Written by: Dr. Jacquie Jacob, University of Kentucky
There are well over 500 species of wild pigeons and doves and more than 175 breeds of domestic pigeons. Pigeon breeders have developed pigeons with a wide variety of different characteristics. Some have been selected for meat production, some for athletic endeavors, and others for their plumage.
The breed of pigeon you select will depend on what the pigeons are being raised for. Whatever your interest—exhibition or performance—there is an appropriate breed of pigeon.
Common pigeon breeds raised for meat production include white king, red Carneau, French Mondain, and giant homers. Young pigeons bred for meat are called squab.Usually, squab have yet to fly and consume only "pigeon milk," which is formed in the crop of the parents during brooding. Squab are harvested just prior to leaving the nest, typically around 26 to 30 days of age. Each squab weighs about 17.6 oz. (500 g). Ten pairs of pigeons can produce eight squab each month. The level of production can be increased by providing a second nest for each pair. After eggs have hatched, the female pigeon will lay two more eggs in the second nest and incubate them while the male tends to the needs of the two squabs in the first nest.
There are several breeds of pigeons, which come in many sizes, shapes, and colors, that can be used for showing. A book of pigeon standards should be consulted for the specific characteristic of each breed. Some breeds were originally bred as utility pigeons but transitioned to show pigeons over the years. In general, the show-type pigeon is larger, blockier, and heavier than the utility breed from which it was first selected. Breeding to these new standards, however, has resulted in the loss of certain original characteristics, such as the careful feeding of young and rapid reproduction.
Ornamental breeds have unusual body conformation or striking plumage. Fantails, for example, have notably broad tails. They are not strong flyers and cannot see the approach of predators from behind or ahead, so they should be confined to the loft and fly pen. Similarly, Jacobins have a ruffle of feathers down the side of the neck and a hood of feathers on the top of the head. These feathers obscure the bird's vision in all directions except forward.
Figure 1. Exhibition pigeon. Source: John Anderson, The Ohio State University
Homing pigeons have been trained to return to their own lofts or cages when released. This talent can be used in a variety of activities, including carrying messages or racing. Pigeons were used to carry messages even in ancient Greece. During the time of the first Olympic games, pigeons carried news to townspeople waiting to hear how their favorite athletes had done. Messenger pigeons were used in World Wars I and II to carry messages between fighters in the field and command posts. Many soldiers owed their lives to messages carried by pigeons. The most famous pigeon is Cher Ami who, in World War I, flew 25 miles in 25 minutes to bring word of the "Last Battalion." He did this with his leg shattered by shrapnel and a hole in his breast. GI Joe, another messenger pigeon, saved the lives of Allied soldiers in 1943. The message he carried prevented the shelling of ground that had been captured ahead of schedule. He landed with the message just as the bomber planes were set to take off.
More recently, pigeons have been used in commercial endeavors. For example, a rafting company found they could sell more photos of rafters in action if the photos were waiting for the rafters when they reached their final destination. The photographer would stand by the side of the river to take photos, and pigeons carried the film ahead of the rafters so that photos were ready when the rafters finished their ride. Homing pigeons have also been used in a variety of different ceremonies, white pigeons (doves) in particular. Weddings and funeral are common places to release white pigeons. Disney maintains a flock of white pigeons for release at different events.
Pigeon races took place in Belgium as early as the 1700s. Belgian immigrants brought this sport, and the pigeons, with them to the United States. Racing pigeons are tight-feathered and very rugged. Young racing pigeons typically participate in races of up to 300 miles, while older pigeons can be raced over 500 to 1000 miles. Racing pigeons have to be trained to fly home to their own loft. Only young pigeons raised in a particular loft can be used for racing. Older pigeons purchased from other breeders might attempt to fly to their original loft if released.
Roller pigeons are used as performance birds because they spin backward in somersaults while falling through the air. The faster the somersaults, the better the performance. Fanciers have different preferences for the quality of a good roller. Some prefer rollers that roll with higher frequency; others consider how deep the birds fall when spinning their somersaults. Rollers are usually flown in kits, groups of about 20 birds.The greater the number of pigeons performing together, the more valuable the kit. Several national conventions for roller fanciers are held throughout the United States each year. Tumbling pigeons are similar to rollers, but they do their rolls on the ground since they can't fly. The record for the longest roll is over 100 ft. These pigeons have to be raised as ground birds since they cannot fly up to perches or nest boxes.
