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Breeding - (Chapter 4)...
Author: Guy BarrettTitle: Breeding - (Chapter 4)
Date: 2002-09-30 22:37:11Uploaded by: webmaster
Most fanciers mate their birds between the end of February and the middle of March. The problem of which bird to pair to which, in hope of breeding a champion, is one which deserves much thought. Good fanciers spend many hours considering this point during the winter evenings, and it is true to say that the fanciers who race successfully year after year are those who have the knack of paring the right cock with the right hen. This queston will be discussed further in a later chapter 10 (Click Here for Chapter 10).

Having decided to pair up, the box-perches on the back of the loft should be removed, and the nest-boxes fitted. The floors of the boxes may then be covered with a layer of sand to make them easy to clean. Allow yourself plenty of time when pairing up, and be prepared to proceed slowly. Choose a sunny day if possible, for the birds will pair more readily on such a day. Begin by putting all the cocks into the boxes, as previously planned, and shut them in. A cock should be given the same nest-box each year throughout his life. He will always try to claim the one he had the previous year, so if he is allowed to retain it, much unwanted and possibly bloody fighting is prevented. If he is to be paired to a different mate from the one he had before, it is the hen which should be moved to a new box. Hens are much more amenable as regards which nest-box they occupy and are therefore easier to settle to a new one.

When all the cocks are in the boxes, put the hens into the boxes one by one. Spend a few minutes watching each pair to make sure that they take to each other. Some cocks are extremely vicious, and care must be taken to see that such a cock does not scalp a young hen which is unwilling to pair, probably because it is not used to being confined in a nest-box. Old Birds pair more quickly and more easily than yearlings.

If after five minutes or so it is apparent that a cock and hen which you have put together are not going to pair, try putting them by themselves in the Young Bird loft for an hour where they will not be disturbed by the other birds. If this is successful return to their nest-box; if not, let them out of the loft for a fly and they will usually pair up on the loft-top after landing. This is no doubt due to the fact that they feel more at ease out in the fresh air than in a strange box. When the pairs have settled down nicely (after an hour or so), the nest bowls in which the hens will lay their eggs can be put into the boxes - one to each box. Put a small amount of sand into each bowl first and place them at opposite ends of adjacent nest-boxes so that, later on, if a bird goes into the box next to its own by mistake it can tell the difference.

The birds must be taught to recognise their own nest-boxes. Let one pair out at a time, for about half an hour. If it is possible let them find their way back to their own box before shutting them in, and letting out another pair. Much patience is required for this especially with yearlings, and if they do not go back to the nest-box on their own, they must be caught and put back. After a day or so, it should be possible to let out two pairs at the same time - say the right pair in the top left-hand box, and the bottom left-hand etc.. By gradually increasing the number of pairs out at a time, all the birds should be trained to their boxes within five or six days.

As soon as this stage is reached, let the birds out for a fly. Allow them to come and go as they please for an hour or two, but you must watch them to make sure there is no fighting caused by birds getting into the wrong boxes. Be careful not to leave too many free in the loft at night until they are completely settled in their nest-boxes. It is important to achieve this before the hens lay, so as to avoid broken eggs through fighting.

After they have been paired a day or so, the cocks will start to "drive" their hens to nest. This means that the cock follows his mate everywhere, and is only happy when she is in the nest-box. Driving continues until she lays, eight, nine or ten days after pairing. Besides making sure that she does not become the victim of the attention of the other cocks, it also, due to the exercise involved, has the effect of removing any excess fat which might otherwise prevent the hen laying easily. During this time the cock even tries to prevent his mate from eating but, in fact, she receives quite sufficient for her needs from him, by regurgitation. So there is no cause for the new fancier to worry.

Pigeons lay two white eggs, as do all members of the dove family, the first one about six o'clock in the evening, the second 46 hours later. A great advantage of allowing the birds outside for a few days before they are due to lay is that it gives the cocks the opportunity to mate their hens without being interrupted by the other cocks, as they often are in confined space of the loft. Also some cocks spend many hours collecting twigs and sticks for the nest, and the hens place these in position, which helps them to learn their boxes, and makes "a house into a home".

The pigeons begin "sitting" in earnest as soon as both eggs have been laid. The hen sits from about five or six o'clock in the evening until ten o'clock the next morning. The cocks sits the remainder of the time, that is, from ten o'clock in the morning until five or six in the evening. The bird which is sitting will not leave the eggs until it is relieved by its mate.

The period of incubation is seventeen or eighteen days, that is nineteen or twenty days after the date of the first egg. During this period it is important that the birds should be allowed to sit without being disturbed, especially if the weather is cold. Your goal must be "to breed a champion", and if you are to do this, everything must be as favourable as possible. Obviously, if eggs are allowed to go cold for a time, the youngsters they produce cannot be as good as they would have been had this not occured. When the eggs are about nine days old, those which are fertile can easily be distinguished from those which are not; they become opaque, whereas the infertile eggs remain clear.

