Birds of a Feather: Genetic Classification Reveals Pigeons' Exceptional Diversity [Slide Show]

City dwellers may regard pigeons as pests, but they are among the most beautiful and divergent of all bird species
1 of 11

Tumblers and Rollers

"This is one of the most diverse breed groups," Shapiro says. "It's hard to make sweeping generalizations about how they look." The birds in this group are descended from birds that perform backward somersaults while flying.....[ More ]

Wattles and Homers

Wattles are characterized by large skin thickenings around the beak and eyes, and they are typically larger than the ancestral wild pigeon. Some breeds, like the English carrier (pictured), also have enlarged beaks.....[ More ]

Owl Pigeons

The Owl breed group contains some of the smallest pigeons—some weigh as little as 170 grams, compared with the rock pigeon's average 364 grams. Owl pigeons derive their names from their tiny, sharp beaks.....[ More ]


Unlike most pigeons, which have 12 to 14 tail feathers, fantail pigeons have up to 40. According to historical accounts and Shapiro's genetic evidence, the fantail arose in India. Fantails were once called shakers due to the trembling motion they make when they throw their heads back and display their tail feathers.....[ More ]

Pouters and Croppers

Pouters and croppers are characterized by an exaggerated crop—the muscular pouch near the throat that helps the bird to store and digest food. They have been bred in Europe for hundreds of years.....[ More ]


The frillback also groups genetically with the toy pigeons. Its curled feathers are caused by an autosomal dominant mutation; when crossed with other breeds, a purebred frillback produces slightly frilled offspring.....[ More ]

English Trumpeter

"This is a well-marked breed, with a peculiar voice, wholly unlike that of any other pigeon," Charles Darwin wrote in 1868. "The coo is rapidly repeated, and is continued for several minutes." Instead of grouping this breed with the other vociferous "voice pigeons," Shapiro discovered that the English trumpeter is actually most closely related to toy breeds—that is, breeds selected for their ornamental colors and feathers.....[ More ]

Old Dutch Capuchine

According to the British Old Dutch Capuchine Society, this breed—also named after a sect of monks—dates back to the 14th century and was almost lost during the two world wars. It was brought back by a fancier named Henk Moezelaar, who carefully arranged matings between two male and two female Capuchines, and even outcrossed it with a breed called "the nun." Now the Old Dutch Capuchine is well established.....[ More ]


"The head is in there somewhere," Shapiro muses. Genetic results place the Jacobin in the "maned pigeon" breed group, which largely consists of birds with unusual feather ornaments surrounding their heads.....[ More ]


The Modena was a Roman racing bird developed almost 2,000 years ago; it may have carried messages during Mark Antony's siege of the Italian city of Modena in 43 B.C. Surprisingly, Shapiro found that this curvy bird is closely related to a free-living population of rock pigeons (previous image).....[ More ]

The Rock Pigeon

The rock pigeon is the feral variety found on the sidewalks and plazas of Europe, North Africa and Asia. These pigeons are wild, but often contain genes from escaped domesticated pigeons. And although they may look like the birds that inhabit New World cities, the two populations are genetically distinct.....[ More ]

risk free title graphic

YES! Send me a free issue of Scientific American with no obligation to continue the subscription. If I like it, I will be billed for the one-year subscription.

cover image Subscribe Now
Share this Article:

Give a Gift &
Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription
as low as $14.99

Subscribe Now! >


Email this Article