E. Charles Darwin's pigeons

Fancy breeds of rock dove (Columba livia), left to right: dovecot pigeon, roller and Jogiah, donated by Charles Darwin in 1867.

Small bird, big idea

Darwin’s handwriting on pigeon skeleton.

Darwin’s handwriting on pigeon skeleton.

Charles Darwin owned these everyday pigeons, and they provided crucial evidence for his theory that changed the world: evolution by natural selection.

Hatching a theory

Fancy pigeon varieties.

Fancy pigeon varieties.

Charles Darwin bred pigeons in his garden. They were not a hobby, but an experiment. By crossing birds with different characteristics, he could generate different offspring. Some had brown feathers, others white. Some had long legs, others very short beaks.

By artificially selecting in this way, he gathered valuable evidence for his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Common ancestor

Feral pigeons, Trafalgar Square, London.

Feral pigeons, Trafalgar Square, London.

Fancy pigeon breeders have created hundreds of varieties that look dramatically different to wild pigeons. But they all come from one species, Columba livia. Darwin was fascinated by how one species could be manipulated to such extremes. He used this as an analogy.

If breeders can artificially manipulate the way a single species looks in captivity, perhaps the environment can manipulate all species naturally in the wild.

Heart of the matter

Pigeon specimens in the Museum's collection.

The similarity between artificial selection and natural selection is at the heart of Darwin’s revolutionary book On the Origin of Species.

When he had completed his experiments, he gave all 120 of his pigeon specimens to the Museum, some bred by him, others sent to him by a global network of fellow naturalists.

Trail of evidence

Label from pigeon specimen (Jogiah) handwritten by Darwin.

Label from pigeon specimen (Jogiah) handwritten by Darwin.

Unlike the birds Darwin collected on his earlier Beagle voyage, most of the pigeons still have his original labels. Museum scientists are using them to link the specimens back to Darwin’s original notes, revealing exciting insights into his research.

The Galapagos finches he collected on the Beagle may be more famous, but pigeons were more significant to Darwin’s work.

Shocking the world

Darwin’s study, Down House, Kent.

Darwin’s study, Down House, Kent.

How does it feel to make a discovery that you know will shock the world? Even after 20 years research, it worried Darwin greatly.

He was a shy man who preferred private study to rowdy debates. Even at home he battled with his conscience – his theory of evolution challenged the idea that God created the world, and Darwin’s beloved wife was deeply religious.

Token of thanks

Letter from Charles Darwin to William Tegetmeier, 1859, bound into the book.

Letter from Charles Darwin to William Tegetmeier, 1859, bound into the book.

In 1859, Darwin wrote to William Tegetmeier his adviser on fancy pigeon breeding, telling him to expect a copy of On the Origin of Species in the post as soon as it was published.

Tegetmeier’s first edition copy (1859) is on display to the left, periodically changed with another first edition to limit light exposure. The pigeons they shared a passion for helped to inspire a global change in thought.

Around the Museum

Seed on display in the Darwin Centre.

See how the Natural History Museum’s research is underpinned by Darwin’s work, in the Darwin Centre, in the Orange Zone.