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Today’s post about pigeons is a real eye popper! This is the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon, a breed of fancy pigeon renowned for having huge bubble eyes. Just look at those colossal peepers! To quote the language of fancy pigeon-keeping, “…the beak, while being short and thick, is straight set.  The large eyes are pearl in color with thick almost frog-like ceres.”  That hardly seems to do justice to eyes which seem like they could belong to a peregrine falcon or a colossal squid!

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Darwin famously conceived part of his theory of evolution from observing the shortest & newest branches of the phylogenetic tree limb of Galapagos finches: however the other part of his theory came from his own English country hobby of breeding fancy pigeons.  Using artificial selection to create hugely exaggerated features (like absurd google eyes and a minuscule beak) helped him understand that a similar dynamic was at work in his pigeon cote and on the newly separated Galapagos islands.

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Of course this doesn’t explain the eyes of these particular pigeons. The Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon did indeed originate in Budapest in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The birds were bred by the Poltl brothers, a family of pigeon racing enthusiasts who wanted a high flying bird with incredible endurance.  I guess the tiny beak must save weight, and the big eyes allow for higher flying?  Can any pigeon racers back this up?  Whatever the mechanism, the Poltl brothers succeeded: the original Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeons were able to stay in the air longer than other breeds and they flew at a greater height.  Unfortunately this also meant that more of them were lost (both to nervous disposition and to the perils of the open sky).

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Anyway, today these pigeons are more famous as charismatic pets than as racers.  They reputedly have a very affectionate and alert temperament (with perhaps a trace of their original nervous disposition).  I am not sure I have the patient temperament necessary to push against the bounds of nature as a fancy pigeon breeder, but I am glad that someone is doing so just so we have the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon to look at!

Two black sail cory cats--Corydoras melanistius (Photo Credit: Daniel Cardoso)

When I was a child, I kept tropical fish. The first tank I had in my bedroom was an Amazon community tank where angelfish, neons, serpa tetras and hatchetfish lived in a little miniature paradise of plastic swordplants and petrified stone.  Among the very first batch of fish I added to this tank were two adorable little masked Corydoras catfish.  The Corydoras genus consists of over a hundred and fifty species of small friendly armored catfishes from South America.  Corydoras means helmet-skin in Greek because these fish are armored catfish with two rows of bony plates running down their bodies (like the superfamily Loricarioidea). Most of the “cories” are only an inch or two in size.

These fish are popular with hobbyists because they are extremely endearing.  They race around the tank in bursts and then root enthusiastically through sand and gravel (burying their bewhiskered snout to the level of their eyes).  They like to have other cories for companions.  Occasionally they dart to the top of the water for a little sip of air.  Like most catfish, their fins have a leading spine for protection.  Unfortunately when I got my two cories, one of the two fish freaked out and deployed his spine thereby injuring the other fish’s gills.  It was very touching how the catfish which accidentally harmed its friend would hover near the hurt fish nudging him (or her) to eat and to swim up for sips of air.  Unfortunately it was no good and there was no way I could help the tiny injured corydoras. After a few sad days, the poor catfish was the first fatality in my tropical tank.  Death came quickly to my underwater paradise and would thereafter be a frequent guest. I was very upset.  I buried the fish on a big hill in a little tiny cardboard box (according it an honor that few of my other fish ever received).  It was the first of my many, many failures as an aquarium keeper, but it provided me with an abiding lesson about fish personality–which is more nuanced, deep, and likeable than most people suppose.

I apologize for my absence yesterday.  My munificent otter and I spent a lovely vacation day visiting the Bronx Zoo.  I plan on writing a post about the history of zoos– which occupy a pivotal location in the often-murderous relationship between humans and wild animals.  Today however I am going to turn my back on that fraught topic to write about a remarkable animal I encountered yesterday.

The best experience at a zoo is to encounter a new animal and strike up a bond with it.  This is one of the things that makes a zoo visit rewarding–to return and visit old friends and see how they are doing (it can also make zoo outings terribly sad, when beloved animals and their families fall ill or die).

Yesterday I was standing beside an aviary cage, which was apparently empty except for big leafy bushes, when a spectacular bird leaped out of a flowering shrub, sprinted to a spot immediately in front of me and performed a friendly impromptu dance.  It was the Golden Pheasant or “Chinese Pheasant“, (Chrysolophus pictus).  Here’s a picture, but be aware that it does not do the bird justice at all.  This bird looks like something created by an eccentric Taoist god drunk upon the glories of the courts of heaven!

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When the pheasant at the zoo was done showing off, he stared beadily at me with as if demanding some sort of tribute.  As I moved away to look at lesser pheasants he displayed signs of great displeasure.  I could have stared at him all day.  This sort of pheasant is reported to be quite fearless and friendly and it seems that the Bronx Zoo’s specimen is no exception.

The Golden pheasant is a great success story.  Indigenous to the forests and mountains of western China, they have spread across China due to their popularity as ornamental birds (they have a long history in China’s art and literature).  They have also spread abroad, and today boast colonies in England and America.  Aristocrats and the sporting rich once imported them, released them into alien forests and fields, and then set out to gun them down.  Imagine The Most Dangerous Game or Hard Target (but with the part of John-Claude Van Damme played by a pheasant).  Fortunately, the hen of the species possesses a more prudent nature than the outgoing male.  Additionally both sexes can run like greyhounds and are capable of making themselves invisible, even in the teeming cities of China.

An all-yellow variant demonstrates the birds' expressiveness.

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