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Training & Racing Old Birds - (Chapter 6)...
Author: Guy BarrettTitle: Training & Racing Old Birds - (Chapter 6)
Date: 2002-10-29 17:23:51Uploaded by: webmaster
The most interesting and pleasurable months of the fancier's year are those in which the Old Bird races take place - May, June and July. What a long time it always seems from the end of Young Bird racing one year to the start of the breeding season the next. And - in contrast -how quickly the weeks appear to flick past once the racing season has begun. It seems no time at all from the race on the Saturday till the time we are basketing for the next, on the following Thursday or Friday.

The racing of our Old Birds is certainly most fascinating and exciting. We are racing, sometimes over great distances, birds which we have come to know as individuals and companions. The thrill experienced when a favourite arrives home from a long race, possibly on the edge of darkness, never seems to fade, and likewise, the sadness and grief which follows the loss of a champion remains for many a long day. Indeed, for several months afterwards, the first thing a fancier does on coming home from work is to go into the loft to see whether the bird has returned.

I well remember losing a particularly good hen in a race from the Continent. She had won several hard races, and for months, as soon as I arrived home, I would go down to the loft to see if she had come back. She did return, but it was fully two years after she had been lost. She came into the loft and flew straight up to the nest-box in which she had been paired two years previously. I was delighted to get her back for, when she went missing. I had six pigeons in the loft which were off her and when she returned I still had all six, and they were all excellent racers. Therefore I was able to pair her to the same cock the following year. I believe she had been kept a prisoner in a loft on the Continent, and at the first opportunity had made her way home.

Young Birds come home for two essential reasons: fiistly, for a safe place to roost and secondly for food. The fact that Old Birds are paired during the racing season gives them an additional incentive, namely the desire to get home to their mate and eggs (or youngsters as the case may be). Fanciers must make use of this urge to the best of their ability. They must learn at which period in the nesting cycle a pigeon is likely to be most anxious, for it is this anxiety which will spur the bird on to reach its loft at the earliest possible moment . But pigeons are all individuals, and whereas one bird will race well in one nesting condition, another may perform best in different circumstances. This method of racing our birds "paired” is known as the Natural System, and this is the system which is used by most fanciers in the British Isles (when written - now widowhod).

On the Continent the majority of fanciers fly on the Widowhood System. Under this system, after rearing one round of youngsters, the hens are taken away from the cocks, which are kept spare in their nest-boxes. Only time cocks are raced. They are allowed to be with their mates for a short time, when (and only when) they return from a race. This system makes use of the natural desire of the cock to mate his hen, and this is, without doubt, a very effective incentive. Some fanciers also show the hen to the cock behind bars before he goes to the race. The details do not matter here, for the system has a number of disadvantages for the small loft, and the novice should fly his birds on the Natural System.

A decision which often worries the new fancier at the beginning of the season is at what time he should pair up his birds. Some old fanciers will tell him to mate up early -some will advise him to wait until the middle of March. The answer is simple: he should pair up eight and a half to nine weeks before the date of the first race. Assuming that the hens will take 9 days to lay after pairing, and allowing 20 days from the first egg until the eggs hatch, and 24 more days until the youngsters are ready to wean, the total is 53 days or 7 ½ weeks. Therefore, if the above assumptions are correct, the youngsters can be weaned a week before the first race. Obviously all the hens will not lay on the ninth day alter pairing, but this is the usual date for the majority.

Many fanciers make the mistake of beginning to train their Old Birds whilst the first round of youngsters is still in the nest. The weather in early April is often very cold in Britain and the wind is frequently in the north-east. To train the birds under these conditions will do them no good. It will tend to make them dislike the basket before the racing season has even started. Also, if any Old Birds are lost, or are away for a day or two, the youngsters are left without one, or even both parents with disastrous consequences for the coming Young Bird season. This does happen. I have been told by several fanciers that they have had Young Birds die in the nest because they have shivered to death whilst their parents were away training, or had been left orphans because their parents had been lost.

Our first duty then, is to make sure that we have healthy well-reared Young Birds from the first round of eggs, then - when these have been weaned - training may begin. Avoid the temptation to enter the various pre-season races which are held each year. Leave these to the other fellow!

