Fancy Breeds and Racing Homers

'Gemeinsame Wurzeln verbinden'


Painted for the 'Gartenlaube' about 1872.

 English Summary of the Speech held at August 8 at the VDT-Meeting in Berlin

 Axel Sell

Fancy and Homing Pigeons: Intersection of Interests

Besides the lineage of the rock pigeon racing homers and fancy breeds have in common that by their very nature and behavior they emanates a fascination that attracts people with a very different background. Today the both groups are supervised by two different organizations, one traditionally focused on the flight competition, the other on competition at the exhibitions. Meanwhile the boundaries between the two groups are becoming blurred. Today at the shows in general and also at the great annual shows of the Association of German Homing Pigeon Breeders racing homers may be exhibited without any performance record. In January 2015 Dortmund already 29% of the total racers shown had no racing record and competed in extra classes rated at a point system according to the standard.  At the same time in the concurrent exhibition of fancy breeds at the 'Revierschau' 23% of the exhibited pigeons were assigned to the sub-group of fancy pigeons that are off-shots from homing pigeons. They originated during the last century. Some of them were ancient homer breeds or related to former homer breeds, most of them were derived from the Belgian Racing Homer with selection for different properties and outcrosses upon other breeds. The high percentage for this sub-group at the 'Revierschau' is not necessarily representative. At the National German Poultry Show 2014 in Leipzig there were only, or at least, 6% of the 19 000 pigeons shown. There are regional differences, however, the tendency for racing homer related breeds seems to be on the rise.

How close both groups have come together, is evident from the following figures.


The resolution of photos 1 and 2 is simple. They are excellent working homers and concrete 1st Ace cock and 1. As hen at the National Racing Homer Show in 2015 with outstanding flying records. The pictures 3 to 5 may pose more problems. They were also exhibited at the show of the Racing Homer Association, however in the beauty section without proof of performance. They were judged according to the identical standards as the racing pigeons, which you do not necessarily look to them. The images 6 to 8 show in this order Romanian, Polish and Belgian Exhibition Homers, today shown as fancy breeds.

Common roots

There are many common roots between homers and fancy breeds to be moved in this contribution more in the consciousness.

1. Many fanciers in both sections seem not to be aware that the Belgian Racing Homer was created only about 200 years ago from pigeon breeds that today are traditional fancy breeds. Anyone familiar with the literature on this, will find that many, well-known authors of the past have brought by unclean research rather dark than light into the history. Several of the quoted sources in this overview never before reached the awareness of authors of pigeon books. In the traditional pigeon books we often find the pattern that someone suspected something and the others represent later as truth.

2. Many 'new' homer related fancy breeds have their roots in the Belgian Racing Homer. Nature and type of pigeon (and the myth of their performance) always attract lovers under its spell. Many formerly active lovers has become too big the expense of flight competitions. If they do not completely give up the pigeons, but they select for beauty after own conceptions, the seed is placed into a 'new' pigeon race.

3. The members of both organizations have in common the fascination with the nature and appearance of the descendant of the rock dove pigeon. So are some of breeders of Racing Homers at the  same time breeders of fancy breeds and many of today's fancy pigeon breeders once were active members of the Association of breeders of Racing Homers. Organizationally this has been reflected in occasional collaborations between associations, more than nothing, but that may still be improved.

Ancient Carrier Pigeons

Even the rock pigeons had to have a good navigation and flight ability to survive. Haag-Wackernagel (1998, p.15) leads to observations in Sardinia, where populations of rock pigeons had to fly regularly 14-20 km to the feeding grounds. As descendants of the rock pigeons all flyable races can be used on short distances as carrier pigeon. That was still the opinion of Abul Fazl, rapporteur on the pigeons of Akbar Khan about 1590. Edmund Zurth (1948 ) reports on amazing home flight performance of fancy pigeons that have been confirmed by tests in the United States in the postwar period. Of great economic and military importance was the Arabian pigeon post. By 1450 it comprised a route network of more than 2000 km with many stations between (Sell, S. 2009, 16ff .).

