The Degenerate Dove

The Count de Buffon died 226 years ago today, making this as good a day as any to see what he had to say about what was over his long lifetime the most abundant bird in North America, the Passenger Pigeon.

In the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, Buffon dedicates an entire chapter to “Exotic Birds Related to the Pigeon.” The natural historian wastes no time in proclaiming his theory:

There are few species as widespread as the pigeon; as it has strong wings and the capacity for sustained flight, it can easily make long voyages: and most of the races, wild or domestic, are found in all climates; from Egypt to Norway, people raise pigeons in aviaries, and while they do thrive better in hot climates, they do not fail to prosper in colder regions, too, depending on the care given them, all of which proves that this species in general fears neither heat nor cold, and the Rock Pigeon is found in almost all the countries on both continents [Europe and America].

As usual, it is not at first clear just what Buffon means in speaking of “species” and “races,” but he removes all doubt in the accounts that follow. Doves from Mexico, Guyana, and the Far East are here identified as “belonging to the espèce of our European Rock Pigeon.” Unable to resist the poke at his contemporary and competitor, Buffon dismisses Mathurin Brisson’s Violet Pigeon of Martinique as “a very slight variation on our common pigeon.”

And the same, he writes, obtains in the case of

the pigeon of America given by Catesby under the name Passenger Pigeon and by Frisch under the name Columba Americana, which differs from our feral pigeons only in its colors and in the longer feathers of the tail, which makes it seem to resemble our Turtle Dove. But those differences do not seem to us sufficient to make of this bird a distinct species separate from that of our pigeons.

Nowadays, if most people know anything about Buffon, it is his bizarre insistence that “foreign” organisms were the “degenerate” derivatives of European species — which were after, all, the real species. In this year of sad commemoration, it surprises me that no one has pointed out the good Count’s disparagement of the Passenger Pigeon — and the hint, d’outre-tombe, that we could recover that long-lost bird simply by selectively breeding feral pigeons for long tails and subtle colors.