Fanciers who start to train early may do well in the first race or two, but then their birds go off form for the remainder of the season. Endeavour so to arrange things that your birds reach peak form in time middle of the racing programme. Some of them will achieve this condition sooner, some later, but for the bulk of the races some of your team will be in top form.

Old Birds do not fly as freely around the home as Young Birds and they spend a considerable portion of the hours of daylight incubating their eggs, during which periods they are getting no exercise at all. It is therefore necessary to get them physically fit by sending them on a number of training tosses. Besides toning up the pectoral muscles (these being the muscles on either side of the keel, or breast-bone, responsible for raising and lowering the wings), this training also serves to revise their knowledge of those vital twenty or thirty miles. As with Young Birds, your Old Birds must be thoroughly familiar with this last part of the journey.

We have seen that, if the birds are paired eight and a half weeks before the first race, the youngsters can be weaned about a week before. All the birds which are to be raced durimig the season should then be given six tosses from ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty and forty miles on consecutive days during this last week - all points being in the direction of the race route.

As with Young Birds, should the weather be unfavourable and therefore unsuitable for training, it is better to keep the birds at home and wait for an improvement.

A careful note must always be made of the dates on which the hens lay (see chapter 8) as it is important that hens should not be sent racing or trianing if they are due to lay in the next seven days, or have laid within the previous four days. It may also be necessary to keep at home, and not send training, a few birds to keep warm eggs which you are wishing to hatch or to look after small youngsters. These rules apply throughout the racing season and not just to these initial training tosses.

If the weather during the week prior to the first race is good and you manage to give the birds the six tosses, it is best to send as many of the yearlings to the race as possible, for these have less experience than older birds and will benefit from flying this first short race. Also the older hens which laid their second round of eggs early can be sent, for they will already have been sitting ten to fourteen days on these eggs and, if they are not allowed to hatch, it is only possible to send them to two races before they forsake (we say “desert’) the eggs. They will lay again but will be out of training and racing for a fortnight.

If the weather is poor, however, and you cannot give the full number of tosses, then only enter a small team, and complete the six tosses the following week.

After the first race, it will be necessary to remove those eggs which you do not wish to hatch, and to replace them by pot eggs or, better still, by old real eggs which you know will not hatch. The eggs which are removed can be marked with a cross, and used instead of dummies later on in the season. I always feel that an old pigeon can tell the difference between pot eggs and the real thing. Pot eggs have a completely different feel. It may be only a small point, but it is important that the pigeon should believe whole-heartedly that the eggs are going to hatch, if the bird is to give of its best when racing to them.

Many experts say that once racing begins, all breeding operations should cease. In other words, all birds should be raced to pot eggs rather than real eggs and youngsters. I believe this to be completely wrong. These second-­round, and late on in the season, third-round youngsters in the nest can be extremely useful and a valuable aid in the successful racing of the Old Birds.

Those eggs which are required to hatch (presumably from the best pairs) should be put under pairs where the cock is a yearling (the reason for which we shall see later), one good egg to a pair. We cannot expect birds to rear two youngsters and race at the same time. Each of these pairs therefore will have one good and one pot egg. Foster parents for these eggs must he carefully chosen from those pairs which laid on the same day, or the day before, or after, and if both parents (or foster-parents) are sent to a training toss or race, the eggs must be temporarily placed under another pair. They should, of course, be carefully marked - with a felt-tipped pen - so as to ensure there is no mistake.

For the second race, the team should be selected early in the week, and all those birds given two further tosses, preferably on the Wednesday and Thursday, of twenty and thirty miles. If the weather appears promising for the Saturday, the chance must be seized to get as many birds as possible into this race, with the except of the older cocks which can be left at home. The birds will be sitting seventeen days, or more, and the hens should be extremely keen and put up a good perfomance, as the eggs are on the point of hatching.

Before the third race, the good eggs which have been allowed to remain will hatch, and the other pairs will be sitting over the normal incubation period on pot eggs. They will sit for three or four days after the eggs are due to hatch and will then desert them. When a pair deserts, the pot eggs should be removed and the nest bowls transferred to the other end of the nest-box. If the nest-­bowls were left in the same position the birds would be unwilling to lay in the same place which had not previously yielded any results! The cock and hen will be upset for a day or two because the eggs have failed to hatch, but will then commence to nest again, the cock driving the hen as before.

