Pigeon Fancy: Talking the Talk

What is a fancy pigeon?

The association between pigeons and humans dates back as early as 3000 to 5000 BC (Hooimeijer 1997). Humans eat pigeons. We use them in laboratory animal medicine. We care for them as cherished pets or aviary birds. We use their athleticism in competitions and for entertainment, and in the past we have even flown them for important communications (Fig 1).

Pigeons are among the most ancient domesticated animals in the world. They were originally used as utility birds [for] meat, fertilizer, and feather products… — Hooimeijer 1997

GI Joe Pigeon

Figure 1. Pigeons were frequently used for communication in wartime before invention of the wireless. Shown here, GI Joe or Pigeon USA43SC6390 brought a message that arrived just in time to save the lives of over 100 Allied soldiers. Click image to enlarge.

There are various classifications of fancy pigeon, which are all descendants of the rock pigeon or rock dove (Columba livia):

  • Racing or homing pigeons, also known as “homers”, are the “marathon athletes” of the pigeon world, capable of long distance flight (Figures 2 and 3).
    Racing pigeons

    Figure 2. The first racing pigeon that passes the red buoy is the winner. Photo credit: J Ken Crozier via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

    Pigeon Race

    Figure 3. Racing pigeons. Photo credit: Richard Elzey via Flickr Creative Commons Click image to enlarge.

  • Ornamental pigeons are another type of fancy pigeon that were developed for their beauty. They may be pastel colors of soft blues, grays, striking black and white, or a variety of colors, patterns, and/or conformations (Fig 4).
  • Flying and performance pigeons, such as tipplers, high flyers, and rollers, were bred for their aerial acrobatic abilities. A kit is a group of up to 30 performing pigeons.
  • Utility pigeons are raised for meat or squab. These large breeds are also popular as laboratory animals.

    Satinette Oriental Frills

    Figure 4. Shown here, Satinette Oriental frills. Photo credit: Ómar Runólfsson. Click image to enlarge.

Pigeon fancy vocabulary terms

This practice of pigeon fancy is generally called “pigeon racing” in North America and “pigeon play” in Europe. The principles of pigeon fancy are intricate and there are a variety of vocabulary terms that can seem quite mysterious (Table 1). There is also a history of resistance to veterinary involvement among many pigeon breeders so it can be intimidating for even experienced avian veterinarians to interact with the pigeon fancier.

Table 1. Pigeon fancy vocabulary terms
TermDefinition
BillingExchange of crop contents between adults during courtship, also known as “kissing”
Bull or polygamous systemSystem of polygamous breeding often used to breed numerous hens to a prepotent cock
CockMale bird
CrestReversed swirl of feathers on back of head
DarkeningShort day photoperiod system that forces molt
DovecoteFacility where pigeons are housed, also known as a “coop” or “loft”
FlightsFlight pens attached to loft for captivity, outdoor exercise
HomerShort for a homing or racing pigeon
FrillTuft of feathers that swirl on breast, also a breed of pigeon
KissingExchange of crop contents between adults during courtship, also known as “billing”
KitGroup of 20 or fewer performing flying pigeons
LoftFacility where pigeons are housed, also known as a “coop” or “dovecote”
Lost pigeonBirds that do not return home
MuffsFeathers on legs and feet, see “slippered”
NestplayA classic method of racing pigeons, also known as the natural system in the United States, that uses the pigeon’s natural desire to return to its nests. Birds are allowed to have a nestbox. When the hen lays eggs, the male bird is inspired to return home faster. When females are raced they will want to return to the nest faster to lay their next clutch.
SlipperedLight feathering on legs and feet, see “muffs”
SquabUnfledged baby pigeon OR pigeon meat
SqueakerWeaned or weaning fledgling with an immature squeaking voice
WidowhoodA breeding system popular with many fanciers. Pairs are allowed to raise their chicks, but male birds are separated from females for the entire week during the racing season. This form of “pigeon play” or racing is most commonly used with cocks but is also possible with hens. In “double widowhood" females are flown as well as males.

