THE SYRIAN TARBESH
(Abu Abse Wammentauben) in Australia
By Dr Colin Walker BSc, BVSc, MRCVS, MACVSc (Avian health)
From a pigeon point of view, Australia was genetically isolated from the rest of the world from 1956 until 1989. This was because of the import ban on all birds. This meant that the Australian pigeon gene pool remained essentially unaltered (apart from a few illegal imports) for over 30 years. The pigeons that were in Australia at this time reflected the migration pattern into Australia prior to 1956 and so the breeds present essentially originated from the UK and western Europe. Many pigeon fanciers in Australia throughout this time, although very familiar with these breeds and colour varieties within them, were largely unfamiliar with the types of pigeon found in other parts of the world.
Through the ages, pigeon breeding has occurred in many parts of the world and because of the difficulty of travel in earlier times often this has occurred in relative isolation. Desirable mutations that appeared in these discrete populations of pigeons were selected for and through time stabilized into breeds. Many of these genetic characteristics were totally unfamiliar to the Australian fancy pigeon scene. Australian fanciers had essentially been cocooned for over 35 years, breeding from birds that for the most part originated from the UK and western Europe. The situation has now changed.
Since the 1970s, with Australia’s broadening immigration policy and the relaxation of the import ban, Australia now finds itself in the fortunate situation of having citizens who have an awareness and familiarity with breeds exotic to Australia from many parts of the world and also the ability to import them. As a result, many new and wonderful breeds have appeared, including the German Beauty Homer, Nuremburg Lark, Komoner Tumbler and Rshev Tumbler, etc, etc. But for me, the real treasure trove of new genetic material is that found in the Middle East. Here the breeding of colour and performing pigeons was popular and established well before the Christian era and because it occurred in relative isolation from Europe, many different breeds, many with genetic characteristics not found in European breeds, appeared. Many of these breeds don’t have English names and we simply don’t have English terms to describe the colours many occur in.
In earlier times, only a few of the breeds developed in the Middle East ever reached the West. Along the way, their original names were given an English version, eg Scandaroon, Oriental Frill. Since 1989, however, many breeds and new colours within breeds that originated in the Middle East have appeared in Australia including the Damascene, the Egyptian and Syrian Swifts, Dewlaps, and Lebanons.
If one visits various Syrian, Turkish or Lebanese web sites, however, one can see that these are just the tip of the iceberg.
One particularly fascinating breed to recently reach Australia is the Syrian Tarbesh. Known in many parts of the world as Abu Abse Wammentaube (literally black, crowned or crested dewlap pigeon). This is an ancient breed originating from Syria whose outstanding features are its unique crests, green eyes, and intense black colour with its accompanying sheen. This amazing bird is not only black but iridescent black (similar to the black of an Archangels wing) all over. It has 14-24 tail feathers. The Tarbesh has deep green eyes and a pair of crests, one on each side of its head. Each crest originates just behind the cere, runs just above the eye (like an exaggerated eyebrow) and stops on the back of the head. The crest feathers curve in, so that it is possible for a good specimen to hold a cigarette or pen on the top of its head. Also the crest does not appear until the first moult at 4-5 months. All of the youngsters are smooth-headed. No European crested breed has an acquired crest; all have their crests always present.
The Syrian Tarbesh was initially imported into Australia by a Syrian ex-patriot, living in Melbourne, Adnan Alsaleem in the mid 1990’s. Only one cock and one hen were ever imported. I got to know Adnan both as a client and as a friend around this time and visited his lofts several times. During these visits I saw the Tarbesh and was fascinated by them. They were so different from all other pigeon breeds that I had experienced and almost seemed like a pheasant/pigeon hybrid. Adnan moved back to Syria in the early 2000’s and he offered the Tarbesh for sale to me. I jumped at this opportunity and bought all of them. Having said that, at this time there were only 4 purebred birds in the country. These birds moved to my lofts and although appearing in good health and being keen to breed, their fertility was a problem.
In the first year only 4 youngsters were produced. As the years rolled by, it proved difficult to establish the breed. Each year only 4 or 5 youngsters were bred and gradually all of the original birds died, essentially of old age. In 2009, 7 birds were bred which brought the total to only 16 in Australia, all housed in my lofts. In 2010 I had a special loft built just for the Tarbesh. This loft contains two 6x8 foot sections with a central service corridor. Each section has a suspended aviary attached to its front. The 16 Tarbesh were placed in the loft. Thick straw was put on the floor, they were fed only Australian Pigeon Company Maintenance Pellets supplemented with G9 Pigeon Grit and were given the opportunity to bathe weekly. Apart from this they were left undisturbed. In that breeding season, 2010, 35 youngsters were bred. I consider this the breakthrough year and there are now [ August 2011 ], 51 Tarbesh in Australia. Some of these youngsters are absolutely magnificent and as good or better than any Tarbesh I have seen in Europe or the Middle East. The interesting point is that one would expect that the quality of the birds would decline. They are now incredibly inbred, all having descended from the single cock and hen that were imported. In fact the opposite seems to be happening. The birds are robust and strong, with many being excellent examples of their breed with deep green eyes, high, well-developed crests and a deep black iridescent sheen. The fertility of the younger pigeons is also normal. The thought is that this is because the birds have been well maintained, have not been exposed to significant pathogens such as Salmonella[ which have the potential to damage their gonads and also compromise health generally] and are on a complete and balanced diet.
Throughout the world, although being prized by Middle Eastern fanciers particularly, Tarbesh have never been a common breed. In 2009, I visited the German National pigeon show at Leipzig. Even though 35,000 pigeons were exhibited, there were only 6 Tarbesh. I was told that these all originated from a single pair imported from Libya. Speaking to friends and clients who are pigeon fanciers in Syria and Lebanon, they have reported that the breed there is rare and highly prized. Good quality birds fetch premium prices, particularly from fanciers from Saudi Arabia and other nearby Middle Eastern countries. I have seen videos of several magnificent Tarbesh at liberty around their lofts in Lebanon but these birds were no better than the best Australian birds. Adnan is an expert pigeon fancier and being from Syria himself, this placed him in an excellent situation to access the best birds. The original birds he imported were of the very highest quality. It appears that the stud of birds in Australia now represents a significant gene pool of this breed in the world. Australian fanciers have already shown themselves to be world class with other breeds such as Jacobins and some of the tumblers. With our comparatively big back yards, stable society, skilled fanciers, access to veterinary care and good quality grain, maybe in the future the Syrian Tarbesh as well as other breeds can be added to this list.