In selecting candidates for the third race, all hens which have deserted must be left out as they will be going to lay again in about seven days, and should not go into the basket for at least four days after they eventually lay the second egg of the next round (which will be the third round of eggs). This brings us to the advantages of allowing a few eggs to hatch.

The hens looking after these small youngsters from the second round will be very keen and can be sent to this third race. Their mates could also be sent, but it is better to keep them at home to look after the nestlings whilst the hens are away. Note: if the cock and his hen are sent, another pair must be found to attend to the youngster whilst they are away, and it must be a pair with one of the same size. But I recommend that the hens only are sent when the single youngsters are under five or six days old.

All yearling cocks which have deserted their second round of eggs should be left at home with their mate, and neither raced nor trained until their hens have laid the first egg of the next pair of eggs (the third round). The two-year-old cocks, and older, which are driving, can be sent to this third race. They will probably not have flown in either of the first two races, and have been kept for this race when the team is of necessity small. They must be given two training tosses during the week prior to the race, together with the other candidates. These older cocks while away at the race will be very anxious about the whereabouts of their mates, and, providing they are fit, should make every effort to reach home at the earliest possible moment. Yearling cocks, on the other hand, are very unreliable if sent driving. They are very easily lost, and this is why they are left at home.

Now to the fourth race. Probably none of the hens will have laid yet again, and candidates must be chosen from the following:
                    2-year old cocks (and older) driving
                    Hens with youngsters 7 days old, or younger
                    Yearling cocks, and other cocks with youngsters 7 days old, and
                    Any birds which are still sitting on their second round of pot eggs.

Here is the second advantage of the Natural System with youngsters. The yearling cocks can be sent to this fourth race and their hens left at home. Whereas it has previously been stressed that yearling cocks should not be trained, or raced when driving, this does not apply when they have a youngster in the nest. They are then much steadier than when there is no youngster and can be raced with safety, and often with very satisfactory results. This youngste, therefore, enables the fancier to send the yearling cocks to the fourth and fifth race, when they would otherwise have had to be left at home.

By the time the fifth race arrives, some of the hens will have laid their third round of eggs. They can be given the usual tosses and sent to the race. The hens which are rearing the single second-round youngsters will probably not have laid, but their cocks can be sent, as described above, while they remain at home.

The same rules apply to the selection of cadidates for the remaining races. And the training method is always: two tosses of twenty and thirty miles for those birds which have not raced the preceding week, and one toss of thirty miles for those which have.

By the time the sixth race has been flown, the second-­round youngsters will be weaned, or ready for weaning, but they should not be weaned just prior to basketing one of the parents for a race, nor within twenty-four hours of its return.

When the third round of eggs is about 14 days old, those which are not wanted must be replaced by pot eggs (or real eggs marked with a cross) as before. One or two eggs can he left to hatch under pairs which had pot eggs in the second round. These pairs must be carefully selected after consideration of the races to which you wish to send each particular bird. For example, let us suppose you wish to send a certain hen to race on Thursday 5 June. On Iookimlg back at your Loft Book (of which more in chapter 8) you find that she laid on 12 May. The eggs will, therefore, be due to hatch on 1 June. However, should the eggs not be allowed to hatch, the pair will desert just before 5 June and you will not be able to send your hen to the race. But should you allow one of the eggs to hatch, then you will be able to send your hen with confidence knowing that she is in a really favourable nesting condition as on basketing day she will be feeding a 4-day old youngster. Sometimes it is possible to anticipate or delay the hatching date for a pair by transferring from another pair, an egg which was laid either a day sooner or a day later, so as to obtain the desired nesting conditions.

Birds are usually basketed for the longer races on a Thursday, or on a Wednesday, and occasionally even sooner. In these circumstances, preventing the bird at home forsaking its eggs when its male is away for three or four days, is always a problem. But if both birds of a pair are away, it is simple.

