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OF A FEATHER Researchers have found that mutations in pigeon DNA can control a variety of traits, including the directions of their feathers grow, like in this Jacobin pigeon. Charles Darwin raised pigeons and was interested in their breeding as an extreme example of domestic selection. ”And stop calling them ‘skyrats,’” said Darwin, “before I go all Galapagos Tortoise on your ass.”

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In 1855, Charles Darwin took up a new hobby. He started raising pigeons.

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The bones of a Red Runt pigeon from Charles Darwin's study.
In the garden of his country estate, Darwin built a dovecote. He filled it with birds he bought in London from pigeon breeders. He favored the fanciest breeds — pouters, carriers, barbs, fantails, short-faced tumblers and many more.

“The diversity of the breeds is something astonishing,” he wrote a few years later in “On the Origin of Species” — a work greatly informed by his experiments with the birds.

Pigeon breeding, Darwin argued, was an analogy for what happened in the wild. Nature played the part of the fancier, selecting which individuals would be able to reproduce. Natural selection might work more slowly than human breeders, but it had far more time to produce the diversity of life around us.

Yet to later generations of biologists, pigeons were of little more interest than they are to, say, New Yorkers. Attention shifted to other species, like fruit flies and E. coli.

Now Michael D. Shapiro, a biologist at the University of Utah, is returning pigeons to the spotlight.

In an article published online last week by the journal Science, an international team of scientists led by Dr. Shapiro reports that it has delved into a source of information Darwin didn’t even know about: the pigeon genome. So far, they have sequenced the DNA of 40 breeds, seeking to pinpoint the mutations that produced their different forms.

The scientists are following Darwin’s example by using the birds to find clues to the way evolution works in general. They are particularly interested in the mutations that produce radically new kinds of anatomy.

“Pigeons are an ideal way to look at these things,” Dr. Shapiro said.

The new work supports Darwin’s original claim that all pigeon breeds descend from the rock pigeon, whose range stretched from Europe to North Africa and east into Asia.

“It’s a brilliant bit of investigative science, the type of research that hopefully will come to define the genomic era,” said Beth Shapiro (no relation to Michael), an evolutionary molecular biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Archaeologists have speculated that rock pigeons flocked to the first farms in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, where they pecked at loose grain. Farmers then domesticated them for food.

Later, humans bred the birds to carry messages. By the eighth century B.C., Greeks were using pigeons to send the results of Olympic Games from town to town. Genghis Khan used pigeons to create a communication network across his empire in 12th century A.D.

Eventually, people began breeding pigeons simply for pleasure. Akbar the Great, a 16th-century Mughal emperor, always traveled with his personal colony of 10,000 pigeons. He bred some of the birds for their ability to tumble through the air, and others for their extravagant beauty.

Dr. Shapiro and his colleagues have been able to work out the genealogy of these breeds. They found, for example, that fantail pigeons, one of Akbar’s favorite breeds, are closely related to breeds from Iran. Dr. Shapiro suspects that their kinship is a result of trade along the Silk Route between the Mughal Empire and Persia.

Some of these breeds would escape from their owners and mate with wild rock pigeons. As a result, Dr. Shapiro and his colleagues have struggled to find a pigeon with “pure” rock pigeon DNA. In search of wild birds, they sampled the DNA of pigeons from remote islands off the coast of northern Scotland. “If there’s going to be any truly wild pigeons left, those are going to be a good place to look for them,” he said.

The Scottish pigeons turned out to be closely related to Modena pigeons, an old Italian breed that may have interbred with the ancestors of wild pigeons in Scotland. Or perhaps Modena pigeons were domesticated directly from wild ancestors, rather than another breed. “We just can’t distinguish between the two possibilities yet,” Dr. Shapiro said.

European colonists brought their domesticated pigeons to the New World, where they raised them once more for food, messages and diversion. Thomas Jefferson designed a grand dovecote for Monticello, complete with pillars. Some of America’s tame immigrant pigeons escaped yet again and evolved into a new population of feral pigeons — the ones that thrive in American cities.

“It looks like European and North American ferals are quite distinct,” Dr. Shapiro said.

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