Extract from "Pigeon Racing Advanced Techniques" by Jan Aerts

De Duif has published two booklets which have gone into several editions. They deal with the question of feeding and are called Food and Water and Feeding, Food, Vitamins and Pigeons. They were written by my editorial colleague Arie van den Hoek, who is an expert in these matters and a successful fancier. These two booklets ought to be part of every fancier's library.

My views in this chapter coincide exactly with those of my colleague. They are my personal views, the fruit of years of experience of big and small fanciers with whom I am in daily contact. They are not based on theory, although I have nothing against it. The knowledge we gain from experience is practical, real. Theory is confirmed or disproved by it.

The feeding of pigeons is an art, but it can be learned, and it is worth learning. Too many lofts make mistakes in feeding. When breeders then find they fall short of their goals, they wrongly blame the pigeons, the loft or some other thing.

The most important thing about pigeon food is quality. This must be the first consideration. Always feed sound, sun-ripened, fully-ripened and matured seeds. While any of these four qualities is important in itself, a good feed must combine them all. If one of them is missing, the food is incomplete, to put it mildly. The breeder therefore should learn to judge grains and seeds before he buys them.

Whether you buy the different types of food separately or as a mixture, have a good look at the displays in pigeon food Shops. Different qualities are kept in different boxes or dishes. By comparing the cheapest with the most expensive you will learn to tell the different qualities apart. Pigeon racing is an expensive sport, but doesn't the cheapest often turn out to be the dearest, especially when a lot depends on it?

The best quality food need not always be the most expensive. Some fanciers have to see the season's results before they agree with me. The observant fancier sees it at once from the droppings of his birds, but it is undoubtedly better to learn to read the message in the food before you are forced to read it in the droppings. I once conducted an experiment by feeding four different qualities of maize to four different pairs. Their droppings decided which quality I stocked up with for the season.

Have a good look round and take your time. I eventually made up my own mixture which is probably better than that of most fanciers and certainly a few pennies cheaper. Why shouldn't everybody else follow suit?

Go for the most recent harvest, if possible, but be very wary of seeds that have only just come in from the fields. Young grain and seed is richer in nourishment but it must be stored and matured before it can be given to the pigeons. If the harvest has been brought in during showery weather (as it was in 1962), it must be stored for quite some time before it is suitable for feeding to pigeons.

Early in September 1962 1 bought a quantity of fresh barley and wheat. The immediate consequence was loose droppings. This was not fatal, but I still noticed the difference in the autumn round of youngsters. This is the kind of thing anyone who knows anything about pigeons must notice. If just one variety in the mixture is below standard it may result in a whole season's youngsters or a whole season's racing being ruined. I don't think there can be any doubt about that.

Food which smells musty or has gone off, even if it has been washed, cleaned, polished or otherwise treated, can poison pigeons through the mould it contains. The older the food is the more it loses its nutritive value. It loses its ability to germinate, and the vitamin content decreases. It may even become entirely useless. Very often this is due to the way it has been stored.

The second essential requirement is the food must be complete. It must be a varied mixture providing the pigeons with everything they need. The ingredients of the mixture must be in established proportions to each other. The question of whether pigeon food should be varied or simple, light or rich, could be discussed from now until doomsday. Everyone insists on his own point of view. Varied means the mixture of a large number of different grains and seeds; simple, the combination of only two or three. Rich food contains a large proportion of legumes (beans, peas, tares); light food comparatively few. The amount, kind and quality of the nutritive and other components varies from mixture to mixture. The more varied the mixture the more likely it is to provide a complete and balanced diet. Legumes are richer in proteins than cereals. Therefore, a larger proportion of legumes make the food richer.

In his booklets, A.v.d.Hoek deals with this problem at great length. If I still had pigeons myself (unfortunately this is no longer possible) I would give them the most varied mixture I could find. I would make a thorough study of their food. The best is only just good enough.

Whenever anyone asks me for advice on pigeon food, I never give him the recipe for the most varied mixture but only for a relatively varied one. Why? Because the selection of legumes and cereals is a very delicate task. It only needs one substandard variety for the birds to lose their form. For this reason I would not like to be responsible for another fancier's choice.

I think it should be obvious whether beans, peas and maize are sound and well-matured or not. What about wheat, barley, tares and other small seeds? Well, I would not like to look too closely! Sometimes I shake my head when I see what young country lads, who have grown up among the stuff, feed their birds. I have grown old in an office, but they could learn a thing or two from me. In most cases it is probably negligence rather than ignorance. 'Surely it doesn't matter all that much,' they say. It is unbelievable.

