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What's involved to keeping Pigeons as pets?

What is a pigeon? A pigeon by definition is ‘a stout seed- or fruit eating bird with a small head, short legs, and a cooing voice, typically having grey and white plumage’. Pigeons belong to the same family of birds as doves. They share similar features like thick and round bodies, short necks and thin peaks, but doves are generally of a smaller stature while pigeons are often larger and stubbier. The word ‘pigeon’ is actually derived from the Latin word ‘pipio’, which means ‘young bird’. The word then passed into Old French as ‘pijon’ and thus the English name ‘pigeon’ was derived, which is now used the world over as a common name for the rock dove.

The domestic pigeon was derived from the Rock Dove (also called Rock Pigeon) which is the world’s oldest domesticated bird. Research suggest the domestication of pigeons happened as early as 10,000 years ago! Wild pigeons today are considered pests, mainly due to their droppings and being scavengers in busy cities. Domestic pigeons today make great pets both indoors as part of the family or outside in an aviary or loft. Homing pigeons are well known for their ability to find their way home from long distances and at a high speed and because of this skill, pigeon racing is a hobby that many pigeon fanciers around the world participate in.

There are many different breeds of pigeons around the world. A few of the most commonly kept in Australia Fantails; The distinguishing feature of a fantail is that it has 30-40 tail feathers, whereas a regular pigeon

has 12-14 tail feathers. Fantails are often used

by pigeon flyers while training racing pigeons and are often used as droppers, meaning they are placed on the landing board as a signal for

the flying birds to come in and be fed. True fantails are completely white.

The Australian Performing Tumbler pigeon is another breed of domestic fancy pigeon. A tumbler pigeon has the ability to tumble or roll over backwards in flight.

Then there is the racing pigeon

Racing pigeons come in a variety of colours, blue bars being the most common one. To help explain, the image below shows the common patterning of most racing pigeons. These patterns can also come in red. There are also full chocolate pigeons, grizzles (speckled pattern) and many more.

Anatomy of a pigeon When looking at the anatomy of a racing pigeon, they are not much different to

your average blackbird. When looking at a racing pigeon, aside from the overall health of the bird, body conformation and feather quality; the eye and the wings are two of the main features that are assessed with selecting pigeons.

The eye can tell a pigeon fancier a lot about the pigeon if they know what they are looking for. The first thing that is looked at in the eye, apart from being bright and clear, is usually the pupil, which is the black centre of the eye which controls how much light is let in. The pupil should be as small as possible, whereas an abnormally large pupil is usually a sign of poor eyesight. The pupil should also have a very quick dilation reflex to light.

Without going into too much detail, a pigeon’s eye has 5 circles which are the pupil, circle of correlation, circle of adaptation, the iris and the health ring. Some people believe that you can read a pigeons ‘eye sign’, which can tell you a lot about the quality of a bird, and some people believe it can show if a bird will be a good distance racer (the smaller the pupil the better the endurance).

The third eyelid should also be tucked right back. Increased prominence of the third eyelid is usually associated with respiratory infection.

Wings for racing Another thing a fancier looks at is the wing. The pigeon uses its wings to stay in the air, move forward and manoeuvre. When assessing the wing for lift, it is the curve of the wing, feather quality, the size of the secondary flights and the shoulder support of that are important. The curve of the wing is called the camber which can be observed on the top of the outstretched wing when viewed from the front. To get maximum lift, it is vital that the air flows around

the wing in unbroken ‘streamlines’, which means a full set of flight feathers. A broken streamline (missing feather/s) results in turbulence while the bird is in the air. Lift depends on the surface area of the wing. A bigger wing will develop more lift than a small wing but there is such thing as a wing that is too big as it can become too heavy in comparison to the birds body which will exert more energy to flap the wings.

Secondary feathers that are long compared to the primaries allow for fast but energy- draining flight of short duration (sprints), racing is for all secondaries to be slightly shorter than the first primary feather (i.e. the

one closest to the body). Distance birds also tend to have more spacing (or ventilation) between the last four primary feathers.

