Keeping Pigeons as Pets
Information and Pictures
The homing pigeon has been a focus of hobby and civil service for hundreds of years.
Homing pigeons are specially bred and trained pigeons that are descended from centuries’ old lines of proven homers. All pigeons have some ability to home (to return to their origin or roost), but homing pigeons have this trait especially enhanced through breeding and training. A racing pigeon is a homing pigeon that has been specially trained. Racing pigeons are trained and motivated to fly from a designated release point to their home loft as quickly as possible. The difference between a homing pigeon, messaging pigeon and racing pigeon is subtle, and varies mostly with training and conditioning.
Homing pigeons are bred for sport and hobby. Many owners will breed their birds with well-known pedigreed stock of former racer pigeons to produce optimal genetically characterized birds. A breeder/purchaser will look for a bird with stamina, vitality and homing ability. Many breeders breed by the “Eye Sign.” This theory states that each bird’s potential genetics can be determined by the shape, color and contour of their iris and pupil. The Eye Sign will determine whether your bird is best suited for distance, sprint or middle range races.
Varies depending on the type of bird you choose. Most pigeons range in size from 13 to 15 ounces in weight, with the males being slightly larger than the females. Trained breeders can distinguish the value of their bird by its heft and muscle. It is a preferred trait that the tail feathers point downward and not outward. This enables the bird to fly more swiftly.
Pigeons are housed in hutches. Hutches are rather large outdoor/indoor cages fashioned from a small outbuilding. Hutches provide an area for exercise, eating and breeding, as well as access to indoor areas for protection from weather elements and temperatures. The largest cage or aviary that can be accommodated should be provided. It should be wider than it is tall to allow the bird to easily stretch out its wings with provision of ample height. Be sure the bird cannot slip his head between the bars of the cage. The hutch should be created from non-toxic, easy to clean materials. It should be strong enough to resist dismantling by the bird and weather elements. Natural sunlight is desirable but the bird should always have access to shade. The outdoor areas may also be protected on one or several sides by gauze screens to diminish or prevent cold air drafts. Cold air can cause a fatigued or stressed bird to fall ill. Newspapers, paper bags or paper towels can be used to line your hutch. Items such as kitty litter, walnut shells, chopped corn cobs, wood chips or sand can be used, however these are not preferred as they can promote growth of mold and fungus and can make it difficult to monitor the bird’s droppings. Some owners prefer a cage with a bare bottom that can be scraped daily or as needed. Whatever you choose to use should be placed under a wire barrier so the bird does not have direct access to it. At least one perch should be provided inside the cage. Some birds prefer more than one perch. The perch should be placed high enough that the bird’s tail does not hang down into its food or water or touch the floor of the cage. Food and water should not be placed directly below the perch as bird droppings will contaminate them. Pigeons generally can tolerate temperatures that are comfortable to humans. Sudden changes in temperature may be a potential threat to the bird.
Pigeons are known for being dirty. Food and water bowls should be cleaned daily. A thorough cleaning of the cage should be done at least once a week to prevent disease and illness.
Several areas of your bird should be observed for growth and changes. If a nail is sharp or is starting to curve past the plane of the toe you know it is time for a trim. Using an emery board can be sufficient. Styptic powder should always be on hand in case you trim the nail too close to the quick. Placing styptic powder on a nail will stop the bleeding. If you provide sufficient things for your bird to chew on, in most cases it will keep its beak trimmed on its own. Some flaking and shelving of the beak is normal however excessive flaking, shelving or overgrowth may be a sign of a sickness. Birds with overgrown tips or cracks may need smoothing. Since the beak has a blood and nerve supply take caution in how much, if any, should be trimmed. Your bird should have the opportunity to bathe daily. Leaving a bath bowl on the bottom of the cage or by gently misting the bird with a water bottle are two ways you can give your bird a bath. Do not use any product other than plain water to bathe your bird. Frequent bathing will remove oil buildup from petting and handling. Frequent bathing stimulates normal preening behavior. Preening is when a bird runs its feathers through its beak from the base to the tip to straighten and clean them. Some birds have oil glands at the base of their tails. They take some of these oils and spread them out along their feathers, creating a "sheen" which protects and repels water instead of absorbing it. Birds are often seen preening one another. Preening should not be confused with plucking or feather biting. Bathing not only keeps the bird clean but it also controls the bird's dander, applies essential moisture to the feathers and softens the new pin feathers.