'Why grey tares,' somebody asked me the other day, 'aren't the black ones any good?"Maybe,' I said, 'but they are washed, dyed and cleaned. They cannot be healthy. I don't trust them.'

In fact, the pigeons' droppings confirmed this. Sometimes I try to convince people with my tongue in my cheek by saying, 'When I was out to find a wife, was I wrong to look for a girl who wasn't paintedT They promptly give up feeding tares altogether, both grey and black ones.

It is possible to argue about the relative value of rich versus light food. Some lofts race well on one, some on the other. I am in favour of mixed food because this is how I feel it ought to be, and anyone who knows anything about pigeon feeding uses it. I have never read a book by an expert that did not advocate a varied mixture, and I have noticed that most fanciers follow this advice. I do not favour heavy food because the birds do as well, if not better, on light food. I have experimented to find the mixture that would give the best performance and have ended up with the lighter mixture. Dr. Stosskopf does not believe in feeding 50 per cent legumes; he advises 30 per cent.

Why am I against a heavy mixture? Because I do not believe in a theory that does not match up exactly to reality, that is disproved by practical experience. But is it possible to race well on a heavy mixture? Of course; I have always said so and never claimed the opposite. I have seen it work, but it works equally well the other way, and I have reason to believe that the birds have more stamina.

The Peeters-Beaufort team at Biomont was one of the best over long distances, and I have never seen heavier food anywhere else. Even the winter mixture contained a much larger proportion of legumes than our ordinary breeding and racing mixture.

The late Guillaume Peeters said, 'Any pigeon who cannot put up with it can go and choke on it, for all I care.'

This caused Louis VermeiJen to reply, 'Then quite a few will choke on your heavy diet who deserved better!'

This conversation took place during one of our last visits to Biomont. Peeters shrugged his shoulders but, nevertheless, lent a willing ear to what VermeiJen had to say on pigeons and pigeon racing.

No one could come and say that the Cattrysse brothers from Moere, who feed large quantities of maize, could not match themselves against the Biomont team. It is senseless to compare the two lofts. Let us just say that two of the most successful fanciers in our sport hold completely contradictory views on feeding.

I agree with the Cattrysse brothers, and so did Louis VermeiJen. Nobody could say that his pigeons at St. Mariaburg were fed on a light diet, but it was not heavy either, especially after his acquaintance with A.v.d.Hoek from the editorial staff of De Duif had contributed to making it a bit lighter. Vermeijen, the grand master, is the one who said, 'What do we know about a pigeonT He never considered himself infallible.

'I agree,' says Dr. Whitney. 'I consider a light diet better, not least of all because it is cheaper.' That is a point worth considering. The majority of fanciers cannot afford to spend money with both hands. They must scrimp and save to make ends meet. So why have expensive (heavy) food if cheap (light) food is adequate?

I believe that pigeons fed on a light diet have more stamina. Their bodies have less work to do. Don't we feed them on a light diet after a race, in several instalments, if the race has been a tough one .9 We do this so that the digestive organs are not overloaded and the entire body can have a rest.

Dr. Whitney says this:

'In many books and articles where the feeding of pigeons is discussed one finds statements to the effect that flying uses up protein and high protein diets are necessary. This is really not the case, as will be obvious when we realize that the energy for muscle contraction is derived from glycogen (animal starch) which is stored in the liver as glucose.

'This is what happens during muscle work: in the muscle there is a sugar /phosphoric acid combination (hexosephosphate), which acts on glucose when no oxygen is present and forms lactic acid. This occurs during each muscle contraction. When the muscle is relaxed there is a pause called the recovery phase. At this time oxygen is supplied by the blood and about one-fifth of the accumulated lactic acid is oxydized and used as fuel to resynthesize the other four-fifths back to glycogen.

'If too much lactic acid accumulates the muscle enters into a state of rigour, and when oxygen is admitted the lactic acid disappears. Fatigue is due to the increase of lactic acid. In endurance tests with animals it was found that those given sugar can perform three times as much work as they are capable of when on an ordinary diet.

'The racing pigeon is sent to his liberation point and in the shorter races starts the race cnipty. His muscle energy must be stored in his liver, blood and muscles. He is fed generally before the long races and digests food as he flies, using its energy for flying.

