Raising Rock Pigeons
With this article, I hope to promote the beloved pigeon and share with you about its husbandry. May you be drawn into an admiration and develop a picked interest for this brilliant beast.
The Rock Pigeon was first introduced into eastern North America in the early 17th century by colonists who brought them along by ship, mainly as a source of fresh food, and they eventually became feral on the continent from these colonial source points. They have since been seized by many hobbyist and, in certain varieties, been greatly changed from their original form into even more beautiful and useful creatures.
I truly believe that our modern day decedents of Columba livia (rock dove/pigeon) are some of the all-time greatest game-bird species, and yet seemingly, they have been overlooked by most poultry and game-bird enthusiasts. Consider the following attributes which the pigeon masterfully displays: minimal space requirements, extremely simple housing needs, simple and easy to feed, can be allowed to free-range or be kept in total confinement, producer of delicious meat, raises its young up until butchering time (no need to use incubators and brooders), fun and entertaining, intelligent and beautiful, as well as being healthy and hardy. That’s pretty good, huh? I can think of a few other species that match these criteria, but I do find that many birds which are much more popular than the humble pigeon come far from reaching them. I am left to sit and wonder why.
Requiring no specialized feed, the pigeon can thrive on anything from straight grains and legumes to pellets designed for chickens or turkeys. Plus, you only need a square foot of space per bird (more is always better, of course), which means they take up a minimal amount of room. The housing can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. Give them a recycled rabbit hutch or a loft that can hold a hundred birds with self-cleaning nests and they’ll be happy and healthy all the same, on solid flooring, or wire for optimal sanitation. Even better, where city ordinances prohibit the keeping of other poultry, pigeons are most often legal. So, you can enjoy some birds of your own whether you’re keeping them in a window-box, on a balcony, in the front yard, or amidst hundreds of acres. Now that’s adaptable!
If kept as pets and ornamentals, or an additional source of meat on the homestead, the pigeon fits its place well and is not nearly as popular as it deserves to be. Let’s look now at some more practical subjects.
There are many, many different sizes, shapes, and abilities which the various breeds of pigeons display. From the very common homer which looks wild and returns home when released from hundreds of miles away, to flying rollers which perform somersaults in the air, to flightless birds that roll around on the ground. There are birds that have feathered feet, crests gracing their heads, curly feathers, and some can blow up their crops like balloons and appear to stand on stilts. Still others, like the Thief Pouters, are used to capture other pigeons. Don’t forget about those which are specially bred to produce a delectable meal.
Here’s a little basic pigeon terminology: a male pigeon is called a cock, a female is called a hen and the babies are called squabs when in the nest, and when out of the nest but still being parent-cared, squeakers. The building that a pigeon is kept in is commonly called a “loft” (which is usually a walk-in building with nests, roost, windows, etc.). Though remember that, as already mentioned, they can happily live in almost anything that gives them suitable protection from the elements and predators.
Pigeons are very prolific! Once mature, at about six months of age, they will find a mate, which they may stay with for life, and continually go on, nest after nest, unless disturbed. If you live in an area where the weather gets very cold you will either need to provide special insulation pads designed to go in the nest, heat their enclosure, or keep the pigeons from nesting. The reason being that the squabs will sometimes freeze in the nest after about the second week of life, when the parents stop sitting tight on them. To stop from having squabs you can either separate your cocks and hens or put artificial eggs under the birds in place of their own eggs.
The breeding cycle tends to proceed in the following manner. First of all, pigeons only lay to incubate. They lay an egg and approximately 12-24 hours afterward they will lay another egg and then proceed to incubate. The incubation process, which is shared by both parents, elapses about 18 days. When the squabs hatch they will be constantly covered by one of the parents until about two weeks of age, then the parents tend to no longer cover the babies, but will continue to feed and care for them.
The squabs are fed a special “milk” secretion that the parent pigeons produce in their crop and regurgitate for them. The parents eventually switch to regurgitating seeds (or whatever other feed you’re giving them) as the squabs age.
At roughly four weeks of age the pigeons are old enough to be put by themselves or in a pen with other young birds. Be sure to check that they are eating and drinking fine out of the feeders and water containers before and after separating them. You may even want to dip their beaks into the water to familiarize them. Don’t just assume, make sure that they know where the feed and water is. You will want to have it on the floor for the young birds, and not up on a shelf as is commonly done for adults. Four weeks of age is also the approximate time when they are butchered if that’s what you wish to do. A better indicator is generally when the pin feathers under the wing have just opened and developed. If the pigeons haven’t laid another set of eggs by this time then they will do it not long after separating them from their young. And the cycle just goes round and round, often year-round if you don’t interfere.
