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Pigeon article commissioned for and published by the print magazine, Homesteader's Connection

What is a pigeon?

You've no doubt run across a pigeon or two before. Whether it's in the city park, strutting around buildings and pecking at the bits of garbage that people carelessly drop, or living around a country barn or grain elevator, common pigeons can be found in virtually every moderate climate in the world. Common pigeons, as well as their domesticated counterparts descend ultimately from the European Rock Dove (classification: Columba livia). Just as with sheep, cattle, dogs, chickens, and goats, mankind figured out thousands of years ago that this animal could be domesticated. Furthermore, mankind discovered that this bird had an innate ability to return to its nest when taken a distance away. Through thousands of years of breeding, culminating with a couple of centuries of intense breeding for racing in and around Belgium, we now have the modern racing homer, a marvelous bird which can perform feats of speed, endurance, and homing which no other creature can match.

Externally, there isn't always much to distinguish a racing homer from a common pigeon. A typical homer weighs about one pound, and is about 12 to 13 inches long from head to tail, and with a wingspan from 20 to 24 inches. The most common color pattern for a pigeon is called "blue bar." A blue bar pigeon has a gray body with a white rump, and two dark blue or black bars on the folded wing. The racing homer has been bred mainly for speed, endurance, and homing ability. Color patterns are not necessarily important, but there are several color variations worth noting. There is a "blue check" which has no bars, but rather a checked pattern on the wings and back. The blue check pattern is almost as common as the blue bar. Additionally, you may see pigeons where a red, rust color has replaced the blue colors in both the bar and check patterns. Finally, you may see some mostly black pigeons, as well as some pure whites, which are sometimes used for wedding releases and other similar events.

What really makes a racing homer different from any other pigeon is not what shows on the outside, but what's inside his little head. Generations upon countless generations of selective breeding have produced a bird which is capable of being taken hundreds of miles away from his home to a place he's never been before, released freely into the air, and flying nonstop to return to his home at a speed averaging anywhere from 30 to 60 miles per hour.

Aside from the world of racing pigeons, many people breed and show fancy pigeons. A fancy pigeon, though derived from the same source as all domesticated pigeons, can be as different from a racing pigeon as a poodle is from a hunting dog. Some fancy breeds have feathered feet, a fanned tail, a puffed out crop, or a hood of feathers that grow from the neck and cover the head.

Breeds known as rollers, tipplers, and tumblers are also bred and trained for their acrobatic flying styles. It's also worth noting that there are some breeds raised for the table.

Building a loft

To properly care for a team of racing homers, you will need to provide them with a home. A specially constructed or modified shed for racing homers is called a "loft." Though the birds do not particularly care about their surroundings, the design of the loft can greatly aid in how well you will be able to care for and train them. A well-designed loft allows enough living space for the birds, with nestboxes for mated pairs and perches for young or otherwise unmated birds. A loft will contain specially designed containers for feed, water and grit. There should also be a window and an external flyout or pen to allow the birds access to the outside of the loft. Ventilation, as well as protection from drafts is also important. A "trap" will allow one-way passage from the outside of the loft to the inside.

One of the most important factors to consider when keeping pigeons is to allow them enough space to live. Pigeons, like any other creature, thrive when living in comfortable, uncrowded conditions. If you pack too many birds into a loft too small for them all, you risk bringing down their level of contentment and health. A good rule of thumb is to allow two square feet of floor space for each bird you wish to keep. As an example, I keep no more than 30 unmated birds in a pen measuring eight by eight feet. A breeding pen or pen for older mated birds might even allow more space per bird.

Breeding pairs and older mated racing birds, known as "old birds," will need a nestbox in which to make a home. A typical nestbox for breeders is around 24 x 12 x 12 inches. A nestbox for racing old birds can be smaller, since they won't necessarily be raising young. First year racers, also called "young birds," do not require a nestbox. Rather they will spend their time on perches mounted to the wall. The perches most often take the form of a set of shallow boxes measuring about 12 x 12 x 4 inches.

Birds are creatures of the air, and they need good air inside the loft to maintain proper health. A good loft will be designed to allow for old, stale air to be replaced with fresh, clean air. However, at the same time you are trying to achieve proper ventilation, you will want to make sure the birds are not subjected to a draft. Old hands in the racing sport tell me a sudden change in temperature will knock a bird out of racing form in no time. Vents at the level of the floor along with a roof vent will allow for a nice system of ventilation, which aids in drying out the bird's droppings and exchanging old air for new air.

At least one wall should have a window that can be opened. A window that is two feet wide or more would best, as the birds will eventually fly out of this window. Outside the window you should construct a "landing board." The landing board serves as a place where your birds can land when returning from a flight. A landing board can also serve as an aviary or flyout pen by covering it with removable screens.

