As the shadow of World War II fell over Europe, Paignton Zoo’s founder Herbert Whitley made plans to disband his treasured collection of animals to other zoos. His instructions were clear – everything must go; everything EXCEPT the pigeons. As it turned out, a partnership with Chessington Zoo enabled Herbert’s animals to stay in Devon during the war years, but his initial plans made it very clear that of all his animals, it was pigeons that held a special place in Herbert’s affections.
Early visitors to Herbert’s zoo would have been able to view a vast collection of domestic pigeon breeds. Indeed, at one point there were thought to be more pigeons on display at the zoo than anywhere else in Europe, with well over 100 different varieties on view – among them the ‘Dragoon’, the ‘Gimple’, the ‘Muffed Ice’ and the ‘Trembling Necked’! One of Herbert’s favourites was the ‘Blue Cropper’: the breed with which he won his first ever trophy.
In addition to his fancy pigeons, Herbert also bred carrier pigeons for the war effort, and we have been able to trace the service records for around a dozen Paignton-bred birds. Carrier pigeons were dropped by parachute over enemy-occupied territory, and during the 3.5 years in which the National Pigeon Service operated, 16,554 birds were dropped. Only 1,842 returned home to the UK. One of Herbert’s birds, recorded as Pigeon No. NURP.41.PT.39, was one of these lucky survivors, returning to the UK on 10th November 1942, 3 weeks after being dropped over Normandy.
As well as the historical associations with our founder, pigeons also highlight the work we do as a conservation charity to this day, and provide a stark reminder of why this work matters.
Pigeons past and present
Perhaps the most famous extinct bird, the dodo of Mauritius, was actually a ground-dwelling pigeon that was last seen alive in 1662, driven to extinction around 65 years after it was first discovered.
Many island birds are endangered today, and for some it’s fair to say that without zoos they would have already gone the way of the dodo. Mauritius used to be home to a number of other pigeon species as well as the dodo, but only one of these, the pink pigeon, survives today. Habitat loss, hunting and introduced predators caused their disappearance, and remain the key threats to the handful of remaining wild birds.
From just 10 birds in 1990 to around 400 today, the pink pigeon recovery programme demonstrates how zoos and other conservation bodies can work together to save a species. As well as working with the birds you see here at the zoo today, Paignton Zoo bird keepers also work in Mauritius to help conserve the pigeons in their native range.
Two hundred and fifty-two years after the last dodo passed away, the passenger pigeon (once the most numerous bird in the whole of North America) became extinct, when the last know specimen (called Martha) died in the Cincinnati Zoo at around 1pm on 1st September 1914.
Conservation is not just about saving species that are already rare, it’s about keeping common species common so they don’t need saving. Not all species in zoos are endangered at the moment, but the story of the passenger pigeon acts as a warning from history, reminding us that this situation could change in the future.
Zoos play a vital role in raising awareness of the amazing diversity of species that share our world. The Socorro dove is a species which, were it not for zoos, would likely have slipped into extinction and obscurity without anyone really noticing. Paignton Zoo has been very successful in breeding these birds and we work with other conservation groups to reintroduce zoo-bred birds back into the wild on Socorro Island. The last wild Socorro dove was seen in 1972, a combination of habitat loss and introduced cats having caused its disappearance. They are now classified as extinct in the wild… just one step away from disappearing forever.
If you would like to learn more about our conservation efforts, please visit Wild Planet Trust – Registered Education, Scientific and Conservation Charity