to sister – or linebreed – mate father to daughter, mother to son.  Such practices do not weaken the offspring if not carried out too far; they can be necessary to fix desired traits as well as to expose hidden recessive colors.  The process takes a lot of time, though, even in such swift-maturing creatures as pigeons.  Besides, pigeons, though not as fiercely monogamous as birds of prey or geese, remain attached to old mates; divorce and remarriage can be tedious. 

And delightful.  I found a new pleasure: waiting for the babies to feather out to see if their color was something longed for, predicted out of Quinn’s genetic textbook or combined from the parents, or, maybe better still, something entirely new, always a possibility with Catalonians.  Betsy and I would lift the furious mother birds, ignoring their pecks and grunts and the buffeting of their wings, to see if any color had sprouted yet from the porcupine quills of the new feathers.  By our second season we had blue, black, silver and dun, recessive red, dominant or “ash” red, bronze, combinations of the last three, yellow, “De Roy” (a color for which there were no genetic charts but that was described in the nineteenth century), almond, and gold.  For patterns we had splash, white-tailed, white-lighted, beard, baldhead, and mottle.  And there were several birds we could only describe, not name.  

Except for bronze, which seemed to over- or underlay most everything in the breed, the “good” colors remained elusive.  Recessives weren’t hard to breed – you just mated one to its equivalent, if you had one, or to a relative, if you didn’t.  But “dilutes,” including the incredible gold, were another story.  Dilute colors are simple recessive versions of so-called intense colors, with fewer pigment granules.  But baby dilutes tended to be oddly delicate until their first molt, and we lost as many as we saved.  We really wanted a gold-necked silver, but since such a pigeon is a double dilute (of a bronze-necked blue or black) we never managed to breed one.  I haven’t to this day.  (pp. 62 – 65)

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