Breeding

New pigeons can come from a few different sources. You may buy or be given young homers to train. However, for the most part, you will be breeding from stock every spring. For me, watching the courting process, observing the hen and cock take turns on the nest, and seeing a new chick hatch from an egg is one of the more rewarding aspects of the hobby. Typically, the cock will choose a nest. He will pick a hen and convince her to take up residence in his nest. You may supply nesting materials such as pine needles or tobacco stems by putting some inside the loft, which the cock will gather and bring to the hen. The hen will take the materials and build a loose, often sloppy structure that will serve as their nest. Often a nest bowl is supplied, in which the pair will eagerly assemble their nest.

Ten days after mating, the first egg of a two-egg clutch will appear. Usually the second egg will follow a day after the first. After both eggs are laid, the hen and the cock will take turns on the nest. The hen will usually sit in the morning and overnight, and the cock will sit during the afternoon. After about 17 days, the eggs will begin to chip. It can sometimes take up to a full 24 hour for the new chick to work his way out of the egg. Usually both eggs will hatch around the same time.

During the first few days of the young squab's life, he will be fed a diet of "pigeon milk" by both parents. Pigeon milk is a cheesy substance secreted on the inside of the parent's throats. Pigeons are unique in this method of feeding young. After a few days of pigeon milk, the young are fed regurgitated grains, again by both parents. Pigeons grow at a remarkable rate, seeming to double in size every day or two during the first couple of weeks. I am still surprised to see how just after 24 hours of life, the chick is already much bigger than the shell from which she came.

Around the fourth or fifth day after hatching, the young bird gets a permanent identification band slipped over the toes and on his leg. The band, also called a "ring," is usually a seamless clear plastic coated metal band bearing the name or code of a national level pigeon organization and a name or code of an affiliated racing club. In addition to these codes, the band also tells the year the bird was hatched, as well as serial number unique to the local club. After the sixth or seventh day, the young bird's leg and foot will have grown to the point that getting a band on or taking one off would become impossible. Once a bird has been banded, he is identifiable for life. All racing pigeon organizations require that a qualified racing bird be properly banded before it can be eligible for competition, whether it is for racing, rolling, tumbling, or showing.

At around 25 to 30 days, the young bird is fully feathered and nearly as large as his parents. By this time he should be capable of eating and drinking on his own, but left to his own devices, will still persuade his parents to feed him. It's usually at this age that the young birds are moved from their parent's pen to a pen of exclusively young birds of the same age.

Care

Care for pigeons is similar to the care given toward any other domestic animal. Pigeons require good, nutritious food, clean water, grit for minerals and digestion, and sometimes medication and vaccinations.

The best food for pigeons is a mixture of quality grains. Premixed sacks of feed are typically available at any feed and seed stores. A typical premixed bag of general-purpose pigeon food consists of Canadian field peas, popcorn, milo, hard wheat, maple peas, oat groats, red millet, white millet, canary grass seed, rice, and hemp seed. As of 2000, I pay about $15 for a 50-pound sack of premixed pigeon feed. I supplement the feed by mixing in popcorn kernels, also purchased at the feed and seed store for about $9 for a 50-pound bag.

Pigeon food is also available in a pellet form, but I do not recommend it. Some people like to feed pellets to parents when they are rearing young chicks, though, as they say it's easier for the young chicks to digest when the parents are feeding them. Grit is not required when feeding pellets, but all birds seem to enjoy eating grit when it is made available.

Water should be clean and available at all times. Though pigeons enjoy a bath, the water container should not be able to be utilized for that purpose.

Grit is needed for pigeons eating grains. Not only does grit provide for the necessary mechanical action needed in digesting grains, but also provides calcium and other minerals. Calcium is important for strong bones, and especially for healthy egg production. I buy oyster shell grit with some bits of charcoal mixed in for about $8 per fifty pound bag at my local feed and seed shop.

Since pigeons are perching birds, special containers for feed, water, and grit are necessary to prevent the birds from soiling and walking in their food, water, and grit. These types of containers are probably similar to what you might find in a chicken coop.

There is a full-blown science with respect to medicating racing pigeons. Some people have a veritable pigeon pharmacy in their home. Others prefer to let nature run its course with their birds.

One can buy antibiotics, probiotics, tonics, medicinal teas, oils and herbs, vitamins, and vaccines. At a minimum, I recommend fanciers vaccinate for PMV and pigeon pox: two common pigeon ailments, which left unchecked, can destroy years worth of breeding and conditioning.

Many of the medicines and tonics are obtained in a powder or liquid form for mixing in the food or drinking water, while the vaccines are injected using a hypodermic needle.

When someone decides to take up the sport of racing pigeons, not only does he or she become a breeder, nutritionist, trainer, coach and manager, but also a doctor, medic, and nurse.