'He can use the protein, too, discarding the nitrogen in his urine and burning the remaining part. And fat can be utilized also, but neither fat nor protein is used until the glycogen reserves are spent. The fat is oxydized and burned before the protein, and the muscle tissue itself is last to be used. Very likely a pigeon would be exhausted and quit flying long before his muscle tissue was called on. What makes the bird lose weight in a long flight is the loss of water, glycogen and fat, all of which he can replace. Some protein is needed for muscle repair, but certainly on the basis of what is known about muscle food, protein is least necessary for flying.'

So much for Dr. Whitney. These are very learned words, but then Dr. Whitney is a learned man. I will say the same thing in simpler language, which will be easier to understand:

When a: pigeon is flying, its muscles are working. They need fuel in the same way that a motor car needs petrol. Fuel creates energy. In the case of the pigeon the fuel is glycogen. This is why the food mixture must consist largely of those seeds which, when they are digested, produce the most glycogen, i.e. those that are richest in carbohydrates. We put a large proportion of maize into the mixture because maize is particularly rich in carbohydrates and the best energy producer. Fat, too, contributes energy, but oil seeds are of secondary importance, since other food-stuffs contain fat in sufficiently large quantities.

Proteins, or albumenoids, which are containedin large quantities in the legumes, are mainly body-building foods. They are used in making and replacing muscle tissues and feathers.

Proteins, carbohydrates and fat are found in all seeds of which a mixture can be made up. It is logical that we should choose those varieties which are particularly rich in what the pigeon needs, but that is not enough. The ingredients must be in correct ratio with each other. If we give too much of one or the other we upset the ratio. This is what happens if we feed too many legumes.

A mixture with about 30 per cent legumes is correct. If a fancier feeds only 25 per cent maize he has to make up the deficiency with other seeds rich in carbohydrates. He will get away with this in a mixture, but maize is by far the best. So why not feed 40-50 per cent maize in the first place, the way the best Flemish long-distance fanciers do ? After all, they have done very well with this method.

When a fancier asks my advice I always try to make it as easy as possible for him by giving him the recipe for a 'basic mixture', which he can feed all the year through. He only has to supplement it according to the circumstances by making it richer (by adding more legumes) or lighter (by adding cereals). He can do this by adding peas or barley respectively.

The basic mixture is as follows:

5 per cent tic beans

15 per cent Tasmanian maple peas

10 per centgreen peas

40 per cent maize

20 per cent wheat

10 per cent barley

To make a more varied mixture, dari and sunflower seed (5 per cent each) can be added. The legumes can then (but need not) be supplemented by 5 per cent grey tares or winter peas. This mixture is based on the principles and tables of A.v.d. Hoek and on advice from Dr. Whitney. It has proved itself over many years and pigeons perform well on it, even over a distance of 615 miles. Don't let us forget the daily doses of 'titbits' Vermeijen recommends, a teaspoon of linseed, cabbage seed and canary seed, mixed together in equal parts.

Six small lofts I know at Puurs, where Sus Peeters, too, has his loft, feed the basic mixture plus titbits as racing mixture. On certain days this racing mixture is replaced by a lighter mixture, as is usual when widower birds return from a race. I shall have more to say about this in the chapter entitled 'Back from the race'.

The basic mixture is also fed in the off-season during the moult. The feed is then heavier, richer in protein. This is not because the basic mixture is adapted in any way, but because it is not interspersed with a lighter mixture. The moult calls for a rich feed because, in addition to having to renew their feathers, the pigeons must recover from a season of racing and breeding.

When the last but one flight has dropped, we change over to the winter feed, which means adding one part of barley to one part of basic mixture. The proportion of barley is gradually increased until the mixture consists of one part basic mixture to three parts barley. I do not think that this feed is too light; in fact I would not hesitate to increase the proportion of barley, especially during a mild winter. Louis Pepermans feeds as much as 80 per cent barley when he wants to keep his pigeons quiet, and wouldn't we all like our pigeons to perform as well as his do? The fancier can tell from the behaviour of his pigeons how much barley he ought to feed them. Pigeons react to sun and temperature. The essential thing is to keep them quiet.

I do not expect anybody to stick religiously to the mixtures as I have given them. A pigeon will not die or become ill if the mixture contains five per cent more or less of one or other variety. It pays to go easy on legumes, though.