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The rebirth of coo: reconsidering the pigeon - in pictures 26 October 2017

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Australian photographer Leila Jeffreys focuses on diversity within bird species, and these wildly colourful portraits belie the lowly reputation of the pigeon.

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Nicobar Pigeon These striking portraits of the pigeons and doves of New Guinea and Australia form part of Leila Jeffreys’ current exhibition, Ornithurae Volume 1, at Olsen Gruin, New York, until 12 November. The captions below are from an accompanying essay, Reconsider the Pigeon, by biologist Tim Low. All photographs: Leila Jeffreys.

Bleeding Heart Dove The words ‘pigeon’ and ‘dove’ overlap in meaning, which explains how the domestic pigeon canhave as its forebear a species called the rock dove (Columbia livia), found on rough slopes in Europe, Asia and north Africa.

Superb Fruit Dove While most street pigeons are as drab as businessmen in suits, the fruit doves of New Guinea and Australia come dressed as if for a mardi gras, in purples, yellows and other fearless colours. The vivid rainforest fruits they eat have given them an appreciation for colours on each other.

Emerald Dove Charles Darwin was enthusiastic about pigeons because the profusion of breeds concocted by fanciers lent support to his theory of evolution.

Woompoo Pigeon His colleague Alfred Russel Wallace had a different kind of interest, aroused by his years in the Indo-Malayan archipelago. Wallace had noticed that pigeons ‘achieved their maximum development, as regards beauty, variety, and number of species’, in the region around New Guinea.

Crested Pigeon Only in New Guinea and Australia do pigeons indulge in head ornaments, recorded in prefixes such as ‘crested’, ‘topknot’ and ‘plumed.

Squatter Pigeon Wallace surmised that New Guinea had served as the cradle from which the world’s pigeons emerged. Today’s thinking is that pigeons emerged somewhere in the southern hemisphere, although there is no certainty about where. The oldest fossils have been found in Australia

Topknot Pigeon They were domesticated in the first place for eating, and their large breast muscles, which recommended them as food, suit long journeys by powering strong flight

Peaceful Dove Scientists testing pigeons’ navigation have found them to be multi-skilled, able to return home by evaluating landscape smells, the position of the sun, planetary magnetism, the lines marked by highways, and probably infrasound

Rose-crowned fruit Dove Psychologists take pigeons seriously for their own reasons, respecting them as birds that excel at visual categorisation. In one test, categorising coloured rectangles on a screen, pigeons left university students far behind

Wonga Pigeon Pigeons were domesticated thousands of years ago, long before chickens or ducks, which makes them the bird on Earth with which we have the longest close relationship. Pigeons matter

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