They believe that it would be easier to raise a Pouter or Fantail pigeon from crossing two distinct species, neither of which possessed the characters of these races, than from any single species. I can find few facts in support of this doctrine, and believe in it only to a limited degree; but in a future chapter I shall have to recur to this subject. For our present purpose the point is not material. The question which concerns us is, whether or not many new and important characters have arisen since man first domesticated the pigeon. On the ordinary view, variability is due to changed conditions of life; on the Pallasian doctrine, variability, or the appearance of new characters, is due to some mysterious effect from the crossing of two species, neither of which possesses the characters in question. In some few instances it is possible that well-marked races may have been formed by crossing; for instance, a Barb might perhaps be formed by a cross between a long-beaked Carrier, having large eye-wattles, and some short-beaked pigeon. That many races have been in some degree modified by crossing, and that certain varieties which are distinguished only by peculiar tints have arisen from crosses between differently-coloured varieties, is almost certain. On the doctrine, therefore, that the chief races owe their differences to their descent from distinct species, we must admit that at least eight or nine, or more probably a dozen species, all having the same habit of breeding and roosting on rocks and living in society, either now exist somewhere, or formerly existed, but have become extinct as wild birds. Considering how carefully wild pigeons have been collected throughout the world, and what conspicuous birds they are, especially when frequenting rocks, it is extremely improbable that eight or nine species, which were long ago domesticated and therefore must have inhabited some anciently known country, should still exist in the wild state and be unknown to ornithologists.
The hypothesis that such species formerly existed, but have become extinct, is in some slight degree more probable. But the extinction of so many species within the historical period is a bold hypothesis, seeing how little influence man has had in exterminating the common rock-pigeon, which agrees in all its habits of life with the domestic races. The C. livia now exists and flourishes on the small northern islands of Faroe, on many islands off the coast of Scotland, on Sardinia, and the shores of the Mediterranean, and in the centre of India. Fanciers have sometimes imagined that the several supposed parent-species were originally confined to small islands, and thus might readily have been exterminated; but the facts just given do not favour the probability of their extinction, even on small islands. Nor is it probable, from what is known of the distribution of birds, that the islands near Europe should have been inhabited by peculiar species of pigeons; and if we assume that distant oceanic islands were the homes of the supposed parent-species, we must remember that ancient voyages were tediously slow, and that ships were then ill-provided with fresh food, so that it would not have been easy to bring home living birds. I have said ancient voyages, for nearly all the races of the pigeon were known before the year 1600, so that the supposed wild species must have been captured and domesticated before that date.
The doctrine that the chief domestic races are descended from several aboriginal species, implies that several species were formerly so thoroughly domesticated as to breed readily when confined. Although it is easy to tame most wild birds, experience shows us that it is difficult to get them to breed freely under confinement; although it must be owned that this is less difficult with pigeons than with most other birds. During the last two or three hundred years, many birds have been kept in aviaries, but hardly one has been added to our list of thoroughly reclaimed species: yet on the above doctrine we must admit that in ancient times nearly a dozen kinds of pigeons, now unknown in the wild state, were thoroughly domesticated.