A lesbian hen system is also very successful in which there are no males to be seen or heard, as they are not kept in the same loft. Hens are housed in pairs and allowed to lay four eggs. Some fanciers prefer this system as more pigeons can be housed in a given space without the danger of fighting.
Young birdA first year pigeon between weaning and maturity.

Training birds in pigeon sport

Homing or racing pigeon play is based on the bird’s inherent homing instinct. Birds will fly hundreds of miles under any conditions to return “home”. By definition, birds that are maintained for show or racing purposes are kept in open flocks as these birds have frequent, usually weekly, contact with pigeons from other lofts or pigeon coops.

During the racing season, birds from different lofts are confined together in baskets, driven a distance away, and released to return home (Figure 5 and Figure 6). Young birds or poorly trained individuals may also come into contact with wild pigeons during races or training sessions. Therefore when pigeons from different lofts are placed together and then released, not all birds return home. Lost pigeons frequently enter strange lofts.

Pigeons confined to boxes prior to release for a race

Figure 5. Pigeons confined to boxes prior to release for a race. Photo credit: James Brunskill via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Close-up of a pigeon in box

Figure 6. Close-up of a pigeon in a box. Photo credit: James Brunskill. Click image to enlarge.

In Europe, the racing season is from April to September. There are three basic systems for racing pigeons. All systems are related to the breeding season, which occurs during fall/winter in the Northern Hemisphere. These systems also require strict scheduling, discipline, and a substantial time commitment. For optimal condition, pigeons are trained daily.

In North America it is generally too hot for birds to fly in August. The breeding season generally extends from January to May. Young birds hatched that spring will race in October and November, or sometimes a bit later. Birds typically begin racing at approximately 9-10 months of age. For adult or “old” birds, the racing season is in April and May.

  • Nestplay or the natural system is the classic method for racing pigeons, which is based on the adult bird’s natural desire to return to the nest. Pairs stay together during the week, then either hens or cocks are raced depending on the status of the nest.
  • Widowhood is another popular method of pigeon racing. Adult birds are separated by gender for the entire week during the racing season. Widowhood is played mostly with cocks, but is also possible with hens.
  • Young pigeon play or young pigeon racing was traditionally designed to train young pigeons but this system has become an important part of racing sport. Young birds are taught to “perch” or return to the security of shelter and food.

Racing pigeons perform best when they have full plumage and minimal molting or new feather growth. Young pigeons normally molt at the end of the summer, which can put birds at a disadvantage during the racing season. The darkening system is used to manipulate molting by darkening lofts for 10 to 12 hours each day. Maintaining young pigeons on short days tricks pigeon physiology causing birds to rapidly molt body or covert feathers but not flight feathers. Darkening is best started after weaning or before the racing season begins in the fall. Darkened young pigeons can generally not be used after racing for winter breeding or for shows in the fall. These birds will enter a molting cycle once they are exposed to regular photoperiod. Some fanciers also believe darkened pigeons do not perform optimally in future years and are more sensitive to illness.

A more common option to manipulate molt occurs during July, approximately 1.5 to 2 months before the racing season begins. Some pigeon fanciers will pull out the tenth and sometimes the ninth, primaries, so that these important flight feathers have molted.

Breeding fancy pigeons

Because pigeon racing is closely associated with breeding, many pigeon fanciers keep detailed records of their birds and their pedigrees. Individual pigeons are usually identified by leg bands. In Europe, the last two digits on the band is typically the year the bird was hatched. While American bands also list the year of hatch, they often include a number and something to indicate the club or association that has issued the band.

For instance, the leg band of one of Dr. X’s birds read “14 PRO”. PRO indicating the Pigeon Racers of state “Y” and 14 is the identifying number for this individual bird.

There are three main breeding systems that are employed:

  • In classic breeding, preparation for breeding begins in early February in the Northern Hemisphere. In the United States, pairs are put together during the last week of November. Eggs are laid during the second or third week of December and chicks are hatched by January, February, or March at the latest (Figure 7).

    Chicks hatch early in the year

    Figure 7. Chicks hatch early in the year. Photo credit: Philippa Willitts via Flickr Creative Commons Click image to enlarge.