Early descriptions of pigeons from the region by the Iraqis Al Djahiz (776-869 BC) tell us from harmoniously built pigeons, pigeons without noticeable features (quoted by Bel-Hajmahmoud, 1972). Also from later reports no specific features as difference to the common pigeons were stated. In some parts of the Arab world, it will have been ancestors of today long beaked highfliers as is assumed by Sabbagh (1805 ) and Boitard and Corbie in 1824.

In today's Turkey and neighboring regions the Turkish pigeon will have been used as a messenger. That is also what was reported by Willughby (1676, p. 181). The messenger or carrier he described was rather smaller than a common pigeon, with a moderate length of beak, the eyes encompassed about with a broad circle of naked tuberous, white, furfuraceous skin, the upper chap of the bill covered above half way from the head with a double crust. In Germany these pigeons were described as Turkish Pigeons. In England they were used as Dragoon and Horseman for transmission of messages (Tegetmeier 1871, p.44). Similar pigeons like the 'Baghdad Carrier ' were described by Darwin (1868) who obtained them from the neighboring Asian regions. The English exhibition Carrier was never a messenger pigeon. The wrong belief in that can be traced back to Moore (1735) who wanted to give this beloved breed an attractive legend. Selby 1835, Tegetmeier (1871) and also Fulton (1876) strongly but unsuccessfully opposed this story: "The application of the name carrier to them is to be regretted, as you cannot visit a show without hearing some one who is deceived by the name, speaking of them as the true working carriers" (Tegetmeier 1871, p. 44).

Myths cannot simply erase. This is also demonstrated in the German Book of Standards, where we find the erroneous statement that the English Carrier was an ancient messenger in the Near East and North Africa. Thus it should not surprise anyone that also today's fanciers are not better informed than at Tegetmeier's time.

Historical coincidences: The creation of the Belgian Racing Homer in Liege

By historical coincidences the Belgian Homing Pigeon was not derived from the Turkish Pigeon but from highfliers and owls. At the time of the creation of an excellent Belgian Racing homer in Liege the fancier had favorable conditions compared with other regions and also with England.

1. In the mining region of Liege and in a second stronghold of pigeon sport, Antwer¬p, long beaked highflier s  and owls were used for sporting competitions and for transmissions of messages over short distances. In Antwerp 'Anversois' (the French name derived from Antwerp) were used, highfliers in different colors, e.g. Cumulets. In Liege besides owls a white highflyer variant of the 'Anversois' with reddish neck was prominent

2. It was not only sporting activities, but there was an urgent demand to transmit  information even over longer distances, e.g. such as the drawing
    of the lottery numbers in Paris (at that time Liege was part of France)

3. The terrain was not unfavorable for flights over longer distances in Belgium and from France.

4.The railway system was developed in Belgium in the 1830s and used for early transports of pigeons to the starting points, making possible cheap transport and further selection according to performance.

5. The pigeon flights were followed by the people with enthusiasm. Winners were publicly flaunted. Pigeons were protected, while at the time on    everything that flew was shot in England.

6. There was a public recognition by awarding diplomas to the winners by high standing persons like the mayor, etc.

7. Flights were organized professional and associations were founded early.  At Liege the pigeon were accompanied on the railway by a person who supplied  them with food and water…

In the region of Liege thus many circumstances came together, and we may consider it a historical accident that the fanciers at that time raised owls and highfliers and not the descendants of the Turkish pigeon as in England or Brussel. Otherwise another type of pigeons with another background might have become the Belgian Racing Homer.

Boitard Corbie Unbenannt.JPG

Fig. 3: Pigeon Volant Cou Rouge Boitard/Corboié 1824, Owl Buffon 1749, Smerle or Belgian Homer at Tegetmeier 1871.


Historical sources that confirm the role of owls and highfliers in Liege

 1. In 1833 VERDOT published a lexicon 'Historiography de la Table' (edited in Paris) that contains a reports on pigeons from Verviers near Liege. According to the informant from Verviers the pigeons used were owls like those discussed and shown in 1749 by BUFFON. The local name in Verviers was 'Barbets'. Flights were already managed before 1820 from Paris (300 km) in 3 hours, from London (about 430 km) in four hours and from Lyon (about 500 km). Such flights are confirmed at other sources and were successfully repeated 1820-1829. Thus e.g. according to a report in the Prague Newspaper November 1828 at Oldersgate Street in London at 4.34 in the morning 56 pigeons from Liege were started, the first arrived at Liege at 10.25, and most of the others were back by noon.

