The history of fancy pigeons dates back centuries, with specialty breeders in England, Germany and Saudi Arabia producing a dizzying array of 1,100 pigeon surprises.
Just how fancy can a pigeon be?
Look up the German nun, the Pygmy pouter, the jacobin. How about the ice pigeon, the archangel, the Pakistani high flyer.
Each was bred for features their rock pigeon ancestor never had — the ability to tumble in the air, feathers that curl tightly, unique profiles, colors and markings.
And then, there’s the parlor roller.
“A hundred years ago or more, the English actually had roller bowling and used the birds instead of a ball,” said Keith Chadd, a Tacoma flight attendant who raises and shows pigeons. “When they reach maturity, they seem to lose the ability to fly, but they roll along the ground.”
How far will a parlor pigeon roll if given the opportunity?
In a 2001 competition, one bird rolled more than 600 feet.
Rollers don’t fly, they roll. If they compete, they have to roll in a straight line or they’re disqualified.
Chadd has a 15-acre farm and about 80 birds, and has raised and bred pigeons since his grandmother first gave him a pair of pigeons, old German owls, when he was a boy.
That was about 40 years ago. Today, Chadd keeps old German owls, parlor rollers, French mondains, English carriers, Thuringian wing pigeons and Catalonian tumblers.
Being a competitive type, Chadd shows his birds and will enter the Winter Classic Show at the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup the last weekend of November. He’ll match his pigeons against those from across Washington, Oregon and Canada.
He has grown accustomed to explaining his hobby.
“You mention fancy pigeons, people don’t have a clue. They’re thinking of feral street pigeons,” Chadd said. “I’ll take out my phone and show them pictures, they do a 180-degree turnaround.
“They’ll say, they don’t look like pigeons!”
Lots of fancy pigeon fanciers are like Chadd, raising a half dozen breeds and showing them.
There are plenty of specialists like Doreen McCann, too.
The Spanaway woman is known nationally as a cat breeder, but she also fell in love with the curly-feathered American frillback pigeon. About a year ago, she bought a mated pair, upgraded to a more advanced pair and now has a hatchling.
“I live in a mobile home park and I knew almost nothing about fancy pigeons,” McCann said. “I was raised with canaries. I’ve learned a lot in a year.
The most unique breed to me are the shakers — the zitterhals. They have a thin neck that quivers and shakes when they get excited, and it really jumps.
“The Germans are way ahead of us in breeding, and a lot of breeders here will have birds shipped out from Germany to improve their own stock,” she said. “My first pair, I kept in the house in a cat cage.”
Pigeons and their breeders are happiest when the birds are kept outside. McCann learned why, and now has a covered cage alongside her mobile home.
“They molt heavy, which means more dust and debris, and can become a health hazard,” McCann said. “When they exercise, the birds flap their wings and things just fly everywhere. ‘Pigeon lung’ was a common condition, once.”
Another lesson McCann learned is that not all pigeon eggs are fertile.
“I asked someone how you can tell, because I had a hen sitting on two eggs. They told me to shine a flashlight on one side of the egg. If you see light coming through, it’s empty, not fertile. No light, it’s fertile.”
At the fairgrounds show, there will be a ‘For sale’ section for anyone looking to buy pigeons.
While McCann is a newcomer still learning the hobby, Chadd is something of a fancy pigeon expert. He occasionally lectures on the subject.
“All pigeon names are based on Old English,” he said. “Many of the birds were bred for specific purposes. The English carrier, for instance, was used to send messages, and was bred to have a unique profile — a very long neck — so hunters wouldn’t mistake them for other pigeons.
“I’ve been told that’s where the expression, ‘Don’t kill the messenger!’ came from,” he said.