Providing both pigeons return on the same day there is generally no difficulty in getting them back onto their eggs. But if (as is often the case) only one of the pair is sent to the race, then the other bird must be taken off the eggs the morning after basketing, and put in a spare basket until the mate arrives home. This necessitates having two baskets for these birds, one for the hens, and the other for the cocks. When the pigeon which has been sent to the race returns, its mate can be released from the basket, and they will both carry on incubating the eggs quite happily.

This difficulty of keeping the birds sitting shows up another attraction of the Natural System using the small youngster. The cock, if left at home, will usually look. after it for the whole time his mate is away, and need not be put in a basket. But if he does appear likely to leave the youngster at night, the youngster must be transferred under another pair which have a youngster of a similar age. Put the cock in the basket until the morning, when he can again be given the Young Bird. On returnng from a race, a bird will always take to its youngster, but after several days in the basket on the way to a distant race point, and especially after a long hold-over when the birds have not been released for a few days owing to bad weather, it is often tempted to leave a couple of eggs.

As the Old Bird programme proceeds, and the races grow longer each week, the new fancier will wonder how far he should send his birds. Just as he was advised with the Young Birds to stop a number of them at the 100-mile stage so, in his first season of Old Bird racing, he must not send his yearlings too far. Two hundred miles or so is sufficient, so he will not be able to compete in the longer events. The following year he should then have a number of two year old birds, and these can be sent up to three hundred and fifly miles, and the next year he should be able to race right through the programme. It is then a four-year task to establish a loft of pigeons, and the new fancier should be content to make haste slowly for if he loses all his Young Birds or all his yearlings, it will take him a year longer before he can compete in the whole series of Old Bird races.

Whilst it is the ambition of most fanciers to succeed in the long races of 400 miles and over, it should always be remembered that, in the normal club programmne, there are probably nine out of ten races of 300 miles or less, and the fancier who has a good pigeon which wins consistently from these shorter distances, should not spoil it by sendimig it further. A pigeon - like a runner - paces itself in a race in accordance with the distance it expects to have to fly and, once a pigeon has been to a long race necessitating a twelve-hour fly, it is unlikely to be as fast again in the shorter events.

The programme for each pigeon must be carefully planned, so that the distance of the races for which it is entered is gradually increased. After flying a race of a certain distance, the bird should not be “brought back” to a lesser distance, for there is always the danger that if this is done, it will “over-fly”, that is, go past its destination, thinking it still has some miles to go. Therefore, if a pigeon is flown in a 300-mile race one week, it should not he sent to a race of 120 miles the followimig week, but should be kept for the 400-mile race the week after that.

It cannot be over-emphasised that no pigeon should be entered in a race unless it is physically fit and pigeons which spend a night or two away must be given pleanty of time to recover before they are raced again.

Learn to recognise the signs of good health and peak condition of your birds. Spend as much time as you reasonably can quietly watching your birds, both inside and outside the loft and make a mental note of those which are in perfect condition. Notice if any bird is particularly keen on its eggs or youngsters, and any other signs which may lead you to think that a certain bird will do well. A hen jealous of another hen which is spare in an adjacent nest-box, and is trying to steal her mate, is an example. The cocks when supremely fit are continually on the go, striking off for a fly round every few minutes - in fact they show all the signs of thoroughly enjoying life and appear to he bursting with energy. The hens will stand with their tails shivering, every feather tight, so that it is impossible to see where one finishes and the next begins. The feet of the birds appear pink, clean, and warm to the touch, Their wattles are as white as snow and their eves unblinking.

When making out his entry form for a race, which he will receive from the Club Secretary, the fancier should write down the ring numbers of the birds in the order in which he thinks they will arrive back. To get this right is not easy. In fact I am always pleased to see a pigeon doing well unexpectedly, and beating the fancied bird. The fancier who can always forecast correctly which will be his first bird is probably a man with only one good pigeon.

In choosing which bird to put at the top, there are four things to bear in mind. They are :
                    The breeding of the bird (the racing performances of its parents
                    and grandparents).
                    The bird’s previous performance.
                    Its general fitness.
                    Its nesting condition.

Earlier in this chapter I have discussed the various nesting conditions in which pigeons can be sent to a race. Of these the best can be summarised as:

                    Sitting 9 to 14 days from the second egg.
                    Driving to nest (yearlings not to be sent in this condition).
                    With a youngster in the nest over 7 days old (and driving, or
                    sitting the next round of eggs).