Usually both youngsters hatch within an hour or two of each other. The first sign that eggs have hatched is the presence on the floor of the empty shells which the mother has brought out of the box. The youngsters are completely helpless at this age. Their eyes are not yet open and, if left for a few minutes while the parent feeds, would quickly die of cold. Both parents feed the nestlings during their respective duties on the nest, on what we call "pigeon milk". This is a creamy yellow substance formed in the crop of the parent bird. It is regurgitated and fed to the young bird, which puts its beak into that of its parent, so that the food is transfered directly from one bird to another. This "soft food" lasts about four or five days, and is extremely nutritious. So much so, in fact, that the youngsters grow at a tremendous rate. In the first six days of its life the weight of a youngster increases from three quarters of an ounce to six ounces. The parents only make this soft food when the eggs are due to hatch. As the milk is fed to the youngsters, the supply increases. If the eggs do not hatch, of course none is used, and the small initial supply is absorbed by the adult bird, and no more is created.

Ringing a Youngster.

When the youngster is 7 days old, it must be "rung". The fancier must obtain a supply of the official Union metal rings from his club, and one must be put on each youngster. (These are in addition to the rubber race-rings which each bird carrys when racing - See Chapter 1). If the ring is put on when the bird is too young, there is always the danger it will come off and, by the time the fancier finds this out, the youngster will be too big to be re-rung. The ring should be put on the right leg, and upside down (as in the photograph). This is not so that the pigeon can see its number, but so that the owner can read it conveniently when handling the bird! The three toes which point toward the front must be put through the ring first. The ring is then pulled over the pad, the back toe and claw, until it is possible to pull the back toe through the ring.

I have found it very convenient to sex my youngsters when ringing as, from this age until they become adult, it is often impossible to tell with certainty. I cannot guarantee this method 100% sure, but I can say that I have never found it to be wrong. Looking from the underside of the foot, lay the three toes straight alongside each other. If the outside toe is longer than the inside one, the youngster is a cock. If the outside and inside toes are the same length, the bird is a hen. The difference in length in the cocks is about one sixteenth of an inch. This method can also be used with pigeons up to one month old, but after that it cannot be relied upon, as the feet alter in shape when the bird has been walking on them for some time.

When the "squeakers" as they are called, due to their habit of squeaking when in need of food, are about 10 days old, the feathers begin to appear, and the parents prepare to go to nest again. The cock starts to drive the hen, and the youngsters are left on their own for part of the day. At this stage, the fancier must put a second nest bowl in the box, at the opposite end to the one in which the squeakers are living.

The hen usually lays again when they are about 16 or 17 days old and from now onwards practically all the feeding is done by the cock. When they are 24 days old and nicely feathered under the wings, the young birds should be "weaned", that is, taken away from their parents and placed in the Young Bird compartment. Any that are not sound in every way should be suppressed.

For two or three weeks after weaning they should always have a supply of corn before them. I use a water fountain for this purpose. Do not worry if they do not eat for a day or so, but make sure that they drink and if you see a young bird huddled up in a corner, dip its beak in the water and it will soon recover. If possible, put the bath in the Young Bird loft. The squeakers soon become inquisitive and will quickly learn to drink, and will bath in the water, which helps the growth of the wing and tail feathers.

The Young bird loft is opened at the same time as the Old Bird loft from the day that the squeakers are weaned. The Young Birds then see the Old Birds going in and out through the trap before they themselves can fly so that, when they are a few days older and begin to fly up to the perches, they quickly learn their way in and out of the loft.

Some of the old cocks will come into the Young Bird compartment for several days after the squeakers are weaned to feed them, and they do not seem to care whose youngsters they feed. I used to worry about this, and think that it was taking too much out of the Old Birds, but I no longer do so, as I have found that the cocks who do this "extra feeding" are invariably my best birds.

For two or three days after weaning, the young birds huddle together in a corner of the loft. They soon begin to fly up on the perches, however, and as their wing and tail feathers grow, become stronger and more adventurous. After a week or so, their wattles turn white and their plumage tightens up. In short, they are begining to look like "racers".

Pigeons are inquisitive creatures and, once the youngsters find their way outside on to the landing board or loft-top, they will inspect every part of it. For a few days they remain on the board and, every time the Old Birds fly off, scuttle inside. At about 6 weeks, however they are usually begining to fly around once or twice, and by the time they are 7 weeks old, are nicely "on the wing".

Every year, very many fancier lose all, or nearly all, their Young Birds in what is known as "flyaway". When the youngsters are 8 to 10 weeks old and flying well round the loft, suddenly, without warning, they fly off and do not return. This is extremely distressing for the owner for, not only does it mean that he has no Young Birds to race, it also means that he will have no yearlings the following year, and no two-year-olds the year after that. It is I believe, usually the best which disappear, as they are the strongest and fly the farthest before finding that they are lost.