Note on nests: a double nestbox is recommended because of the pigeons’ tendency to lay another set of eggs while they have young that they’re caring for still in the nest. All this is, is a nest box divided in two across the middle (in a manner that the pigeons can see and jump across the divider) to keep the present squabs and new eggs separated.
They should ideally have a nest-bowl on each side of the nestbox. The bowl should be round and large enough for them to sit inside comfortably. Make sure it is secured as not to tip over when the pigeons stand on the rim. The nest-bowl helps keep the eggs from rolling around and, if it’s the right size for your birds, improves nest cleanliness as they will actually defecate on the outside because they stand a little and “blast.” You’ll want their tails out of the nest bowl when they are sitting in it as an indicator that it will work as so. They’ll also need some nesting substrate in the nest. This could just be some of the bedding off of the floor or sand, with a dusting of Sevins Dust or similar insecticide. They do build nests, although they are usually quite flimsy. Provide them with some pine needles, straw, or other similar, readily accessible material for this behavior.
You should be aware that pigeons are somewhat territorial in that they (a pair, or just a single bird) will claim an entire nestbox and/or roost for themselves, keep this in mind when “furnishing” their pen or loft and determining the number of nests to accommodate.
Some other points of interest that you should note are as follows:
Sun: pigeons love to bask in the sun. They should have as much exposure to it as possible every day; it really helps them to stay healthier and happier. You should pay special attention to this when building/situating their living quarters.
Bathing: pigeons also love to have a water bath. Even though it’s not a necessity and they can live perfectly well without it, allowing them to do so really does help them stay healthier and happier. Just give them a shallow, open container of water that they can’t tip over and they’ll jump in when they want to and start splashing around. DO NOT do this inside a pen or loft unless the floor of the pen is wire. One of the most important things in sustaining their health and reducing the chances of disease is to keep the living quarters DRY. Also remember to change this water often or remove the bathing pan when they’re done, otherwise they will drink the dirty water.
I recommend adding an all-wire pen to the pen/loft that your birds will inhabit. However, it may prove to be less important depending on the style of housing you use. It should have a southerly exposure. It allows them fresh air and unlimited sun when they want it, as well as a place to put the bath pan for their bathing sessions. It only has to be about two feet square and can just be attached to the outside of a window.
Grit: pigeons also need grit like other poultry and game birds to help them digest their food. Red pigeon-grit is best as it provides grit as well as being mixed with minerals and vitamins and has some other supplements. If not available, and you are feeding a pelleted feed (or using another mineral/vitamin supplement with an all-grain feed), then regular poultry or game-bird grit will suffice. The addition of crushed oyster shells is beneficial for breeding hens if using an all-grain feed (if you have access to pigeon specific products then there are many other options as well). See more below on feeding.
Feed/Vitamins: boy, can this get very complicated depending on whose opinion you take and how involved you want to get. Pigeons constitute a big money sport for some people, thus facilitating special study and specialization here. But I am going to keep it as simple as I know how. Generally, when raising squabs you may wish to raise the protein level of your feed up to about 20%. As a guide, a pigeon’s diet should consist of about 13%-16% protein, possibly the most important part of the diet. Also very important, it should be very high in carbohydrates. Lastly, it should be fairly low in fat, about 4%, and very low in fiber, which they do not utilize very well and don’t need much of, if any at all. There are three simple ways of feeding pigeons that I will list here.
1. Feed a balanced, pelleted, pigeon feed which will provide just about everything your birds need, and only optionally, some regular poultry grit or the special red pigeon-grit.
2. Feeding an all-grain pigeon feed and red pigeon-grit, or otherwise regular grit with a vitamin & mineral supplement that is sprinkled on their feed or added to their water.
3. For method number three, you use what you have locally available, try not to spend a fortune, and try not to have to order things in. All that, while still keeping the birds in excellent condition. For me, this usually consists of feeding a 16% layer pellet, premium scratch grains, and/or wild bird seed, and basic grit.
