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