Genetic Welfare Problems of Companion Animals

An information resource for prospective pet owners

Rolling and Tumbling in Pigeons

Breed: Roller and Tumbler Pigeons

Related terms: backward somersaulting, rolldowns

Outline: The roller and tumbler breeds of pigeon have been selected for tumbling behaviour in flight, to the extent that some tumblers can no longer fly but, instead, tumble as soon as they intend to take wing. The consequences to the birds are difficult to assess but are clearly adverse when they lead to injuries due to hitting the ground or tumbling over it.


Summary of Information

(for more information click on the links below)

1. Brief description

Tumbler pigeons can fly normally most of the time but, in flight, have been specifically selected so that they show intermittent episodes in which they tumble – somersault backwards – and fall. Birds which tend to show multiple somersaults are called rollers. Usually the birds regain control within a few seconds and continue to fly on in a normal manner. However, sometimes during the somersaulting they will collide with the ground or with trees or buildings causing traumatic injuries which may be severe or fatal. This is known to owners as a rolldown.

A more extreme form of this somersaulting abnormality is characteristic of the Parlor tumbler breed. In this breed, selection for tumbling has resulted in strains that can no longer fly, but which tumble as soon as they intend to take wing. When attempting to fly they, instead, somersault backwards across the ground until exhausted or they cease their attempt to fly. This abnormal behaviour is exploited in competitions in which owners of these pigeons compete to find whose bird covers the most ground by tumbling over it.

2. Intensity of welfare impact

Flight is an inherent behaviour for pigeons, something that they are born with a motivation to do, and so an inability to fly normally is likely to have adverse welfare consequences. Flight is a normal response to fear, and the inability to escape in this way when startled may cause fear-related stress and distress.

How the bird experiences the act of tumbling in flight is not known. An affected individual might do it because it has been selected to enjoy this behaviour and so does it deliberately, or it may be that it is unable to prevent it, in which case it may be a source of frustration. The latter seems more likely as if it was a behaviour the bird had control over it seems unlikely that it would perform it to the extent that it hit the ground or to the extent that it would merely tumble over the ground at times when escape flight was required (eg to avoid a cat).

It is possible that a fleeting tumble in flight is not associated with unpleasant feelings but there is little doubt that welfare is affected when the condition is severe and leads to trauma due to collisions in flight or when tumbling on the ground.

Collision with the ground, trees or building when tumbling is likely to result in injuries which may be severe and painful.

The movement disability suffered by Parlor tumblers is severe. They are affected by a total inability to fly, and therefore the ability to escape from fear in the normal way for pigeons. The seizure-like somersaulting on the ground may cause severe disorientation and distress. Injuries from this totally unnatural method of movement, of rolling over the ground, are also likely.

3. Duration of welfare impact

These abnormal behaviours develop at a few months of age and then persist for life. There are no treatments.

4. Number of animals affected

All members of the affected breeds show these abnormal behaviours but to varying degrees.

5. Diagnosis

All members of the affected breeds show these abnormal behaviours but to varying degrees.

6. Genetics

There is clearly a genetic basis to these behaviours.

7. How do you know if an animal is a carrier or likely to become affected?

All individuals of these breeds are likely to be affected.

8. Methods and prospects for elimination of the problem

Individuals of these breeds, or of other breeds, that show these behaviours to the extent that they risk harming themselves should not be used for breeding.


For further details about this condition, please click on the following:
(these link to items down this page)


1.  Clinical and pathological effects

Tumbler pigeons have been recognised as a distinctive breed type for centuries and the selective breeding for their behavioural characteristic was highlighted by Darwin (1959). He wrote: ‘No one would ever have thought of teaching, or probably could have taught, the tumbler-pigeon to tumble, - an action which, as I have witnessed, is performed by young birds that have never seen a pigeon tumble. We may believe that some one pigeon showed a slight tendency to this strange habit, and that long-continued selection of the best individuals in successive generations made tumblers what they now are; and near Glasgow there are house-tumblers, as I hear from Mr Brent, which cannot fly eighteen inches high without going head over heels.’ 

The behaviour in most tumbling breeds is only noted during flight and is not present from fledging but rather appears when the birds are a few months old. Affected birds fly normally most of the time but have intermittent episodes of falling from the sky, whilst somersaulting backwards. Birds which tend to multiple somersaults are called rollers. Usually the birds regain control and continue to fly on in a normal manner. However, sometimes whilst somersaulting they may collide with the ground or with trees or buildings causing traumatic injuries which may be severe or fatal (Entrikin & Erway 1972). Owners call this a rolldown.

A more extreme form of the somersaulting abnormality is shown by the Parlor tumbler breed. In this breed, selection for tumbling has resulted in strains that can no longer fly, but which tumble as soon as they intend to take wing. This may be due to some defect in balance centres of the brain. When attempting to fly they, instead, somersault backwards across the ground until exhausted or they cease their attempt to fly. This abnormal behaviour is exploited in competitions in which owners of these pigeons compete to find whose bird covers the most ground by tumbling over it (see the video at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YhbtNUw3Oo.

