The Red Pigeon that Never Was
Updated: Jun 13
Early in 2018, I joined a group called Book Lovers' Circle. About 20 of us meet each Thursday morning during term time (except during the coronavirus pandemic, of course). On one occasion last year, we were each supposed to talk about a favourite book. I don't usually play favourites, however a book came to mind a few days before the class ... and promptly left again.
Recently, this life-changing book popped back into my head, so I thought I'd write about the part this book has played in my life while it's still on my mind, and before it has a chance to leave again.
When I was a young girl, my first cousins bred homing pigeons. My sisters and I (or perhaps it was just me?) begged our parents for us to be allowed to have pigeons, too. Oddly, they agreed, and someone (perhaps my uncle) built a loft for the birds from a wooden crate and installed it on the rear of a trellis in our backyard.
I loved coming home after school and letting our pigeons out. They would fly in large circles high above the double-storied block of units in which we lived (on the ground floor).
We had trained our pigeons to come to us, and so they would drop from the sky and land on our outstretched arms at our call. It felt magical!
We started to breed our pigeons, which was great fun at the time. I marvelled to see the squabs growing plump in their nests; semi-translucent crops filled to almost bursting with the wheat grains regurgitated by their parents.
I remember that I desperately wanted to breed a red pigeon, and couldn't understand why we weren't lucky enough to do that. I felt that, if we just kept trying, luck would eventually be on our side.
Anyway, our upstairs neighbours complained one too many times about pigeon poo on their windows. My father said that our birds had to go, and I was devastated. At the time, it seemed so unreasonable, and I said as much during more than one angry and distressed outburst. I would never breed that red bird.
As a form of appeasement and in compensation, our father suggested that we keep budgerigars (aka parakeets), instead. I was not happy. I didn't see budgies as being anywhere near as exciting as our pigeons had been. But my father had made up his mind, and there was no going back.
Dad had a friend, nicknamed Strawb, who bred budgies and other bird varieties in aviaries in his backyard. We went to look at Strawb's birds, and ended up coming home with a young lutino (red-eyed yellow) budgie that we named Strawberry (Strawbie), based on both his eye colour and his breeder's nickname.
Strawbie became our beloved pet, living in the house with us for over 12 years. But our interest didn't stop there; we'd succumbed to Strawbie's charms. We bought more budgies.
Budgies are endearing little chatterboxes. They come in a multitude of beautiful face and body colour combinations and diverse wing markings, and are easy to breed. It wasn't too long before I was fascinated with our new hobby.
Instead of an aviary, we had numerous breeding boxes, with each box housing a breeding pair of budgies.
At about the same time, I came across a book on the colour breeding of budgerigars. It was the first time I'd heard about the field of genetics. It was a life-changing find, teaching me the basics of Mendelian inheritance as related to the breeding of budgerigars. I pored over the book, and began calculating the potential colour results of numerous breeding pair combinations.
I obtained some 5" x 8" index cards, and, using a little portable typewriter, I typed up my predictions for each possible pairing combination. Based on my calculations and the colours I desired to breed from my birds, I'd decide which pairs to mate, and, later, when the colour started to show in the young birds' feathers, I'd compare my outcomes to my predictions.
Where there was a difference between the expected and actual outcomes, I'd work out which of the adult birds might be carrying a recessive (or hidden) colour gene – the dominant gene is (usually) the one expressed in the colouring of the bird (the phenotype) – and then I'd change my calculations in the next breeding season based on my updated calculations of my birds' genotypes and my increased understanding of budgerigar colour inheritance.
Sometimes, if you're lucky, books change lives. I know, because several have changed mine.
Anyway, my discovery of this book with its focus on Mendelian inheritance led me down a path that has included studying units on biology and genetics at university and an online course on genome-wide association studies, having my autosomal DNA tested (at Ancestry and 23andMe) and uploaded to multiple sites (e.g., FTDNA, MyHeritage, and GEDmatch), and managing the DNA tests of ten family members.
My early passion for genetics (and also genealogy) blossomed into a passion for genetic genealogy; an interest I've pursued since 2012. This new hobby has me hooked! And the path I've taken to get to my new hobby is clear to me. It meanders all the way back to my early interest in breeding the red pigeon that never was ... and a book on colour breeding budgerigars.
Has a book ever changed your life? What was it about the book that connected with you so deeply? Can you recall the precise origins of one of your hobbies?
An excellent site on pigeon genetics - http://mumtazticloft.com/PigeonGenetics.asp
Another excellent site, on the genetics of budgerigars - http://www.al-nasser.co.uk/article1.htm