If you think about Darwin’s bird, it is only natural that the finch comes to mind. In September 1835, the English naturalist Charles Darwin and the crew of the “Beagle” arrived in the Galapagos Island. These volcanic islands are located west of Ecuador, along the Equator in the Pacific Ocean. The travellers had got there as part of their five-year (1831-1836) journey to study plants and animals around the world. Darwin collected and documented a dazzling array of species in the Galapagos, and he studied these organisms when he returned home to England. Eventually, he focused his study on his collection of finches, a species of small birds. The finches were very similar, but had beaks of different sizes and shapes. Darwin theorized that the beaks were adaptations that helped each species of finch eat a different type of food, such as seeds, fruits or insects. Darwin’s study of the plants and animals of the Galapagos was integral to his theory of natural selection, a part of the larger process of evolution.
Yet there is another bird that played a major part in Darwin’s studies – a more important one, many have argued lately. It is the pigeon. Darwin began studying and breeding pigeons in 1856, some 3 years before publishing his book “On the Origin of Species”. He was extremely enthusiastic about the wonderfully varied breeds and loved his pigeons – he spent hours reading books written by breeders to make sure he was doing the right thing and he visited shows and exhibitions of pigeons to see what was available (see “The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin” available here: https://archive.org/details/lifelettersofcha03darw/page/n5).
Darwin’s family fell in love with pigeons as well. And he wanted his friends to be as delighted with his pigeons as he was. His study of pigeons informed “On the Origin of Species”, and he published “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication”, his real “pigeon book”, in 1868, in which he clearly stated that there was plenty of evidence that all the domestic races are descended from one known source. The long and beautifully illustrated section on pigeons of this book is still readable and relevant to both naturalists and pigeon fanciers today.
On the day the world commemorated 137 years since Darwin’s death, 29 Romanian students aged 13, learners of English as a foreign language (current level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: A2+) expanded their knowledge about this English scientist’s groundbreaking theory of evolution and pledged to protect the environment for the generations to come in a two-hour lesson inspired by Croatian teacher Daniela Dorcak’s learning scenario “The Life and Work of Charles Darwin” [https://teachwitheuropeana.eun.org/2019/02/LS-HR-Daniela-Dorcak.docx]. The lesson’s main aim was to recognise Charles Darwin’s importance and influence on mankind while revising describing places and habitats in English.
With this lesson I have managed to help my students explore the evidence for evolution and natural selection on a worldwide and local basis. We started with the voyage of the “Beagle”. Each student was given a map of the voyage and performed in 5 groups to describe some of the stops with the help of information from the Internet (we work in a BYOD learning environment). The group talking about Galapagos received the most help from the teacher too, as I tried to slowly announce the topic of Darwin’s birds. Here is the map used:
The students then made careful observations and identified similarities and differences between living things during the short field trip we organised in the large square near the school building, where they took photos of the pigeons and note down some of their characteristics as noticed on the site. Listening to my narrating on the subject of Darwin’s birds had made them excited about the pigeons, and they just loved photographing the swarming masses of pigeons in Sibiu’s main square. Here are some photos taken then, a few of them with applied filters to make them more interesting:
Back in the classroom, we explored the colours, sizes and shapes of different characteristics of the pigeons, both admired in our square and looked at in class after colouring in a few black and white pictures of different species of pigeons.
Natural selection has indeed adapted pigeons to their circumstances and habitat! We felt like scientists in Darwin’s time.
It was a great lesson, and lesson time flew by so quickly that we decided to go to the square after school again, to be among the pigeons that have taken my town Sibiu by storm, and maybe the world as well.
Pigeons are exceptional birds. They are aesthetically and scientifically fascinating. They are a species at once familiar and strange, ecologically and socially unique.
In our town the pigeon still holds a one-of-a-kind charm.
Beautiful and ever-lasting, Darwin’s other bird is a backyard microcosm that embodies the scientist’s most fundamental quote: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” (read the leading facts and inferences of the “On the Origin of Species” briefly recapitulated here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/feb/09/darwin.recapitulation).
Daniela Bunea, Scientix ambassador
All photos – used with permission.