Are those really pigeons? I have been asked this question many times about German toy pigeons. It surprises people that pigeons can be so beautiful, and German toy pigeons are undoubtedly gorgeous for domestic pigeons.
History Of The German Toy Pigeon
German toy pigeons are domestic, and their scientific name is Columba livia. They are also known as C. domestica. All the pigeons in this article are man-made breeds. Although there are more than 150 breeds, they all belong to one species. Many of today’s German toy pigeons were developed during the 14th and 15th centuries. During the time of Mendel, genetics was a new science. Monks throughout Medieval Europe were experimenting with plants, pigeons and other adaptable domestic animals.
In many German monasteries, the monks raised pigeons. Not only for the dinner table, but also for the genetics. Small isolated communities also raised pigeons, developing distinctive breeds of colorful, patterned pigeons. Some breeds were developed for their flying abilities, others for food, yet other breeds for their beauty and competition in shows.
A large group of distinctive breeds of pigeons were bred strictly for their beautiful color patterns and small size. Collectively they were loosely called German toy pigeons. These “toy” pigeons were not much smaller than normal pigeons. In some cases, they were as large or larger than regular pigeons. The difference is that most originated in Germany, although others were developed in other parts of Europe, especially Eastern Europe.
In the mid 1980s, the Southern California German Toy Pigeon Club decided the name “German Toy” was a misnomer and dropped it. The new name was Southern California Color Pigeon Club. Color pigeon best describes the many breeds and does not limit them to one country.
In this article I will be using a lot of generalities. There are far too many color pigeon breeds to do them justice in a column this size.
Many color pigeon breeds share a similar or common ancestor: The Gennan field pigeon. This pigeon is squatty, with muffed (feathered) legs and feet. The head is very “dove-like.” The field pigeon was common throughout Europe. Thousands were kept at the huge manors, released to forage in fields and countryside. Field pigeons were primarily used for food. Meat was scarce and the young squabs were a source of fresh meat.
As the Middle Ages waned, the huge manors disappeared, as did the field pigeons. Common folk began to breed pigeons not only for the table but also for appearances. Competitions were held. Towns competed with other towns. Distinctive breeds in all domestic animals began to flourish. The German toy pigeon breeds or color pigeons became commonplace.
Color pigeons are squatty. Most, but not all, have feathered or muff legs and feet. The dove-like head persists in most color pigeon breeds. Colors and patterns are exceptionally defined and strikingly beautiful in these pigeon breeds.
This group of pigeons does not have any homing ability. They are unable to find their way home if lost. The homing instinct has been bred out of them. They tend to be flighty and easily spooked.
Unfortunately, pigeons do not share the brilliant colors of waterfowl or domestic chickens. The earthy color of pigeons is a challenge to the pigeon fancier. Yet beautiful patterns and color combinations have been successfully developed by fanciers over the years.
The Schmalkaldener Mohrenkopf
Undoubtedly, this is one of my favorite color pigeons. The translation of this hard-to-pronounce name means, “black-headed pigeon of the city of Schmalkaldener.” This breeds traces its ancestry to eastern Germany. There is some speculation that this breed actually originated in India, but we will never know for sure. The pigeon is pure white, and only the head, neck and tail are colored in either jet blacks, brick red, mustard yellow or blue-gray. The birds that are black are the most beautiful because the crisp black on a snow white body is gorgeous. The mane and muff legs and feet give this breed an aristocratic appearance. At one time, American fanciers tried unsuccessfully to change the name Schmalkaldeners to Mane Pigeon, but it never caught on.
Although rare at most pigeon shows, Schmalkaldeners are available throughout the United States at a reasonable cost. They are rather shy, nonaggressive pigeons, and many are indifferent parents. An oddity of this breed is that if it gets out, it will not hang around the pigeon loft. It immediately flies away. The breed has no homing instinct at all.
The Monk Pigeon
The Monk is another German breed that is beautifully marked. Body color can be black, blue, yellow or red. The Monk has a white head, flights, tail and muffs. It also has beautiful white bars on the wing shield outlined in a thin black line. Monks are prolific breeders and excellent parents. They are also flighty and easily spooked. The breed is rare in the U.S., although nice specimens are exhibited at major shows throughout the country. Monks are closely related to several other domestic color pigeon breeds: the priest pigeon and the Bernberg trumpeter pigeon.
The Swallow Pigeon
There are several varieties of swallow pigeons. They all basically have the same body structure, but some varieties have crested heads, some are muffed while others are clean legged. All swallow pigeons are wild and flighty. The markings are incredibly beautiful and extremely difficult to breed. Mismarked birds are common. Perfectly marked birds are at a premium. They are prolific and good parents. Swallow pigeons are popular exhibition birds at major pigeon shows. The most popular swallow pigeons are those that have feathered feet and legs and are crested. Swallow pigeons have delicate markings and patterns. The pale blue swallow pigeons are extremely beautiful.
The Bernberg Trumpeter Pigeon
This is a breed with which I am very familiar. I’ve bred Bernberg trumpeters for many years. Bernbergs are not only color pigeons, but also belong to a group of pigeons that have a somewhat musical cooing called “trumpeting.” Bernbergs were developed in eastern Germany and named after the town of Bernberg. They are much larger than most color pigeons. Bernbergs are docile, gentle and excellent breeders. They are double crested. A shell crest frames the head; the nostrils are covered by a circular tuft of feathers. The body of the Bernberg is always a rich deep color: red, yellow, blue or black. Head, muffs, wings and tail are white. Perfectly marked specimens are difficult to obtain. As an exhibition bird, the Bernberg trumpeter is a challenge. They are a super nice pigeon because of their gentle nature. They can be set free and will return to their home loft. However, they do not have the homing ability of racing homing pigeons.
The Ice Pigeon
Ice pigeons come in both clean legged and feathered legged or muffed varieties. They do not have crests on their heads. They are squatty, with delicate dove-like heads. The beauty of the ice pigeon is its pastel coloring. The most popular ice pigeons are those the color of frozen water. The intricate markings on the wing shield look like jagged bits of ice floating on a placid pale blue lake. Ice pigeons share many characteristics with the swallow pigeon.
The loft is to the pigeon what the coop is to the chicken. A healthy loft is draught-free and dry. The best location is a southern or southeastern location. Pigeons love sunshine and maximum sunshine will keep your pigeons healthy and happy. Pigeon breeds that have feathered feet (muffs) require absorbent litter on the loft floor. Sand is not a good litter unless it can be kept dry. Sand absorbs moisture. Shavings, dust-free kitty litter or any type of clean litter will do. All pigeons require fresh, clean water, pigeon grit, and quality pigeon feed — either seed or pigeon pellets. Chicken scratch feed or chicken pellets are not formulated for pigeons. Domestic pigeons are easy to maintain and keep healthy. They require little care. Pigeons are trainable and will respond to the pigeon fancier. Pigeons have incredible memories, and once they learn a task they will not forget it.
There are nearly 200 breeds of domestic pigeons. Pigeons with curly feathers, long stilty legs, short beaks, big eyes, fluffy frills, pigeons that don’t look like pigeons, the list goes on and on.