2. From a contest from Lyon to Verviers in 1823, the first 4 pigeons were little black hens with short beaks and a frill (CHAPUIS, 1865, p. 133). CHAPUIS, a doctor of medicine and born in Verviers near Liege, wrote the first monograph on the Belgian Homing pigeon (Le Pigeon voyageure Belge). The owl's frill still today appears in racing homers and did not mind necessarily, but it was not desirable, so that it more and more vanished by selection.

3. The Englishman EATON (1858, p. 112) describes one of his acquired 'Antwerps' as white Owl. The frill is mentioned as a feature of many Belgian pigeons also by TEGETMEIER (1871) and later authors. However, it can be assumed that EATON's 'owl' already constituted intersections with the existing highfliers in the region Liege,

4. Liege Highfliers with red neck: The local nickname of these Liege Highflyer was 'swallows' (Hirondelle) because of their rapid flight. A hint in a Journal from 1822 let us know that the white highflyers with red neck of the early literature still were used at that time commercially for communication between Maastricht and Liege (about 30 km). The pigeons have been trained and mastered the track in half an hour. Hirondelle is also the name of the first pigeon breeders association, which was founded in 1818 in a suburb of Liege.

Chapuis' speculations

Chapuis had no direct information on the origin of the Liege breed, only speculations. Since he could not imagine that the local breed could arise from the intersection of owls and highflyer pigeons he introduced the Camus as a possible ancestor. He and his contemporaries had not seen the Camus since the breed had got extinct for long. In old literature the breed sometimes is called Polish Pigeon (Buffon 1749), according to Levi (1969, p. 171) a degenerated Eastern carrier or barb, in the terminology of (Spruijt 1964) 'Flat Nose Pigeon', German 'Plattnasentaube'. Since in the 1820s the local Liege breed is described as rough owls such a cross is rather improbable. The impact can at most have been very low and, if, must have occurred much earlier. Nevertheless, this vague speculation is reason enough that even today in almost any writing the Camus it introduced as an important ancestors of the Belgian Racing homer.

Ironically, the belief of Chapuis that it is impossible to get pigeon in the Liege type from owls and long beaked highfliers is wrong as is demonstrated by the cross of a long beaked highflyer cock with an Old German Owl hen that may be repeated by everybody. The young cock shown is astonishing near to the Belgian Homing Pigeon or Smerle at Tegetmeier (1871). Also the flying style of tested crosses was like that of racing homer whereas pure owls soon lose touch with the flock.

F1 hochfl x Mövchen.JPG

Fig. 4: Long-Beaked Highflyer x Shield Owl, Smerle-like young cock from that couple

Some remarks in respect to the terminology: For Chapuis from Verviers the local Liege and Verviers breed is identical with the Belgian homing pigeon (1865). However, in the Flemish part of Belgium the Liege pigeons were called Smerle because of the rapid flight. The different terminology leads to confusion in the old and new literature.

Dissemination of Liege pigeons

Shortly after 1820, Liege pigeons had such a reputation that they were in demand from other parts of Belgium and used to improve the local homing pigeons (Chapuis 1865, Spruijt 1964). They were crossed in Antwerp with the local 'Anversois' and Cumulets, in Ghent with local Pouter-crosses, and in Brussels with strains related to the Turkish pigeon. Finally these crosses with the Liege pigeons resulted in racing pigeons strains everywhere in Belgium not inferior to the Liege Pigeons. Liege Pigeons initially were sold to England as Smerle. Shortly thereafter all imported Belgian pigeons in England got the name of the port of origin, 'Antwerps', also a source for misunderstanding even in the current literature. The diffusion of Liege pigeons corresponded initially a one-way street from Liege into the world.