I find both the pelleted and all-grain pigeon feeds to usually be quite expensive, especially considering I want to only use organic, or at least, non-GMO feeds. In the case of the all-grain feed, not only do the pigeons waste TONS of it, but you NEED red pigeon-grit. Which is another expense and, unless you get lucky, you’ll most likely have to order it. Another option is for you to substitute the red pigeon-grit with a vitamin/mineral supplement, which you may be able to find at a pet shop or feed store, and then just use regular grit. But again, it’s one more expense and another product to mess with. You may also possibly find a mineral/vitamin supplemented grit at a pet shop, similar to the red pigeon-grit but used for caged birds, though it’ll get expensive.
For the pelleted pigeon feed all you will additionally need, and just preferably, is some regular grit to help them digest any seeds/grains that you may give them, or anything else they may eat that isn’t water soluble.
I would prefer to use the pelleted pigeon feed, but don’t have it available to me, so I use my personalized feeding method. The premium, 5-grain, scratch feed or bird seed is not a necessity, just something I really like to add in their diet for variety. The grit would be unnecessary if I wasn’t feeding grains/seeds. The poultry pellets I’m feeding also provide a fairly balanced ration of minerals and vitamins, so I’m fairly well covered there, too, although I don’t object to some supplements provided additionally.
Note: the products that I’m using and recommending (layer pellets, seeds/grains, grit) are mainly because of the difficulty for me to find products in my area for birds other than common poultry such as chickens. You may be able to find pigeon products in your area or be willing to order them. You have to figure out what is the best feeding method for you, using that which you can acquire from local farm/feed stores. I use what I have available, and find suitable substitutes for the things that I don’t.
Worming: pigeons should ideally be wormed at least twice a year against internal and external parasites. There are many products available and I use Ivomectin cattle wormer, 1% tincture, as it is readily available for me. It is amongst the safest wormers and is also used to treat both internal and external parasites, which is a plus. Be sure to do your research before going with any one and make sure you know the proper administration method(s) and dosage(s). Per bird, I give three drops, down the throat, out of a syringe and I repeat in 21 days. You can also mix some wormers in their water. I also recommend dusting them with Sevins Dust or similar product.
Diseases: pigeons are susceptible to many common diseases such as canker and coccidiosis, but with proper selection, breeding, and good management they should not suffer from them at all. I like to regularly add apple cider vinegar or crushed garlic and other herbs to their feed. Bleach in their water is a very effective means of preventing the spread of disease, I’ve used ½ ounce of 8% bleach per gallon of water. It also keeps the green gunk and other “nasties” from developing. These are easy, effective and inexpensive ways to keep your pigeons strong and in good health. There are many products available for pigeons and you should check out the references provided below.
Breeds: be aware that not all breeds are equal in their abilities. Some show-breeds should not be let out to fly; other breeds, which have been bred for extreme length of feathering around the head, very short beaks, or huge globes, cannot raise their own babies and you need to use foster parents. Some breeds just aren’t very good parents, period, even if able to raise their young. I recommend the plainer, less extreme and ornamented breeds to beginners.
Sexing: among the most common question that arises with new pigeon owners is how to sex their birds. This is one of the drawbacks of the pigeon. Male and female pigeons often look just alike, but there are a few ways to help you tell them apart. Cocks are often much louder than the hens and their voice can even sound deeper on some birds. They will likely coo and grunt more and be more aggressive than the hens. They will spread out their tail feathers while prancing around, bowing and cooing; they will also puff up their “chest” (it’s really their crop) a little while doing this display. Cocks may also be a little larger than hens with bolder, more masculine features, and sometimes more sheen to the neck feathers. But this is all better noticed when comparing known hens and cocks side by side.
Another way to help tell is to feel the two bones that are under the bird and form a V-shape toward its rear end. Hens will have a larger gap at the “valley” of the V to accommodate egg-laying, while on the males they will be closer together and sometimes even touch.
None of these methods are sure-fire. and age, condition, and individuality will all play a part in how accurate they are. Observing them pairing up and breeding is the most accurate method.
I hope we’ve come to see how the pigeon is more than just the feral pest we see flying around the barn and scavenging about the city, and that they can be a valuable addition to just about any home. Whether it’s for meat, pets, ornamentals, or just a hobby, you’re sure to be pleased with this feathered jewel. They may just become your new favorite bird on the yard!
Some references: npausa.com; Pigeons.biz.com; Slobber Knocker loft; Circus Loft; Foys Pigeon Supply; Jedd’s Pigeon Supply; Siegel’s Pigeon Supply; Global Pigeon supply.