Hopefully after reading my previous article, Pigeon Preliminaries, you’ve been prompted to look further into these magnificent creatures called pigeons. In this one, I would like to hone in a little more on the different breeds, their uses, and choosing a pigeon breed that’s right for you; where to attain some birds; and give you a few pointers for settling them into their new home.
There are thousands of different pigeon breeds. Of course, I couldn’t go through them all right now, so I will attempt to narrow it down to some of the most common and unique ones. First, we will categorize them into three major use groups:
- Utility (squab (meat) producers)
We’ll start with the flyers.
Flying Pigeon Breeds
Homing Pigeons: The most popular breed of pigeon falls into this group: the Homing pigeon, AKA Homers. These are very special birds. Many have been recognized as “heroes,” pulling off great feats while serving for our country in the military. There was one such bird who successfully delivered an important message saving many lives despite it being shot and severely wounded by the enemy.
As implied, they will return home when released from elsewhere, and, depending on the bloodline, may return from over 1,000 miles away! The Homers vary a little in form but usually look like your typical wild pigeon, although often a little larger, tighter feathered, and more muscular, like a true athlete. The birds used for “white dove releases” in weddings, funerals, and other events, are usually white Homers. However, some inexperienced people actually use white doves, which don’t have as developed a homing instinct as the Homers. These doves usually face a bleak future trying to survive after the release and should not be used.
The homing instinct in pigeons has been researched extensively by scientists, and it’s still not completely understood. Some say they use the earth’s magnetic fields, moon, and sound or smell….. or all of these things. How ever they do it, all pigeons have a homing instinct, but due to that trait not being selected for breeding, some breeds can’t find their way home if they fly too far off and lose sight of their loft and familiar surroundings. The Homers we have nowadays have been stringently selectively bred in years past, and still continue to be, to retain and develop this unique and powerful homing instinct that allows them to “home” from so far away.
Racing Competitions Flown by Homing Pigeons
There are different types of races, distinguished by the distance being spanned, and whether the birds being flown are “young birds” (birds that were bred that same year) or “old birds” (birds bred at any other time than the year in which the race is being held). You may also fly only one bird or a hundred-plus. Flyers usually ship or drop off their birds at a club location (check with your specific local club). From there, the birds are all loaded into a modified truck with individual holding compartments. The birds ride to the area of release and are then all let out together and they “race” back home. When the bird(s) make it home, the handler takes off a special band, which was previously put on before the release, and inserts it into a clock that records the time. These times are reported to the Club, and although there’s a little more complicated scoring system, basically, the bird with the fastest time wins. Pigeon racers are a very dedicated set of fanciers, and most take their sport very seriously.
Homers are one of the hardiest and most prolific breeds. But they do have one downfall, that they will return to their original owner’s place after you bring them home and let them out to fly. After all, they are homers! As I will explain in more detail below, this may be remedied by only buying very young birds, un-flown, that have just recently come out of the nest, or keeping adult pairs as “prisoners,” breeding them, and then only flying their young. Either way, if you are interested in attaining/racing Homing pigeons, I would suggest you join one of the many clubs around the country. The American Racing Pigeon Union is a great place to start and they would love to give you any help they can.
Another flying breed that I have seen growing in popularity are the Highflyers. These birds are bred for high and long endurance flights. They are truly amazing, flying simply for the love of it. On they go, go, and go, for hours. Round and round, right above the loft; thus you have the option of competing with hundreds of other fanciers, the world over, right from the comfort of your own home and without dealing with any form of transportation for the birds. Highflyers are a family/group of breeds. Some specific breeds in this group are Tipplers, Serbian Highflyers, Danzig Highflyers, and Iranian Highflyers. Most get their names from the country of origin, and most Highflyers are from the Middle East, as many pigeon breeds are. Some have crests on their heads and others may be muffed (feather-footed). As with most breeds, these are hardy and will breed without problem. The Flying Tippler Society is a good club to consider joining if you want to compete with Highflyers, the site also has some very good info.
The competition should be very easy and inexpensive to join. There are a few competitions held throughout the year. After conditioning your flyers, you just need to be assigned a judge by your local club to take record of your bird’s flight. Among other things, the most important factor in judging is the time that the birds stay up and flying.
Performing Pigeon Breeds
Many of the breeds in this group are flying pigeons, but with a special surprise. They do rolls, twists, and dives in flight. It’s very entertaining! As the homing instinct, the rolling trait has also been studied, though not as extensively. It’s argued that the action is involuntary, maybe that’s the case in some breeds, but I favor the side that says it is an intentional and even learned act. I witnessed my Rollers first learning to roll, and then improving and expanding their skills as they gained experience. Who knows!
