Rare wild ancestors of the domestic pigeon found on Scottish islands | Birds

Colonies of extremely rare and endangered birds which are the wild ancestors of domestic and feral pigeons have been found on isolated Scottish islands.

Researchers have expressed excitement and surprise at discovering small populations of feral pigeons in places that include the Outer Hebrides.

Rock pigeons are thought to have been domesticated, originally to provide food, between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, making them one of the earliest domesticated birds.

Feral pigeons come from escaped domestic birds and can be seen all over towns and villages. While feral pigeons flourished, rock pigeons – partly due to heavy crossbreeding – declined worldwide.

Will Smith, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford and lead author of a new study, said there had been a lot of research into Scottish wildcats and how hybridization with wildcats had prompted the species on the verge of extinction. But there were practically none in rock pigeons and their similar trajectory because of wild pigeons.

“If you ask most birdwatchers in the UK about rock pigeons, they’ll tell you they were hybridized by feral pigeons,” he said.

The Oxford research team identified relict populations of rock doves and then analyzed their DNA to determine if the birds were truly “wild”.

“This is the first genomic study that proves that there are non-domesticated rock doves that are relatively isolated from feral pigeons,” Smith said. “It was quite a surprise. It’s exciting. It’s also a bit weird that it’s in the UK because there are so many feral pigeons here. I guess places like the Outer Hebrides are far enough from the cities so that there is less gene flow.

To the untrained eye, rock doves look like pigeons. The biggest difference is that if you see a flock of pigeons, there will be many different colors while rock pigeons are identical with the same plumage.

“The rock pigeon is like a wolf,” Smith said, “in that all wolves are kind of the same color, whereas feral pigeons are like dogs and all look different.”

Scottish rock doves live in sea caves and ruins. To see herds of them flying from their nests to feed in flowering meadows is, Smith said, a “truly lovely experience…to see this happening every morning and every night, flying back and forth.

“It’s the kind of movement that’s less evident in feral pigeons because they can move from street to street, or from McDonald’s to Waitrose.”

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The research team managed to confirm that their Rock Pigeons were descended from the undomesticated line from which all feral pigeons come.

Some of the rock doves the team examined in Orkney had experienced extensive interbreeding with pigeons. But rock pigeons from the Outer Hebrides showed “negligible signs of hybridization,” Smith said.

The team hopes that the findings, published in iScience magazineencourage research into potential wild rock pigeon populations in other parts of the world.

Additionally, a better understanding of “extinction by hybridization” will, Smith says, help efforts to prevent other plants and animals from suffering the same fate as the rock pigeon.

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