Through pictures in English pigeon books we get a visual impression of the pigeons. The illustrated 'Antwerp' in Eaton's book (1858) comes in appearance like a highflyer, however, with the shorter beak the owl background suspecting. The 'Antwerps' at Tegetmeier in his book from 1868 in the head points had preserved more the owls-type.


Fig. 5: Antwerps Eaton 1858, Anwerps Tegetmeier 1868

The contribution of other pigeons besides owls and highflyers in the creation of the Belgian Homing Pigeon is often overestimated. By later crosses of Liege Homers with top racers from other regions also pouters, the Turkish Pigeon and other breeds beeing present in the ancestries of the strains of other regions will also have contributed to the final Belgian Racer. In English literature we also read about crosses of English homing pigeons with Antwerps (Tegetmeier 1871). However, we have to bear in mind the development in England. The traditional carrier of messages in England was the Dragoon and the related Horseman. And both already in 1850 were almost completely replaced in England by Antwerps. Before electricity was brought into operation, Baron Rothschild e.g. had a great quantity of pigeons for express work, and many of them are reported to have been a cross between a Dragoon and Antwerp, "but the majority were small blue Antwerps" (Tegetmeier 1871, p. 16). Also from the Natural History of Rev. J.G. Wood (about 1862, p. 585) we learn that at that time "the trainers preferring the Belgian Bird, with its short beak, round head and broad shoulders", from the description Liege Smerle. Thus, when we read about the cross of Belgian birds with English Homers those most probably were Antwerps raised in England, and Antwerps-Dragoon cross-breeds. Such crosses could have happened even without the need to improve the performance. They obviously were not necessary, before such crosses could have happened Liege pigeons in 1862 managed distances of more than 1000 km from St. Sebastien in Spain and 1868 from Rome. Thus, the statements about the introduction of English homing pigeons with Belgian Homers mainly will have done well the English soul. From Tegetmeier (1871, p. 45) we know that still then some Englishmen felt hurt in their pride by the replacement of their national Dragoons by Antwerps.

Chapuis writes about first cross breeding of English pigeons in the Liege around the time of the emergence of his book (1865), though not with great success. But also also unsuccessful crossings will leave traces in a breed. In Antwerp and Brussels that may have happened earlier (Tegetmeier 1871 S. 54 ), whereby the temporarily slightly larger type of Antwerp Racing Homers in the late 19th century could be explained. After 1870, we can assume from the appearance of the Belgian Racing homer in painting from that time and first photos after 1900 (Lavalle/Lietze 1905) that all Belgian regional strains mingled. Thus also the Liege race lost its specifics and intermediate types in regard to beak length, shape of the head, length of face and wattle occured in all regions, and, moreover, sometimes in the same loft.

Some spectacular misjudgments in the literature

The literature including highly respected sources on the emergence of the Belgian pigeon is characterized by lack of evidence and inconsistencies. So e.g. the statement of Baldamus 1878 that the plumage of the Liege pigeon is less suitable for continuous flight (p. 259). It was these Liege race that formed the reputation of the Belgian pigeon, already managed in 1810 flights from Paris and Lyon, overcame distances of 300 and 530 km and later also from Rome. The much-quoted Bungartz takes over the statement from Baldamus (p. 36), but he is also an original when he writes that Liege Homers because of their short beak are poor feeder and that long beaked pigeons from Antwerp and other breeds have to be uses as nurses.

Rom Lüttoch.JPG

Fig. 6: Flights from St. Sebastien Spain and Rome to Liege 1862 and 1868

The beaks were not as short as he seems to suppose. And he should have known it better since he was an outstanding painter of pigeons and other animals and we owe him some excellent paintings also of Liege Pigeons. In other sources the large number of juveniles is highlighted, and Tegetmeier reported that he had used  Smerle as foster parents for other breeds (Tegetmeier 1871, p.77). The French history with La Perre de Roo as an influential author (1877, 1883) also does not bring much clarity.