The racing pigeon is descended from the rock dove, which lives in colonies. As the breeding sites from time to time become crowded batches of young birds leave the site to start another "family" elsewhere. These flyaways by our Young Birds, therefore are probably caused by some inherited characteristic handed down through generations. Flyaways must be avoided, and the best way to do this is never to let your Young Birds out unless your Old Birds are out as well. This has two distinct advantages. The Old Birds flying out with the Young Birds do not allow them to stray too far from the loft and the Young Birds, in their turn, keep the Old Birds flying, thus causing them to have far more exercise that they would otherwise have, were the Young Birds not out at the same time. Avoid letting the Young Birds out when there is likely to be race-birds flying over; they may follow these birds and become hopelessly lost. Sunday mornings in June require special care, particularly when the weather the previous day has not been good and the races have been postponed until the Sunday morning. If the new fancier follows the foregoing advice, it is extremely unlikely that he will suffer from one of these very distressing flyaways.

When the youngsters in the nest are about 16 or 17 days old, and the hen lays again, these eggs must be replaced by pot eggs if you do not intend to rear further youngsters. The birds will sit for 3 or 4 days after they are due to hatch, and will then leave the eggs and prepare to go to nest again. The hen therefore, lays about every 35 days if the eggs are allowed to hatch, and about every 31 days if they are not allowed to.

Many fanciers say that breeding should finish when racing commences and that the birds should be raced sitting pot eggs. I have never agreed to this, and shall discuss the point fully later. The reason why I mention it here is that there is nothing to prevent a fancier from rearing a single youngster from the second round of eggs under a pair of birds he intends to race. If he wants two further youngsters from a certain pair, he should transfer one of the eggs to another pair, as we cannot expect two pigeons to rear two youngsters and race at the same time. Each of these two pairs, therefore, will have one pot egg and one real egg. And it is important to select the pair to which the good egg is transfered, from those which laid on the same day or the day after.

There is no doubt that very many good birds have come from the second or third round of eggs. I always breed a second round of youngsters from the six best pairs and usually a third round from one or two pairs. If you have a really good breeding pair, the eggs are too good to throw away and, in any case, there is always a better chance of breeding a winner by taking six youngsters from a good pair, than by breeding two youngsters each from three ordinary pairs.

Many fanciers separate the sexes immediately after racing has finished and this means that for nearly six months, the cocks and hens must be exercised separately. This is not nearly so convenient for the owner, nor do I think it is as good for the birds and this is not my method.

As soon as racing has finished (usually about the third week in September) the nest-boxes should be enclosed and removed as the birds desert their pot eggs. The box-perches should be put back. A few birds will continue to build on the floor for a few days, but they must be discouraged. When the eggs are taken away, they soon lose interest.

The hens and cocks can then be left together, Young Birds in one compartment and Old in the other, throughout the autumn, until after Christmas. They can be let out together and are generally much happier than if separated. As soon as the days begin to get longer (even two or three days after mid-winter day[21st December in the UK) the birds seem to know. The cocks and hens begin to take an interest in each other again, and the sexes must then be separated. The cocks can be accommodated in the Old Bird compartment, and the hens in the Young Bird compartment. By this method the period of separation is cut down to two months. During this time, the birds should only be let out for short periods, and as soon as they land after exercise, should be fed in and not given an open loft. The hens tend to become very nervous, and can be very difficult to get in if left out too late in the afternoon.

If you intend to make any alterations to the loft, the time to do it is the winter. The birds can be kept inside for a few days without harming them, and if these alterations can be made before the sexes are separated, so much the better. They will be less likely to be frightened than when separated. While alterations are being made in one compartment, all the birds can be put in the other compartment.

We have now turned a full circle and have arrived back at the point where we began this chapter, namely, the time of the year when we consider the following season's matings. Inevitably some of the Old Birds of the previous year will have been lost racing, and some of them we shall have decided to part with to reduce numbers to nest-box accommodation. But we have a number of promising yearlings (last season's Young Birds) to take their place. So that as each year's breeding season approches, we must turn our minds once more to the most fascinating and rewarding study of "which bird should I pair to which, in order to breed a champion?".

Breeding Summary

          Pair up: End of February to mid March.
          First Egg: 8,9 or 10 days after pairing, between 6 and 7pm.
          Second Egg: 46 hours after the first egg, that is between 4 and 5pm on
          the next day but one.
          Incubation period: 19 or 20 days after the first egg.
          Ring Youngsters: 7days.
          Wean Youngsters: 24days.
          Hens lay again: When the youngsters are about 16 days old.

Used with permisson. © RPRA.

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