On epileptic pigeons, and other matters

I had always thought of Turgenev as an essentially lyrical writer. So, on reading “My Neighbour Radilov” from Sketches From a Hunter’s Album, I was bit surprised by the following passage, in which the narrator describes how difficult it is to engage his neighbour Radilov in conversation:

I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t find in him any passion for food or wine or hunting or Kursk nightingales or epileptic pigeons or Russian literature or trotting horses or Hungarian jackets or cards or billiards or going dancing in the evening or paying visits to the local town or the capital or paper and sugar-beet factories or brightly decorated gazebos or tea parties or trace-horses driven into bad ways or even fat coachmen with belts right up to their armpits , those magnificent coachmen whose every movement of their necks, God knows why, makes their eyes literally pop out of their heads…
– Translated by Richard Freeborn, Penguin Classics

I had to make sure I hadn’t picked up something by Gogol by mistake. It’s not just that the narrator is depicting lunacy: the narrator himself is lunatic.

Nothing in this list is glossed by an editorial note. Does anyone know if “epileptic pigeons” have some sort of significance in 19th century Russian culture that I don’t know about?


15 responses to this post.

  1. Ain’t Google amazing! I googled epileptic pigeons and this is one of the responses, related to tumbler pigeons:

    Because they’re epileptic. Tumbler pigeons are bred deliberately for their epilepsy, a form of seizure that makes them tumble and twist as they fly. Apparently if you see a group of them doing it in unison it’s very impressive. Severely affected pigeons do not survive very long, but careful management of the breed perpetuates moderate seizures.


    • Well I never!

      Thank you very much for that. I had absolutely no idea about this. I suppose I could have researched a bit myself, but the whole thing seemed so daft that i assumed it was merely the author’s flight of fancy. Somehow, the fact that it is real makes it even more outrageous!

      The quoted sentence still seems to me bizarre: why should the narrator expect his neighbour to have these particular interests? I particularly like the last item in the list, where something that is mentioned merely as an example in part of a longer list starts acquiring a life of its own, and threatens to become a major aspect of the narrative itself. The effect is very Gogolian and is not something I’d expect from Turgenev.


  2. Posted by brian holihan on June 13, 2014 at 2:46 am

    “Tumblers” were used in Brooklyn N.Y. when I was a kid in the 1940’s by flock owners to break up a rival’s flock. In the ensuing panic, the thief would send up his flock and some of the first now confused flock would join the second. I actually saw it happen, and it was ok to shoot “tumblers” by the rules of the rooftops at that time. But I never saw anyone actually shoot one. This year in Istanbul I saw ‘tumblers’ in action for the first time in about 50 years. Flying pigeons for sport died in NYC many years ago, as far as I know.


    • Hello Brian, and thank you for your fascinating comment.

      As I said above in reply to SilverSeasons, i really had no idea! The phrase “epileptic pigeons” stood out for me as something so utterly mad, that it never occurred to me that it could be a real thing.

      Who first thought this up, I wonder? The very idea of breeding pigeons in order to foster their epilepsy is simply extraordinary! There’s a good short story to be written about this, I’m sure … If only i had the ability to write one!

      All the best,


      • Posted by alan on June 19, 2014 at 10:53 pm

        The only short story about racing pigeons that I’ve read is ‘Paloma’ by Carlos Martinez Moreno. No tumblers mentioned as far as I can recall.

  3. I can only say the commentaries here have been amazing!


  4. This story sounds interesting. The only thing I read of Turgenev was “Father’s and Sons”. I am going to find this book and add it to my TBR pile. Thanks for the review.

    And the comments about epileptic pigeons was very interesting. I had no idea. I can only imagine what that looks like.


  5. Here’s a link if you’d like to see a video of pigeons rolling. Apparently it’s a popular sport with some still today.


    • Hello Sharon, thank you very much for this! This is simply extraordinary!

      When I put up what i thought was a light, off-the-cuff post above, i had no idea it would generate so many fascinating replies!

      I am currently reading through Turgenev’s Sketches, alongside a Spanish novel by Benito Perez Galdos, and I’ll write more detailed posts on both once I’ve finished. Although, with the World Cup now on us (that’s football – or “soccer”, as it’s known on your side of the Atlantic!) I don’t know when I’ll get the time!

      All the best for now,


  6. It’s incredible how a nearly throw-away reference like that can unlock a whole strange world. Epileptic pigeons? Who knew? (Well, some of your readers, obviously!). Still, it’s worth going back to James Thurber’s wonderful There’s an Owl in My Room to be reminded of just how rare it is for pigeons to arouse any such interest.


    • It’s fascinating, isn’t it? I certainly hadn’t known, nor even dreamed, that reality could so out-trump surrealism. Fascinating though it is, there does seem something a bit grotesque about it all!


  7. This is a great little thread, and just the sort of reason I keep coming back to your blog, Himadri. Looking on the net, it seems there is considerable disagreement among pigeon fanciers about exactly why birds roll or tumble:


    with no-one sure whether it is a genetic abnormality, a way of avoiding predators, or just for fun. I was also surprised to discover that Birmingham Rollers are a well known breed in this country, possibly descended from one flock. As I’m from Birmingham, I realise my uncle would have kept them, as he was a fanatic pigeon fancier and had some tumblers among them. But even he wouldn’t have known for sure:

    “It is currently not known why the Birmingham Roller and other roller pigeons tumble. While it is true that the birds do perform backward somersaults in flight, the exact neurological causes of the rolling behavior are still unknown.” (from wikipedia article on Birmingham Rollers).

    Incidentally, ‘A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air’ is a line from early Keats that has always stuck with me, partly because it’s such a compelling image, and partly because I was never quite sure what tumbling was!


    • Here’s the most spectacular vid I’ve found on youtube of Birmingham Rollers:


      • It certainly has been a great thread – but thanks to the contributors rather than to me. I have never seen pigeons tumbling before, and this whole thing has been quite an eye-opener.

        I may have read that Keats poem before, but if I had, I hadn’t remembered it. I had to look it up.

        Thanks, everyone, for your all your contributions to this most enjoyable of threads.

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