Training

As I mentioned before, what makes a homing or racing pigeon so special is her ability to return to her home from an unfamiliar place over a distance of hundreds of miles while flying at a breakneck speed. Certainly a true racing pigeon has this instinct bred into her, but all the breeding in the world won't help you win a race (or deliver a message) if your bird is not trained.

Training a homer begins by teaching it when it is about to be fed. Most fanciers train their birds to answer to whistling and the rattling of grains in a feed can. This is accomplished simply by whistling and rattling the can whenever the birds are fed. Pigeons are smart, so it doesn't take them long to figure out the system.

The next step is to train the birds to trap. Trap training is necessary to ensure that when returning from a race, the birds pass from the outside of the loft to the inside of the loft by way of a specially designed "trap." A trap is needed during racing to allow the owner to physically stop the bird and remove the rubber-band like "countermark" from the bird's leg and place it inside a racing clock. There will be more on racing in the next section. When properly trained, your birds will immediately go inside the loft when your signal is given. The sight of seeing my birds land on the roof, descend to the landing board and enter the trap on my signal is another of the rewarding aspects of the hobby.

Once the birds are trap trained, it is time for them to really spread their wings and learn to fly. Make sure the birds are hungry by feeding a half ration the night before. Early in the morning before feeding, open up the landing board and the loft window and get all the young birds out onto the landing board. They may be a little hesitant to take to the wing, perhaps even returning right away to the safety of the loft. When a bird traps back inside the loft, be sure to reward it immediately with a small handful of food, as quick trapping is a desirable habit. After doing this for a few mornings, the birds will eventually start to flutter around. Usually they will fly up to the roof of your loft. You might see them flapping their wings in place, without ever going anywhere. You might then see some fly in tiny shallow circles just a foot or so off the loft roof. Eventually some of the more adventurous birds will start to fly in wider and wider circles.

Your goal for this so-called "loft flying" it to have all birds flying together as a group for at least a half-hour. Once the birds are comfortable with loft flying, you'll see them ranging longer and longer distances, sometimes disappearing for several minutes in one direction, only to see them zipping back overhead heading in the opposite direction. Be at the loft to feed them as they trap, making sure to issue your feeding call as you do it. It is this ranging that teaches the birds how to navigate the local area. Once your birds are loft flying as a group for thirty minutes or so, the real fun begins.

During this period of loft flying, you will have also been crate training your birds. This involves crating up the birds in specially designed training baskets in the morning instead of opening the loft window. Take the crates some distance away from the loft and release them from the baskets. They should be able to see the loft from the baskets. This experience helps the birds get used to the real meat of the hobby: road training.

Your first day of road training won't be much to brag about. You will crate the birds up in the morning before feeding and drive them about a mile away in the direction of the racecourse's line of flight. Let the birds sit in the crate for a few minutes and then release them all. They should all take to the air and begin circling as a flock. After a few circles they will usually head off in the direction of your loft. If they've been ranging properly up to this point, they no doubt know where they are the minute they get up in the air. Drive back home and be there in the loft to feed them as they trap.

Continue the road training from this release point until they are ready to be jumped out to the next training point. Typically when the birds are beating you home, it's time to move out to the next training point. For me, the points usually lie at one, two, three, five, ten, twenty-five, thirty-five, and finally forty-five miles. During the height of the training and racing season, I strive to train them out to forty-five miles two or three times a week. Once you've got the birds out to that distance, the emphasis of the training shifts from developing the homing skill to conditioning. The birds will obviously know the way home, but the conditioning will help them get into the shape and strength required for the year's races.

Racing

Many people keep pigeons for nothing more than the joy of seeing them fly. However, mix in the element of sport and the spirit of competition and you get one of the most unique of sports: pigeon racing. Races for pigeon range anywhere from 100 to 300 miles for young, first year birds, to 600 or 700 miles for older, more experienced birds.

Pigeon racing was probably born out of the commercial and military use of pigeons as messengers. In order for a messenger pigeon to do it's job effectively, it had to be fast. Messenger pigeons were counted on to be able to deliver a message quickly, from any reasonable location and in all sorts of conditions. In my imagination, it only seemed natural to the handlers of the messenger pigeons that they should put the birds into competition with one another to hone the bird's skills and keep them in condition. It's also not too much of a stretch to imagine the handlers of various lofts wanting to compete with one another, if for nothing else but bragging rights. Today, with the internet, fax machines, satellite television, and the postal service, there isn't much of a need for messenger pigeon services. However, the thrill of racing them has survived, and even thrived into the 21st century.