How to look after pigeons (husbandry) Pigeons are relatively easy pets to look after. When you get into the racing pigeon side of pigeon keeping is when it gets a little bit more complicated and requires a bit more time and effort than just keeping a pigeon as a pet. The main things that you need when keeping pigeons is a drinker with fresh water daily, feeders with the correct feed for their nutritional requirements, nesting boxes, perches and obviously somewhere to live such as a loft or an aviary.

Pigeons can be grouped in a loft based on nutritional requirements as racing birds will need more energy than non-racing birds and young birds will need more protein than most other birds etc. Birds in a racing loft that are actively trained and raced need a diet of around 12-14% protein, 5-11% fat, and total energy of 3000-3200kcal/kg. Adult birds that are not breeding or racing require about 14% protein, 5-7% fat, and 3000kcal/kg. Adult birds which are breeding need around 15-20% protein, 5-7% fat, and 3000kcal/kg. Young birds which are growing, moulting and training around the loft which aren’t yet being forced to fly require a diet of around 14-18% protein, 5-7% fat, and 2900-3200kcal/kg. The most commonly used grain mixes include peas, corn, sorghum, safflower and wheat, sometimes with a small seed mix containing rice, linseed, millet, canola and occasionally peanuts. Occasionally hemp seed, vetch or barley are used in mixes. The ratios of these mixes are altered by the pigeon fancier depending on the time of year and the nutritional requirements of the birds. Seed mixes are not a complete balanced diet for pigeons and therefore need supplementation such as a good quality grit, a good quality pink mineral, and a multivitamin is also worthwhile.

Common health problems seen in pigeons

Pigeons quite often have some tell-tale signs and symptoms when they are ill which include Dull, unfocused eyes.

  • Fluffed or rumpled feathers when it is not cold.

  • Swollen eyes or membranes, such as the cere.

  • Wet or crusty eye, mouth, or nose discharge.

  • Dirty, matted feathers.

  • Missing feathers.

  • Visible injuries, lesions, or wounds

Canker Canker is caused by a small organism which typically causes breathing problems. The disease is easily transmitted from bird to bird through shared water sources, beak to beak contact, and to young birds through crop milk. The disease is most commonly presented as nodules on the tonsils, breathing issues, diarrhoea, weight loss, lethargy and bleeding from the mouth and cloaca. Symptoms will worsen if the disease is not treated and can cause death.

Coccidia Coccidia is an intestinal organism which causes diarrhoea, loss of nutrient absorption, weakness, lethargy and weight loss. It is easily transmitted when pigeons ingest infected droppings.

Pigeon Lice, Mites and Flies External parasites are a bother to pigeons and all birds. These pests can bite and irritate the bird and can also cause more serious damage depending on the type of parasite. A scaly appearance to the unfeathered areas of the bird, tiny holes in feather shafts, and itchy birds are all signs of external parasites. Medicated sprays can be used to treat external parasites

Pigeon Respiratory Infections Other than canker, respiratory infections are quite often the most feared problem that pigeon owners face. They are extremely contagious. Stressed, old, and young birds are the most susceptible to infection. Respiratory infections make it hard for the bird to breathe and fly so they are usually less active. Signs of a respiratory infection will include open mouth breathing, increased effort breathing, sit fluffed up with their eyes closed, not eat, and then will eventually die There are many causes of respiratory infections such as fungi, viruses, bacteria, and mites. There may be visible signs of discharge around the nose and mouth, or you may actually hear a bird sneezing or coughing. When eradicating an infection in the loft, it must be thoroughly cleaned out, the birds infected must be treated but the cause of the infection must be found in order to treat and prevent transmission. Some other common concerns include; Hexamita, Chlamydia, Mycoplasma, and worms

Fun facts Pigeons are renowned for their outstanding navigational abilities. They use a range of skills, such as using the sun as a guide and an internal ‘magnetic compass

Pigeons can fly at altitudes up to and beyond 6000 feet, and at an average speed of 77.6 mph. The fastest recorded speed is 92.5 mph.

Mike Tyson is also an enthusiastic pigeon keeper

There are over 300 different species of pigeons that can be found throughout the world

On average, pigeon has 10 000 feathers on the body.

Pigeons can move their wings ten times per second and maintain heartbeats at the rate of 600 times per minute, during the period of 16 hours

Pigeons were used as mail carriers during the First and Second World War. They saved numerous lives delivering information on the enemy's fire.

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