The different breeds are bred for different flight styles, for example:
Birmingham Rollers: These are probably the most popular breed of roller pigeons. They are a smaller, plain breed. They should fly in tight kits (a group of pigeons that fly together and in unison) and roll simultaneously. The tighter and more unified they roll, the better they will be judged. They should look like a big ball of feathers falling from the sky! They are among the easiest rollers to keep and train and are a good choice for beginners with no special considerations to note.
Flying Oriental Rollers (FOR): FORs are a little larger-sized roller breed, with an interesting set of large, low-held wings and more tail feathers than other pigeons, from 14-20 vs the typical 12 of most other pigeons. They also lack an oil gland, this, however, does not negatively affect them.
Interestingly, the first FORs were imported in 1927 to the Brooklyn Zoo and from there they spread all over the country.
FORs do not tend to fly in as united a kit as do the Birminghams and some others, but they have a greater array of acrobatic maneuvers, including dives, twists, loops, and rolls. They also usually fly at a higher elevation. FORs are also known to be great at evading most hawks and other birds of prey, something that can often prove to be a serious problem with flyers. Many people have had to stop flying birds altogether because of problems with raptors. They are a little harder to get up and rolling then the Birminghams, but are certainly worth the effort. Unfortunately, they are also rarer.
There are many breeds with “Tumbler” in their names, but most no longer retain the ability to roll or tumble! Except for just a few, most are now strictly show breeds. Flying tumblers still seem very obscure to me as my experience and study there is limited.
Coop Tumblers: These are nice little birds, and some still perform. They remain more of a group rather than a specific breed, showing a variety of ornamented and plain breeds. There are some pure, rare ones that will still perform, such as the Syrian Coop Tumbler. Be aware, however, that some “Coop Tumblers” are often just a fancy show breed crossed with a rolling breed and the resulting offspring that still retain some ability to tumble are sold as “Coop Tumblers.” I suppose they’d still make fun and entertaining pets! (But let’s do support pure breeds and proper breeding)
The last rolling-type breed I will list here is the Parlor Roller. These birds are unique in that, once mature, they completely lack the ability of flight. But they make up for it by rolling on the ground in a series of flips! These are also very easy to raise and train and would make a good sport for the beginner. The competitions are based on birds that roll the farthest. These are also small and plain, bred primarily for performance rather than show.
There are a few different breeds that are very much performers, but different then the rollers.
Voice Pigeons: These may be raised for show, but their special attribute is their “voice.” All pigeons coo and grunt but, these do it much louder and longer, in addition to some other unique sounds. When many unite, it can be quite a spectacle. These aren’t very common, not many voice pigeons are, but a couple to look for would be the Thailand Laughers and Arabian Trumpeters. Both will prove to be good birds, regular sized, plain, and don’t need any special considerations.
Thief Pouter Pigeons: (“pouters” are a group of breeds that inflate their crops with air, and include other breeds that are not “thieves.”) Now these are unique! They were developed to go out and seduce other pigeons back to their own home. It is a sport, but some used to use the captured pigeons as sustenance. In the sport, two or more fanciers fly their birds and let them “work” each other, the birds coo, grunt, and dance around aggressively. The one that gives in, and follows the other bird home, loses. A variation, played solely with Pica Pouters, AKA Deportivos, is called “La Suelta,” originating in Spain, where many cocks, which are all distinctively painted by their owners with special paint, are let out after a single hen that has a white feather tied to her tail. Different moves are appointed a certain amount of points. But the closer a cock can get to the hen the more points are appointed him.
Although most breeds are used for both showing and flying, there are a couple Spanish Thief Pouters that are typically used solely for showing. They are naturally tame, lacking any natural fear of humans. With minimal handling, they become just like puppies, these two are the Marchanero and Gaditano Pouters. The Gaditano is the more popular of the two. These two breeds tend to have some breeding problems, particularly, the Gaditanos because of their large crops and the Marchaneros because of heavy inbreeding. None of the Spanish Thief Pouters, with the exception of the Picas, are the best breeders. They can get along, however, doing best if bred in single pairs rather than in a community loft. The Horseman Thief Pouters are also good breeders, but they, too, still do best when bred in single pairs.
“Thieving” is not a very popular sport in the States, other than in a few locals, a very popular one being South FL. Groups of both Spanish and English origin played this sport, with their own special breeds and variations. Most of the breeds now available are Spanish Thief Pouters (that’s a group of breeds) but there are the increasingly popular Horseman Thief Pouters (that’s a breed) which have an English ancestry. The “Thieves” are a very entertaining set of birds, as they think very much of themselves and when let out to fly will constantly be putting on a show, clapping their wings in flight and dancing around other birds. A few specific breeds of Spanish Thief Pouters are Picas, Moroncelos, Jiennenses, Balear, and Morrilleros.