The causes of this behaviour have been investigated to some extent. It is assumed that there is a neurological (nervous system) defect (Mowrer 1940, Entrikin & Bryant 1975). A problem with the vestibular apparatus of the inner ear (the sensory part of the balance mechanism) was initially considered but then rejected by Mowrer (1940). He went on to conclude that the pathology that resulted in this behaviour was likely to be within the vestibular parts of the cerebellum – the areas of the brain that are connected to the inner ear and which control movement and balance. Subsequently, an abnormality has been found at the junctions between peripheral nerves and skeletal muscle cells in Parlor tumblers but this is not considered to be the explanation for their tumbling behaviour (Entrikin & Bryant 1975). Smith et al (1987) showed that drugs affecting neuronal transmission in the brain reduced the somersaulting behaviour of Parlor tumblers which suggests that some abnormality in serotonin transmission in the brain may be the cause.

Return to top

2. Intensity of welfare impact

Flight is an inherent behaviour for pigeons, something that they are born with a motivation to do, and so an inability to fly normally is likely to have adverse welfare consequences. Flight is a normal response to fear, and the inability to escape in this way when startled may cause fear-related stress and distress.

How the bird experiences the act of tumbling in flight is not known. An affected individual might do it because it has been selected to enjoy this behaviour and so does it deliberately, or it may be that it is unable to prevent it, in which case it may be a source of frustration. The latter seems more likely as if it was a behaviour the bird had control over it seems unlikely that it would perform it to the extent that it hit the ground or to the extent that it would merely tumble over the ground at times when escape flight was required (eg to avoid a cat).  

Collision with the ground, trees or building when tumbling is likely to result in injuries that may be severe and painful.

The movement disability suffered by Parlor tumblers is severe. They are affected by a total inability to fly, and therefore the ability to escape from fear in the normal way for pigeons. The seizure-like somersaulting on the ground may cause severe disorientation and distress. Injuries from this totally unnatural method of movement, of rolling over the ground, are also likely.

Pigeons are flock animals and it is normal for them to try to keep up with the rest of the flock and they are likely to be distressed if unable to do so.

It has been suggested that occasional tumbling is a normal behaviour of pigeons – which might be used, for example, in attempting to escape from a flying predator such as a Peregrine falcon. Whether or not this is true, there is no doubt that the behaviour is very exaggerated in the tumbler breeds. It is difficult to know how the bird experiences this behaviour and whether it is deliberate or not, but there is no doubt about the welfare consequences when it leads to severe physical injuries caused by collisions during somersaulting.

Return to top

3. Duration of welfare impact

These abnormal behaviours develop at a few months of age and then persist for life. There are no treatments.

Return to top

4. Number of animals affected

All individuals of the affected breeds show these abnormal behaviours but to varying degrees.  Typically, the more severely affected birds are those that are valued more highly by owners – it is this that has driven selection for this abnormal behaviour.

Return to top

5. Diagnosis

Diagnosis is made by observation of the abnormal behaviours.

Return to top

6. Genetics

There is clearly a genetic basis to these behaviours as the frequency with which they occur is closely linked to breed. It has been suggested that the behaviour may be a perversion of behaviour seen in ancestral species (Baptista et al 2009). The specific genes involved have not been determined.

Return to top

7. How do you know if an animal is a carrier or likely to become affected?

All individuals of these breeds are expected to show the abnormal behaviour. Birds which show this behaviour are likely to pass it on to their offspring.

Return to top

8. Methods and prospects for elimination of the problem

For welfare reasons, it seems reasonable to propose that the breeds of Armenian tumbler, Australian performing tumbler, Berlin short-faced tumbler, English long-face tumbler, English short-faced tumbler, Iranian highflying tumbler, Komorner tumbler, Parlor tumbler, Syrian coop tumbler and West of England tumbler or individuals of other breeds that show these behaviours to the extent that they risk harming themselves should not be used for breeding.

Return to top

9. Acknowledgements

UFAW is grateful to Rosie Godfrey BVetMed MRCVS and David Godfrey BVetMed FRCVS for their work in compiling this section.

Return to top

10. References

Baptista LF, Martinez Gomez JE and Horblit HM (2009) Darwin’s pigeons and evolution of the Columbiforms: recapitulation of ancestral genes. Acta Zoological Mexicana 25: 719-741

Darwin C (1959) On the origin of species by means of natural selection or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. John Murray, London

Entrikin RK and Erway LC (1972) A genetic investigation of roller and tumbler pigeons. Journal of Heredity 63: 351-354

Entrikin RK and Bryant SH (1975) Electrophysiological properties of biventer cervicis muscle fibers of normal and roller pigeons. Journal of Neurobiology 6: 201–212

Mowrer OH (1940) The tumbler pigeon. Journal of Comparative Psychology 30: 515-533

Smith GN, Hingtgen J and William DeMyer W (1987) Serotonergic involvement in the backward tumbling response of the parlor tumbler pigeon. Brain Research 400: 399-402

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YhbtNUw3Oo accessed 2.9.2011

© UFAW 2011