There are other athletic competitions for pigeon fanciers. Diving pigeons fly to a high altitude and then dive back to the loft on command. Flocking involves sending the flock for exercise and having them fly into another fancier's flock to bring back a few foreign pigeons to the loft. Thieving involves using a male pigeon to entice females of a different fancier back to the loft.
Figure 2. Racing pigeon. Source: John Anderson, The Ohio State University
Figure 3. Tumbler pigeon. Source: John Anderson, The Ohio State University
The breed you select and the location where you live dictate the type of loft best suited for your flock. Before starting a flock, check town, city, county, and/or state regulations regarding pigeon production in your area. Regulations might restrict the type of loft facility you can use or where it can be located on your property. You can use an existing building (old barn, greenhouse, child's playhouse, and so on) or construct a new one. It is commonly recommended that you have 27 cu. ft. of space for every pair of pigeons. It is important to remember that during the breeding season, the number of pigeons in the flock will increase by two for each nest. If you are not harvesting the young as squab, it is common to maintain a separate loft for keeping the offspring that have left the nest. It is acceptable to leave offspring in the same loft as their parents, as long as there is sufficient room for the increased number of pigeons.
Your loft must meet three basic criteria:
Your pigeons must be sheltered from the elements, especially young birds. The pigeon loft can be very simple, but it must have a roof. The loft must be kept dry—pigeons can tolerate extremes in temperature, but they must be kept dry. Pigeons kept in a damp facility are at risk of developing diseases. The loft must also provide the pigeons with protection from predators such as cats, dogs, and rats.
It is common to provide pigeons with their own "cubicals" within a loft. These compartments are sometimes referred to as perches, but they are different than the perches used with chickens. A simple design uses a board 1 inch deep by 12 inches wide board divided into compartments 10 inches high by 12 inches wide. Placing a board 1 in. x 4 in. board across the bottom front will keep nest materials, eggs and squabs from falling out of the nest.
There are several different types of feeders and waterers available. It is important, however, that you protect these items from bird droppings. Give birds access to bath pans once or twice a week for about two hours each time. The baths should be shallow (water depth of 2 to 3 in.) and large enough to accommodate several birds. If the bathing space is too small, the pigeons may pile up on top of each other and those on the bottom could suffocate or drown. It is important to remove the bath after a short period of time so the birds do not drink dirty water and become sick.
You must provide your pigeons with feed, water, and grit. All are essential, and a shortage of one can adversely effect the health of the flock. As with wild pigeons, domestic pigeons feed on grains and seeds. They seldom eat worms, grubs, or insects.
When purchasing grain for your flock, it is important that it not be new grain (grain right out of the field) or spoiled in any way. Recently harvested grain (less than three months old) is not handled well by pigeons. If the birds are fed a great deal of new grain, the pigeons will soon exhibit ruffled feathers; some birds will vomit, and others will have diarrhea. Young squab may die within a few days if their parents are fed new grain. It is best to use old grain that has a low moisture content. Old grains are dry and hard, which pigeons prefer. Seasoned grain is not usable, however, if it has spoiled. Proper storage of grain is essential. To detect spoilage in the grains, rub a small handful between your palms and then smell the grains. If they smell moldy or musty, do not use them as feed.
Pigeons thrive most when fed a variety of different grains. Although pigeons can survive on only one or two grains, they will do better with a combination of four or more grains. Possible grains include corn, wheat, sorghum, oats, barley, rye, or rice. Buckwheat, legume seeds, peas, soybeans, vetch, and peanuts can also be used. Feed only as much grain as the pigeons will finish in a single feeding. It is important that no grain be left on the floor of the loft where it can become moldy.
The grit fed to pigeons is different from that fed to chickens. In addition to providing material to aid in digestion in the gizzard, pigeon grit also provides the salts and minerals that pigeons cannot get when in confinement and fed a mixture of grains. Pigeon grit should include salt, iodine, trace minerals, sulfur, iron, bonemeal (for calcium), and charcoal, along with oyster shell and granite. The mixture must contain the right proportions of the different substances. While no animal can remain healthy without salt, too much will poison a pigeon. The sulfur helps prevent pigeon pox. Charcoal "sweetens the crop" and offsets the effects of any moldy grain the pigeon might pick up. Pigeons do not require a lot of grit;a pair of pigeons will eat 6 lb. per year.
Squab raising. Gerry Bolla, New South Wales Department of Primary Industries.
4-H pigeon and dove project. Ohio State University.
The Pigeon Guide: Practical breeding, training and management. Shannon Hiatt and Jon Espositio.
Pigeons for pleasure and profit: A complete guide to pigeon raising. Charles Fay and Clair Hetland.