12 Most Bizarre Fancy Pigeon Breeds

A white pigeon with an exuberant ruff of dramatic feathers
The Jacobean pigeon is one of the oldest breeds.

JCMarcos / Getty Images

Pigeons often get a bad rap for seeming dirty and gathering en masse to feed on ground scraps in urban parks and coastal areas. However, there's more to this species than most realize. Aside from common pigeons being woefully misunderstood, there is a whole category of birds known as "fancy" pigeons. These area domesticated birds descended from the wild rock dove (Columba livia) that have been selectively bred, over centuries, for certain unusual traits, be it peculiar foot plumage, ballooning necks, or minuscule beaks.

Breeding pigeons for aesthetic qualities might raise some ethical concerns, but it's hard to argue that they aren't, well, fancy. Here are 12 of the most bizarre-looking ones of the group.

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Frillback Pigeons

Frillback pigeon standing on sawdust

Daniel Sörensen / Flickr / Public Domain

The frillback is called so because of the curls that adorn its wing shield feathers and sometimes its foot feathers, too. In competitions, these common birds are judged on a 100-point scale, and the quality of their curls accounts for a whopping 50 points. They're also judged on their heads, bodies, and color (they can be red, white, gray, or black).

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Barb Pigeons

Barb pigeon standing on a bed of sawdust

Jackie Brooks/Jim Gifford / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The barb pigeon has been around since at least the 1600s, when it was documented in England (most notably by Shakespeare). It's small to medium in size and has an especially short face, but its most striking feature is the wattling around the eyes and beak, which can take up to two years to fully develop into the fleshy, red-orange, flowerlike ring that adults wear so brilliantly.

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Ice Pigeons

Ice pigeon standing to the side on sawdust

Graham Manning / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Feral pigeons are normally gray with purple- and green-painted necks, but this domesticated variety is icy blue (hence its name), thanks to the powder down that coats its feathers in a layer of whitish dust. In addition to its unique and namesake shade, the ice pigeon also sports especially exuberant plumage around its feet.

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Pouter Pigeons

Four white pouter pigeons standing together
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Pouter pigeons are characterized by their distinctive ballooning crops (the muscular pouches in their necks). When inflated, their globelike necks create a rather top-heavy aesthetic akin to a ball on a stick. There are several varieties of pouter, including the Brunner pouter (a common iteration), the English pouter (about 16 inches tall versus the Brunner's 13 inches), and the pygmy pouter (less than a foot tall).

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English Short-Faced Tumblers

English short-faced tumbler standing on a table

Jim Gifford / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Fanciers have bred the English short-faced tumbler to have a large, lofty, and round-as-possible frame, making its head appear extremely small. The tiny-skulled, broad-bodied pigeon is thought to be one of the oldest pigeon breeds, mentioned in the original "Moore's Columbarium," which was printed in 1735. There has even been a U.K.-based club dedicated to the breed since 1886.

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English Trumpeter Pigeons

Ornate English trumpeter standing in a corner

Graham Manning / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The English trumpeter is one of the more popular breeds among pigeon fanciers in the U.S. because it's also one of the most ornamental. This trumpeter's most distinguishing feature is the large muffs on its feet, which can get as big as its flight feathers. However, its grand foot accessories make this bird difficult to raise and breed.

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German Modena Pigeons

German modena pigeon standing on a tree branch
Surat Sangwato / Getty Images

The German Modena originally hails from Modena, Italy, but was imported to Germany sometime during the 1870s. It is the smallest of the "hen" or "chicken" breeds of pigeon, whose unique body shapes are reminiscent of their barnyard counterparts. According to the National German Modena Club, these birds are relatively new to the U.S. and still considered rare.

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Capuchin Red Pigeons

Capuchine pigeon with head sunken into neck feathers
Surat Sangwato / Getty Images

The capuchine red pigeon is known for its elaborate head crest. The ring of feathers around its neck frames its white face in a sort of natural snood. The Jacobin pigeon makes a similar fashion statement. Capuchines, in general, are thought to have been brought to Holland from India by Dutch sailors in the 1500s. It's there that they became prized show birds.

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Saxon Fairy Swallow Pigeons

Saxon fairy swallow pigeon standing on sawdust

Jackie Brooks/Jim Gifford / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Saxon fairy swallow is famed for its markings and the whopping three layers of feathers on its feet. This is just one of the roughly 75 types of swallow pigeons. It's named after terns, also known as sea swallows, which have white bodies and colored wings and caps. Swallow pigeons have this same coloring, plus a splash of color on top of their heads.

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African Owl Pigeons

African owl pigeon standing in a wire cage

Ómar Runólfsson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Hailing from Tunisia and brought to England during the 19th century, the African owl pigeon—much like its namesake—has an uncommonly short, stout beak that gives its head a ball-shaped appearance. Additionally, the breed has a crest of feathers that runs down the front of the breast, often referred to as a "tie."

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Nun Pigeons

Nun pigeon standing against a wall on sawdust

Graham Manning / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The nun pigeon, known throughout continental Europe as the Dutch shell pigeon, gets its name from its coloring. The birds of this breed are all white except for a colored head, bib, tail, and 10 primary flight feathers. They also have a distinctive "shell crest" of upturned feathers along the back of the neck.

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Helmet Pigeons

Side view of Polish helmet pigeon standing on cardboard

TheBendster / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Helmet pigeons, thought to have originated in Germany, appear to be wearing caps with their contrasting head coloring. It's the only part of their bodies, except for their tail feathers, that aren't pure white. Like some other breeds, the pigeon sports a muff at its feet. It has a small and delicate crest similar to the nun pigeon's.