Show Pigeon Breeds
Show breeds are kept primarily for competing with at the many pigeon shows around the country. Birds are judged by the written Standard, and those that comply the best, of course, win. Judging, rather than for performance, is based primarily on form and appearance. They also make good pets, as do most pigeons, with handling, if that’s what you want out of them.
Most fancy show breeds should not be let out of their pen to fly, unless you are supervising to protect them from ground predators. With many, the heavy ornamentation inhibits proper flight. But even those that can fly well usually aren’t effective at escaping fast-flying birds of prey. Another note, even breeds originally bred for other purposes, such as the voice, flying/performing and meat breeds, all have blood-lines/strains that have been bred specifically for the show ring; an important point to keep in mind when deciding what exactly you want and proceeding to obtain them.
Fantail: This is one of the most popular show breeds out there. And many are familiar with their very large, turkey/peafowl-like tails. There are two kinds, the American Fantail and the Indian Fantail. The American is smaller, clean-legged and plain-headed. The Indian is quite large, muffed, and has a crest on its head. Neither may be the best choice for the beginning breeder because they often have breeding problems, mainly caused by the large tails inducing low fertility, although they may be trimmed. But, of course, this would only matter if you wished to breed them. If you are not very deterred by that, and would still like to give them a try, they are known for a funny personality and their looks are simply spectacular to see.
Frillbacks: These fairly large birds have beautiful, curly feathers and are known for being fair breeders, not flighty and have a generally very “easy” personality. Not many cons on these. Except that the ornamentation makes them less able to cope too well with bad weather or dirt. They come both plain-headed and crested and they are muffed. Modenas: These big, chubby, funny shaped birds are another popular show breed. They are quite a bit larger than a feral pigeon. Unfortunately, they are known for being more aggressive than some breeds, so single-pair breeding is recommended to keep conflicts in the loft to a minimum. Neither are they known as the greatest breeders, but most will get along. I wouldn’t recommend them as a first choice over some of the other breeds I will list, but they may be what’ll “float your boat!” And I wouldn’t discourage you to at least give them a try if that’s the case.
Old German Owls: This breed boasts a crest and a frill. It’s a smaller one, with a shorter beak than some breeds, but not so short that it creates a problem with feeding the young. It is a good breeder, beautiful, calm and charming. Although they are not a “flying breed,” they are known to be pretty decent flyers, putting on a show of interesting athleticism.
Classic Old Frills: This breed looks a lot like the OGOs described above, but are muffed. They have most all the same characteristics, too. They are crested, frilled, good breeders, calm, have charming personalities, are smaller sized, and sport a short beak that gives them a very “cute” appearance.
West of England Tumbler: These are show birds. WOEs are quite a popular breed and have the attributes to make them as such – good looks, fair breeding ability, attractive personalities and without needing any special considerations except keeping things esspecially dry and clean for there muffs (feathered feet).
The utility breeds are bred for squab production. They are not only supposed to be large, but prolific and fairly fast growers. There are many exceptionally large pigeon breeds, however not used for meat, the two breeds that are most popular for squab production are not gigantic but combine larger size with prolificacy and fast maturation.
American Giant Homers: These birds were created by crossing large Homers with a few other breeds that would increase their size and productivity. They are both a show and utility breed. So make sure to get those bred for squab production.
Utility Kings: These birds are usually pure white, where the Giant Homer (GH) more commonly comes in a few different colors. They are probably more popular for squab production than the GH and would be a great choice. Make sure you get “Utility Kings” and not “Show Kings.” Show Kings have been bred specifically for showing without attention to utilitarian purposes, while the utility Kings are used strictly for squab production.
For information on any of the mentioned breeds, Breed Clubs, Breeders—local and abroad—or just pigeon info in general, contact the National Pigeon Association (NPA).
As you see, even in this limited sampling, there’s a special pigeon out there for every taste. And as many different things to do with them!
Now for part two…
Obtaining Some Pigeons
Internet: Online classifieds such as Craigslist and E-bay often prove fruitful destinations in which to search. But buyer beware, there will be mostly low quality options. There are many other pigeon-specific sites with pigeons for sale, but my favorite is:http://www.pigeons.biz/forums/f8/ and look on Facebook for many classified groups that are most excellent.
Local: A call to a club or association (such as the NPA referenced above), and they will be able to give you the contact information to any breeders nearby (or abroad if you care to have the birds shipped). People do ship pigeons, but of course, this is another expense. However, it is often necessary if you desire excellent birds for breeding or competing with, or rare breeds.
Some Flea Markets may have vendors with pigeons. Though don’t expect to find good quality there. Local agricultural papers may also have ads selling pigeons. And probably the two best options of all, (1.) contact a Pigeon Club, either of the specific breed you wish to obtain, or an international and multi-breed club, (such as the NPA referenced above) who will direct you to breeders and provide information. (2.) Attend one of the many Pigeon Shows held around the country, where you will sometimes find hundreds of birds available and be able to closely inspect the bird(s) in question and talk face-to-face with the owner. The NPA would also be of help in locating nearby shows.