This last condlition is especially valuable for the longer races. The cocks eat better in the basket, and the big youngster provides a great incentive to him to get home late at night, rather than wait until the next morning. He knows that his hen will be sitting the eggs, but he must get home to feed the youngster, as he does most of the feeding after the hen has laid again.

Many fancier’s hand-feed a large young bird in the nest, in order to relieve the cock of this task, so as not to tax his energy overmuch prior to a long race. But I am against this, for if the cock finds that the youngster does not need feeding he will lose interest in it, and therefore it will not provide an incentive to encourage him to get home. Incidentally, I have found that if the large youngster in the nest is a hen, so much the better.

                    Due to hatch (15 days and over).
                    Sitting a small youngster 4 to 7 days old.
                    Sitting 9-day eggs and over.

When a hen which is due to hatch is sent to a race it can be given a youngster on its return, and can be sent again the following week whilst feeding the small youngster. Thus she can be sent three weeks in succession instead of the normal two while sitting the eggs.

Sometimes (especially with yearlings) it is necessary to rest certain pigeons from racing whilst the longer events are taking place. This should cause no worry. I believe it often does the birds good. They come back to the racing after a few weeks completely fresh and considerably keener. Provided they are given two training tosses of twenty-five and thirty miles on the Tuesday and Wednesday preceding the race, there is no reason why they should not put up a good performance.

A year or two ago two of my yearlings (a cock and a hen) had each flown four or five races, including two from 225 miles. Then started the races from the Continent, and in between these were short, what we call “come-back” races of about 120 miles. I was not anxious to send the two birds to these short races, and so they were rested for five weeks. At the end of the programme there was a further race from the 225 mile point, and the two yearlings were entered, after having had two trained tosses just before. They were clocked to win first and second Federation, with over 700 birds competing.

Having discussed the steps which must be taken to ensure that our birds are entered for the races in peak condition so that they may have the best possible chance of scoring well, it is important to see that we do not make a mistake at home and so spoil those chances.

It is very distressing to time in a good pigeon, and then find a few hours later that the timing clock has stopped. Therefore, make sure that your clock is reliable. Have it cleaned and overhauled at least once every two years by a reputable clock repairer who understands pigeon timers. lndulge in a little time and motion study to ascertain in which position to put your clock on race days. Much time can be saved by a little thought on these lines. Place the thimbles (open) near the clock, with the two halves of the thimble side by side so that you know they will fit together easily. And endeavour to be at your loft in plenty of time on race days, so that you can prepare for the birds' arrival at your leisure.

A mixture of hemp, linseed, rice and groats (and if possible safflower seed) should be used as a trapping mixture on race days. The birds soon learn to expect and look forward to this titbit on their return, and enter the loft quickly.

Once a bird has trapped it should he caught with care, so as to avoid upsetting it unduly, thereby preventing it trapping so quickly the next time. When two birds arrive together and one of them traps first, it is always better to catch the bird first, and time it in, rather than wait for the second bird to trap.

Most pigeons (including the good birds) sometime during their racing career make a mistake, causing them to spend a night or two away from home. Often they benefit from their mistakes and thus become better pigeons, having learned to work on their own rather than follow the pack. Therefore we must be prepared to forgive one error, but if the same bird makes a second mistake, and on a day when the majority had no difficulty in getting home, than that is the time to consider whether it is worth keeping.

I believe that pigeons are three years learning, and three years at their best, and even the best bird can be lost if sent often enough and far enough. So - if you have a good pigeon which has flown well for, a number of seasons until it is about six years old - be prepared to retire it and keep it for breeding purposes. Races are won - it is true - by seven and eight - year - old pigeons, but even experienced pigeons can be lost on a bad day, and their blood gone for ever.

We must be prepared therefore, to forgo a possible win by these old-stagers, and build for the future by retiring them whilst they are still full of vigour, so that we may look forward to a number of years of successful breeding from them. It is extremely useful to have one or two good pigeons which are not being raced, in any case. They can be paired to the best racers, and we can then avoid the misfortune of losing the mate of one of our long distance candidates a week or two before the big event.

Used with permisson. © RPRA.

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