The first question many people have about the sport of racing pigeons is simply, "How do you race pigeons?" After all, the sport of racing is usually quite straightforward. We're all familiar with racing cars, people, horses, and dogs. In those sports, the competitors all start from the same starting line and race towards the same finish line. The first one across the finish line in the winner. Pigeon racing, where each bird flies to his home loft, is the race with one starting point and many finish lines.

On the night before a race, all club members competing in the race meet at the clubhouse for the shipping of the birds. Each member's race clock is synchronized with a master clock: an official time source. The birds are then "countermarked," which means they are registered for the race by having a special rubber band marker placed on their leg. The countermark features a serial number that is recorded on a race sheet along with the bird's permanent band number. When a bird arrives from a race, the countermark is removed from the bird's leg and placed into a special tamper-proof racing clock to authenticate and timestamp it's arrival. There is also an electronic scanning type of clock in which a special electronic band on the bird's leg and a computerized scanning system in the loft are utilized to replace the old fashioned rubber countermarks.

After a bird is countermarked and recorded in the race sheet, the bird is then loaded onto a special racing truck and/or trailer owned by the club. After all birds are loaded, the crates on the truck are sealed and a hired driver takes the birds to the predesignated release point. Assuming there is good weather at hand on the morning of the race, the driver, also known as a "liberator," opens all the crates at once allowing the birds to begin their race home. The liberator communicates with the race secretary before and during this time to ensure weather along the racecourse is acceptable, as well as to record the official release time.

When the birds begin to arrive at their home loft, you hope all the trap training and feed calls will pay off. Ideally, the birds will alight upon the landing board and go straight into the trap, knowing there is food, water, and good company just on the other side. The locked trap will stop the bird while you remove the rubber countermark and place it into your clock. Unlocking the trap will then let the bird through so she can get her reward. You lock the trap again and wait for the next bird. In the case of the electronic scanning systems, the bird simply passes over a scanning antenna in the trap without ever having to be stuck in a locked trap. The computer records the band's serial number and timestamp. One of the great advantages to the electronic scanning clocks is that you don't have to be home to clock the arrival of your birds.

I said that "ideally" the birds would go straight in. Sometimes they will linger or fool around on the roof for a while. The pigeons don't necessarily deem the race as important as you do. This is where the feed call comes into place. You grab your feed can, rattle and whistle and toss some grains on the inside of the loft floor. If you've done your training properly, and haven't been overfeeding, the feed call will get the pigeon's attention and jog his memory, reminding him about the task at hand.

After the race is over, the club members take their clocks back to the clubhouse. The clocks are all given one final timestamp to synchronize with the master clock's official time. This timestamp helps to calibrate the clocks in the events some ran fast or slow. Each clock is opened and the countermarks are removed one by one. Each countermark's serial number is matched with the serial number recorded on the race sheet the night before. The timestamp, and thus the time on the wing is recorded along with the bird's permanent band number.

To figure the winner of a race, the club's race secretary must know the exact distance from the race release points to each of the club member's lofts. These points are known by commissioning a professional survey to determine the exact latitude and longitude of the race release points and each and every club member. The race secretary also must know the exact time of release and arrival for each bird in the race. Knowing the exact distance the bird flew (usually in yards), and also knowing the exact time on the wing (usually in minutes), the average velocity (usually in yards per minute: YPM) can be computed. The bird with the fastest average velocity is the winner.

Conclusion

The sport and hobby of raising and racing homing pigeons is a thrilling, rewarding activity for homesteaders and city dwellers alike. It combines the science and discipline of animal husbandry and training with the excitement of organized and competitive sport. Even if you're not interested in the racing aspect, raising and training homers is a fascinating hobby; a hobby about which you will find yourself constantly thinking and talking. The space required for a loft is minimal, and though any serious hobby requires time, dedication, and money, the time and resources spent on your birds is relaxing and rewarding to the soul. The care and training of homers can be made a family activity, in which even young children can enjoy and be taught how to care for and respect these wonderful creatures.

If you've ever watched a flock of birds flying, and even playing in the air and felt a sense of wonder, or imagined what it must be like to simply pick up a bird and examine it's feathers, then the keeping of homing pigeons may be just what you need.

If you'd like to learn more about the fascinating hobby of homing pigeons, please contact me or any of the following racing pigeon associations:

Scott Redd
Email: redd@interbug.com
Web: http://interbug.com/pigeon

American Racing Pigeon Union
P.O. Box 18465
Oklahoma City, OK 73154-0465
Phone: 405-848-5801
Web: http://www.pigeon.org

National Pigeon Association
P.O. Box 439
Newalla, OK 74857-0439
Email: james4bird@aol.com
Web: http://www.npausa.com

Canadian Racing Pigeon Union
4500 Blakie Road, Unit 107
London, Ontario N6L-1G5
Phone: 519-652-5704
Email: crpu@crpu.org
Web: http://www.crpu.org

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