All the options above will have their pros and cons. I wouldn’t suggest buying birds that you haven’t seen, either in person or in pictures. Observing the birds in person is always best, you can handle and more closely inspect them, and are often able to watch them fly if they are for that intent. Plus you can inspect the facilities. Therefore, shows and local-pickups are always good options.
Although it can be a bit deceiving at times, you can usually get a good idea of who you’re buying from just by talking with them on the phone. Ask lots of questions, and look for informed, intelligent answers coming from experience and “book-learning.” How well do they manage their birds? Do they know much about them? Their breeds, their line and ancestry etc… Most breeders who have good, up-to-date websites or are avid competitors will usually not disappoint you.
On the internet, many birds will be for sale on the pigeon-related forums. You can then do a little searching on the seller’s history, birds, and knowledge by looking around on there. Lastly, keep in mind that there are three major groups of pigeon keepers, which are easily distinguishable.
1: Those breeders who are very serious about their birds, usually their long-time hobby, and when selling, they’re just looking to get rid of some extras that are still very good quality. Many will even gift birds to young fanciers just coming in to pigeon-keeping.
2: Those breeders who are in it as a money-making venue. Many will have decent-enough birds, but they are usually those who breed meat-birds or do “White-Dove Releases”. Others, often just back-yard breeders (though back-yard breeders are not the problem!) trying to make a quick buck, will often disappoint you.
3: People who have some pigeons just to have them around and are either getting rid of them or have been letting them breed and are now overwhelmed and need to downsize. If you’re serious about competing, breeding, or just getting a solid start, then these may not be the best option.
A few quick tips for keep and integrating your new birds safely into their home.
I’m sure it’s a known “given” that you should have the living quarters, with food and water, all set up and ready before the special, permanent-guests arrive. You may wish to review my previous article, referred to above, for more info on that. Going on, there’s nothing very special that needs doing, especially if the birds are a show breed, or any not intended to be flown. Some electrolytes and vitamins in the water may help them while getting settled in, but it’s not a necessity if they have good quality feed and good, clean water. The less disturbance and stress during the beginning, the better; so hold off on the taming and petting attempts for a little while. The slightly more complicated processes consist with flying breeds.
As stated in the beginning, Homers have a very well developed homing ability, so if you attain any adult birds that have been previously flown, then they will not be able to be let out to fly at your place without fear of them heading back to their original home. You want birds that have just come out of the nest. In the latter case, the birds should not be familiar, from the air at least, with their previous home, and will “imprint” on your loft. If you wish to attain proven, flown adults, you should just breed them and then fly their young.
Some Highfliers are said to have a fairly developed homing instinct—not nearly as good as a Homer’s, though—but good enough that they may attempt to fly back home. Talk with the breeder as they’ll be able to give you more specific details on their birds. If you are worried about this, then I suggest you simply extend the holding-time that I will recommend below.
For other flying breeds, and the two mentioned above (with the implied exception of adult-bought Homers), you will want to proceed to fly them in roughly the following manner:
After your birds have had a chance to settle down, and have gotten used to you and know you as care-taker, you will commence some simple training; which simply consists of teaching your pigeons to respond to a “feed-call.” That is, a consistent sound or word used in conjunction with feeding time. Once they are responding very well to the feed-call, and if it has already been about two weeks’ time that your birds have been in their new loft, you will open the door for them to exit from, and either let them come out on their own, or call them out to some feed. Don’t let them get more than a taste if any. You’ll then call them right back into the loft with the feed. Sometimes they get spooked while outside, this is just part of the process, wait a bit and try calling them again. Sometimes they won’t want to exit, don’t scare them out! They will eventually venture out, be patient. It’s best to have not fed your birds for a few hours prior to training, that way they are ready to eat and very responsive. Continue this training until you are confident and have your birds cooperating perfectly. When this is attained, and the birds have been regularly flying for longer amounts of time, you can then start taking your Homers away from home and letting them fly back. Other breeds (and Homers not being used for “homing”) can just be flown for fun or trained if rollers. Training your rollers can take up a whole book, however, so that for another time. But once you get them up and flying, they often do a lot of their training themselves, just through experience and when those genes start kicking in.
I hope this was of help to many of you desiring more information on wonderful pigeons. Despite many aspects seeming complicated, pigeons are very easy and adaptable animals, personalize your own care/training regime and I bet it will work out just fine. The many breeds available can also be daunting, but remember, they indeed are all just pigeons; I had to learn that I didn’t need and couldn’t use “one of each!” If you know what you want to use them for, it makes things a whole lot easier, so focus on that first.
Best of luck to you with all your pigeon-endeavors; if I could be of any assistance to you on your pigeon-journey, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.