A bird’s diet is one of the most important aspects to keeping a healthy bird. Birds require a nutritionally balanced diet for a long and healthy life. A good overall rule is, no more than fifty percent of a bird’s diet should be seeds and nuts. Food should be placed in a wide bowl as opposed to a deep cup. Spreading out the food allows the bird to see it better, promoting it to eat a wider variety. The most important thing is the food must be of the best quality. A bird fed only seeds and nuts will be unhealthy. If you find your bird is only eating seeds and nuts and not the other foods you are offering him, try only offering seeds and nuts for an hour a day and leaving the other foods out the rest of the day. If your bird is hungry, he will try the other foods. Provide your pigeon with low-moisture, clean, good quality grain. High-moisture grains tend to be dirty and dusty and more susceptible to fungus, bacterial germs and poisons than dry clean grain. Germs on/in the grains will affect the performance of your birds during breeding, molting, showing and racing. The food used for racing pigeons must be fresh, clean and the highest quality. The correct storage of your grain after purchase is important to provide your bird with optimally nutritious food. Protect your pigeon feed in an airtight container stored off of the floor. This will protect the grain from absorbing moisture from the ground and surrounding air in high humid conditions. If you allow moisture to get into your feed then mold and bacterial contamination will occur, thereby nullifying all of your best efforts to provide your birds with the very best food. High-moisture grain is best mixed with a mold inhibitor called PEP (phosphenopyruvate). It is stored with an open lid to allow it to dry out in times of low humidity and sealed in times of high humidity. The fungal spores found on moist grain are more likely to become activated when stored in the dark and without air circulation to help dry it out.
Your bird will also need vitamin and mineral supplements. Grains are low in the trace elements, minerals and vitamins required for excellent racers and the breeding of healthy offspring. While most breeders used to provide vegetables for their birds to eat to supply them with the proper vitamins and minerals, it seemed to be less effective than hoped when a particular bird was a finicky eater. Vitamin supplements are now added to water with trace elements or food for more consistent results. Bird breeders have used grit to provide minerals to the pigeon diet and aid in digestion, but only recently have they come to understand that shell grit does not contain all of the minerals and trace elements required for sustained flight racing and breeding success. As a pigeon breeder/owner, you must provide your pigeon with grain for energy, protein and fiber; grits, powdered minerals and trace elements, -and for extra energy, vitamins and protein can be given in the form of special oils on the food during the high energy times of racing and when the adults are feeding young and producing eggs. Depending on your birds’ preference, some examples of other foods commonly fed to birds are leafy greens, fruits, vegetables and some insects.
Homing/racing pigeons get their exercise by mating, roosting and most importantly flying. Homing/racing pigeons are bred to have a high level of endurance for flight—some fly for up to ten or more hours without landing. These birds are believed to have an ability to sense magnetic north or to have special sensors in their eyes that help them to navigate extremely long distances. It is also argued that they can fly by odor and by the “map and compass” theory. Homing pigeons have been used by hobbyists, racing groups, air mail offices, and even by the military.
Captive birds can live 15 to 20 years or more, depending on care.
Be sure the bird you choose is a healthy one. A sick bird is no bargain no matter the price. In most cases by the time a bird shows symptoms of sickness the illness is quite advanced. Do not choose birds that make clicking sounds when they breathe or whose tails bob with each breath. A bird that appears tired, ruffled or droopy, or hides his head under his wing is a sure sign of an unhealthy bird. Avoid birds that are sneezing, sitting on the bottom of the cage or who have discharge above the nostrils. Droppings stuck to a bird’s tail feathers is not a good sign of a healthy bird. A healthy bird will have lots of energy and will eat often. It will be bright-eyed with clean shiny feathers. Birds should be taken to an avian veterinarian at least once a year for a wellness checkup and immediately after they are purchased for a good overall physical and/or anytime your bird shows any signs of sickness. Take caution when introducing new birds to the birds you already own. Many birds harbor contagious disease-causing organisms. Placing these new birds in an isolated room for a period of time is recommended. Keep in mind that birds are exquisitely sensitive to toxins, especially those in the air they breathe. Things that smell strong to humans can often kill birds.
During incubation, both eggs usually start to hatch about 18 days after the second egg was laid. Pigeon eggs are laid approximately ten days after mating, the second egg being laid a day or so after the first. Both the cock and the hen take turns sitting on the eggs. The hen usually sits in the morning and overnight. The cock usually sits during the afternoon.
Pigeons are found the world over and have been noted in early history as far back as the Bible when Noah released a white rock dove (homing pigeon) from the ark.
Baby pigeons are called squabs.
Champion-racing homing pigeons can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars!
It can sometimes take a chick an entire day to break free from its shell.
The use of pigeons to carry messages was commonly called “Pigeon Post” and even had their own special air mail stamps.
The most famous pigeon was Cher Ami. He sent word back to headquarters during World War I to spare the lives of 200 stranded 77th Infantry Division soldiers even after being shot down by enemy fire. In this last mission, Cher Ami had delivered the message despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, covered in blood, and with a leg hanging only by a tendon. Unable to save his leg, they carved a small wooden one for him. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for his heroic service. He was personally escorted to a boat leaving to the United States by General John J. Pershing, where he finished out his days as the mascot for the Department of Service. After his death several months later he was mounted and stuffed and put on display in the Smithsonian Institution.