  • Winter breeding is another popular system that starts in November or December in Europe.
  • The bull system is a polygamous breeding program in which numerous hens are bred to one dominant cock. This system is often used for a valuable male bird, from which a large number of chicks are desired.

Unfledged baby pigeons are called squabs (Fig 8). Squabs are generally able to fly by 5 weeks of age. These fledglings, with their immature squeaking voices, are called squeakers once they are weaned or weaning. A juvenile pigeon is defined as a young bird during its first year between weaning and maturity.

A juvenile rock dove

Figure 8. A juvenile rock dove. Photo credit: John Liu via Flickr Creative Commons Click image to enlarge.

Successful flock maintenance

Success in pigeon fancy requires optimal environmental conditions including proper nutrition, husbandry, and preventive care.

Housing

Normal pigeon housing, also called a loft or dovecote, is derived from a time when fanciers kept birds in the attics of their homes. Lofts often face south or southeast. The ideal loft should be:

  • Draft-free but well-ventilated
  • Warm and dry with a temperature at the beginning of the racing season that is 12-13°C (53-55°F) minimum. In cooler climates, loft temperature should not exceed 28°C (82°F) and relative humidity does not exceed 70%. Nevertheless pigeons are housed in a variety of climates and are exposed to a range of environmental temperature and humidity levels.
  • Wire flooring is frequently preferred to prevent contact with feces.

The loft can also includes attached flight pen(s) or flights for outdoor exercise of confined birds. Although housing density recommendations vary, there should generally be no more than 2 or 2.5 birds per cubic meter (or 20 birds per 2 m x 2 m x 2m).

The loft ideally houses young birds separately from breeding birds to minimize the risk of disease transmission, however it is most important to avoid overcrowding. If ages are mixed, each loft should contain no more than two young pigeons, two adult females, and one adult male per cubic meter. Therefore one loft of 2 x 2 x 2 m (8 cubic meters) could hold 16 young pigeons, 16 adult females, and eight adult males, assuming individual bird personalities are compatible.

Nutrition

Feeding regimens vary among pigeon fanciers. Pigeons are often fed free choice, however during the training season racing pigeons may be fed once daily given only what they can eat in 20 to 30 minutes. Regardless of the feeding regimen used, pigeons must be monitored closely as breeding and racing increase the bird’s need for nutrients and calories. Pigeon fanciers routinely pick up their birds to keep track of body weight.

Preventive medicine

Pigeon fancy medicine focuses on management of a healthy flock composed of viable individuals. It is not uncommon for a minimum of 20% to 30% of young pigeons to be culled on an annual basis by the fancier.

Preventive health measures are critical to ensure the health of the flock:

  • Quarantine birds for at least 30 days.
  • Perform regular physical examinations.
  • Monitor for parasites and provide year-round control as needed.
  • Regular vaccination is also needed to protect birds from infectious disease. Depending on the geographic region and the incidence of the disease in that region, birds may be vaccinated with vaccines against paramyxovirus-1, poxvirus, and paratyphoid. There is also a salmonella bacterin available, although results are typically not very good.

Vaccines are administered to adult pigeons at least annually at the beginning of the year or up to 8 weeks before the racing or breeding season. Vaccines can be given to birds as young as 4 weeks of age or when transferred from breeding pen to race pen.

Beware of unique vaccine administration routes in pigeon fancy. In fact at this time, there are no intramuscular vaccine injections. The poxvirus vaccine is administered into an epilated feather follicle on the lateral thigh or in another region that can be visually monitored. Birds cannot bathe after poxvirus vaccination.

Therapeutics

Since injections into the pectoral muscle mass might affect race performance, intramuscular injections are made in the thigh. Subcutaneous injections are historically given into the base of the neck to avoid the extensive plexus venous intracutaneous collaris. An alternate subcutaneous injection site is the loose skin anterior to the thigh.

 

Conclusion

The veterinarian’s interaction with the pigeon fancier can range from superficial and brief to deep and varied. Any interaction with this complex and interesting pastime carries special challenges for the avian veterinarian, however a basic understanding of the sport and vocabulary can serve to make this process run much more smoothly for all concerned.

 

References