Molecular genetics insight

Molecular genetic studies might become a source to get more reliable information about the descent of breeds. Tested racing homers genetically in a study of Shapiro et. al (2012) had the least distance to a group of feral pigeons in Utah. This had apparently build from lost racing homers. The next were Tippler that according to Levi (1969) are descendants of the Cumulets. The owls originally used in Liege could not be tested, however, Italian Owls considered in the study also showed a relatively small distance, supporting the findings about the origin of the Belgian Racing Homer.

Homer Related Fancy Breeds as Spin-offs from the Belgian Racing Homer

Soon after having established the Belgian Racing Homer (in England called the Flying Antwerp) in England and also in Germany some fanciers began to breed the pigeons imported from Belgium for show purpose. To quote Levi: "First they were used for racing or working purpose only, and then, as is instanced in so many other breeds, their owners felt the urge to exhibit their star performers" (1969, ps. 43). In England they first were entered as 'Homing Antwerps' and finally as a first spin-off the Show Antwerp was established as a fancy breed with emphasis on the owl type.

Antwerp und Show Antwerp.JPG

Fig. 7: Show and Flying Antwerp Fulton (1876), Show Antwerp from a Show in the USA (Foto Layne Gardner), Head of a Liege Homer, painting from Bungartz 1889.

A second wave followed in England with the Show Homer, Exhibition Homer and Genuine Homer with emphasis on the highflyer type with pearl eye and longer face, supported by outcrosses upon other breeds. A third wave were the development of the German Beauty Homer, the Netherland Beauty Homer, Giant Homer. Finally a fourth wave was from the show type of the Belgian Racing Homer bred in England to the Show Racer and the American Show Racers. Rumanian ice colored Beauty Homers, Polish and Belgian Exhibition Homers and others are in this tradition and hard to tell apart. A fifth wave are the Show Racing Homer from America that appear like the early form of the Show Racer and the German Beauty Homer, the working homer shown as a fancy breed in the USA, and finally the new Netherland Beauty Homer in the type of the working racing homer, but also bred for beauty of color.

The sequences of photos of the breeds over the decades shows that several new propagated races are the early forms of some others. And if a race does not move fast enough, they will be overtaken by the advancing how may be the case with the Show Homer and the today American Show Racer.

Fig. 8: Show Racer 1953 (Levi 1969), Show Racer 1965 (Levi 1969), Show Racer from Germany 2013

Fig. 9: American Show Racer (Photo Layne Gardner), Show Homer, Show Homer in the German 'Mustertaubenbuch',  by Wittig 1925.

Finally, the owl type got interest again. Thus the Liege Barbet got acceptance in the German Book of Standard some years ago. From the phenotype today it is similar to the English Owl. The Show Antwerp shown here in the short variety has become very rare and has his traditional continental counterpart in the Liege Beauty Homer.

Organizational Aspects

Some data on the organizations. Today experts speak of about 25,000 active breeders of Racing Homers. In 1960 they were more than 100,000 registered members and 60,000 who got the Association's journal 'Die Brieftaube'. Today, after, the re-union, there are only 35,000 subscribers left.

The German Poultry organization is told to have about 180,000 members, about 21,000 of them are organized in the VDT. Both sections of pigeon breeders have a long tradition. In Belgium the first club of breeders of homers were build in 1818 in the Liege suburb Amecour with the name L'Hirondelle, the first club in Aachen still in 1843.

There are some fields where more co-operation could be possible, with the growing interest of the racing homer fanciers to show their pigeons, mainly in the organization of shows. The Revierschau is an example where both groups benefit from external effects by organizing together a great show for both sections. And  that could be possible also at the local level, e.g. by inviting mutually to show pigeons in an affiliated section. There are, however, also many internal problems to be solved. One of them is the definition of racing homer and fancy breed, another one is the distinct separation of different breeds, not only in the standard, but also in the show pen. Another task of the central organization could be an enlightenment of fanciers and their clubs about the position of their breed in the race spectrum. Finally, to clearly separate breeds from each other also quantitative measures in standards could be helpful.

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Prof. Dr. Axel Sell.,Potsdamer Str. 23, 28832 Achim, T. 04202-83685, www.taubensell.de, e-mail: axel.sell@web.de