The Pigeon's Diet
From "The Handbook of Pigeon Racing" by Jan Hermans
Pigeon fanciers used to be rather lavish with these excellent protein producers and there are still some who include up to 60 per cent pulses in their mixtures. It is now known that this is too much of a good thing. Forty per cent is sufficient to guarantee that growth and renewal, the vital functions which depend on proteins, are properly allowed for. This proportion is also sufficient to ensure the proper formation of the young bird's skeleton. The minerals present in pulses play an important part in this process. Experience has shown that stuffing the birds with protein-rich products such as pulses does not immediately produce bad racers, although research has demonstrated the link between excessively high proportions and wing diseases. The most important pulses include green and other peas, pigeon beans, lentils and vetches.

The green pea is undoubtedly the most important pulse, It is now known that excess, even of this excellent product, can do harm.

Seeds form only a small proportion of the pigeon's diet, not more than a couple of grammes per meal. Seeds such as linseed, millet and sorghum serve another purpose apart from that of food. They are a much used means of furthering the understanding between the fancier and his birds, since pigeons find them very tasty. The fancier can therefore use the seeds to cement an attachment with the birds, to teach them to listen to his voice and to familiarize them with his gestures. For this reason seeds may be equated with sweets. Some extra seeds are given during the moult, particularly linseed and rape seed.

Weighing scales
An average meal for the adult pigeon weighs from 30 to 35 grammes. We mention this mainly for the sake of completeness. It is really not necessary to feed with an eye on the weighing scales, since it is not the intention to leave the birds to their own devices after filling the food trough. We look at how they eat and what they eat. From this and from the effect of the diet on their appearance and condition we drawn our conclusions for the sport. We also look at what food, if any, is left over and use it as a guide to changing the feeding pattern. All this is much more effective than a look at the scales. The latter only makes us nervous and may lead us to forget that it is better to look at the pigeons.

This grain is one of the standard elements of the pigeon's diet. It is a first-class product with many vitamins - A, B and E - although there are also a few provisos about its use. Despite its many good qualities, maize is an unbalanced food. It contains no building materials for the muscles and skeleton. It is primarily a manufacturer of fat and will be included in mixtures mainly when the birds are due to race or during frost. These are the circumstances when the existing fat reserves are being drawn upon. If these reserves are inadequate, the muscles themselves will be consumed. The unbalanced nature of the cereal is fully compensated by varying it with other foodstuffs.

A not unimportant advantage is that maize is relatively cheap in relation to its high feeding value and the pigeons readily eat it. The fancier must make sure that the grain he buys is healthy. He can judge this by looking at the gloss, the aroma and the soundness of the white germs. Today's abundance of maize in the livestock farming sector means that there is much less old, musty grain about than there used to be.

A great many varieties of maize are available and they go under various names. Gloss, fresh aroma and soundness of the white germs determine the quality of what we buy.

Yellow maize is the commonest sort. The pigeons prefer it to white or mixed and the provitarnin A content is higher. If you have the choice, it is best to use more than one variety.

Wheat contains a considerable number of proteins, the vitamins B and E as well as the substance phytase, which enables minerals to be released to the body. Pigeons love wheat, but they must not be given more than 15 per cent in their diet otherwise their digestion will be upset and they will lose their appetite. Moreover, great care must be taken with fresh wheat which can have a toxic effect resulting in diarrhoea.

Although rye was still recommended twenty years ago as an excellent cereal, opinions are now more divided. The rye itself, with its high content of carbohydrates and the presence of vitamins B and E has not changed of course, but some fanciers have suffered nasty experiences, probably as a result of feeding their birds too much rye. The birds concerned were mainly young pigeons whose digestion was upset and who had thick blood. Proportions of rye in the mixture in excess of 10 per cent caused red throats and blue flesh.

Apart from the fact that only a modest amount of research has been done into specific pigeon foods, the results of any research take some time to make themselves felt in everyday practice. So long as the relationship between the symptoms just described and the effect on them of rye has not been clearly demonstrated or disproved, it is advisable to be cautious. There are, in any event, enough other products at the fancier's disposal. Wheat, for example, can almost take the place of rye. The reader will only rarely find rye included in the mixtures discussed later in the chapter.

The special feature of barley is that we can use this grain to adjust the diet. More or less barley is added to the mixture according to what the pigeon is doing. For people who have little spare time this is an excellent way of giving the birds a correct feed. This cereal is rich in vitamins A, B, E and, particularly, D, is highly suitable for building a strong skeleton in young birds and promotes metabolism. The presence of husks makes the mash more porous, thus facilitating the action of the food juices and bacteria, thereby assisting the digestion. Moreover, good barley does not make the pigeons fat.

Barley is, incidentally, despite all its excellent qualities, not irreplaceable just as no food product is irreplaceable in principle. It is a question of knowing exactly what a product 'does', what its characteristics are and then looking for substitutes which do the same. In other words, we have to be well informed about nutritional matters.

Barley is an exceptional feeding regulator and therefore very convenient for fanciers who have to devote attention to other matters.

Varieties of barley
Good barley is short, thick, heavy and dry. It is sound, yellow in colour and smells fresh, just as all grains must smell fresh. Aroma-less products have a bad name. There are short, heavy varieties which can be fed in larger quantity than the light, sharp varieties. Pigeons are certainly not mad about barley so if some is left over it is a warning that the quantity being given is probably on the high side.

This cereal is easily digestible. It is richer than all the other cereals in protein and fibre and contains a considerable amount of fat. It is a source of vitamins B and E. All these characteristics make oats a first-class component of a varied diet, although we must be able to rely on the quality. Pale oats are not to be trusted in this respect.

There are unhusked and more expensive husked varieties. Both kinds can be used in the pigeons' feed, which may contain between 5 and 10 per cent oats. The choice of variety depends mainly on the proportion of husk in the weight. With some varieties the proportion of husk may reach 40 per cent. This percentage is rather high for the proper functioning of the bird's digestive organs. Lower proportions are found with black oats, which are not widely available, and with yellow, preferably pointed, oats.

Sexual instinct
One of the characteristics of oats is that they stimulate the pigeon's sexual instinct. There are times when the fancier is not eager to have randy pigeons, for example, during the period that widows remain in the run. It is good to reduce the quantity of oats drastically at that time or to omit them altogether. There is no objection to the hens being sexually receptive when they return home. Parents with squeakers are also fed a minimum of this grain.

The most important of the first series of pulses to be discussed here is the green pea. li is also the best possible pulse that we can give our pigeons. As far as the proportion of pulses in mixtures is concerned, a third, or 10 to 15 per cent, may consist of green peas. This proportion is justified by the rich content of vitamins B and E and the provitarnin A. Proteins and minerals are well represented, although less so, for example, than in the representatives of the bean family. Moreover, pigeons have few problems with green peas, either actively, in picking them up, or passively, in digesting them.

There is a whole range of beans with names which differ from country to country and region to region, and some of which are also eaten by Man. They include brown, white, speckled, scarlet runner, horse, sheep, field and ... pigeon beans. As far as food value is concerned, the product to which the pigeon has given its name is not the bean par excellence for our feathered friends. The name was prompted much more by the ideal size of this pulse for pigeon consumption. Some of the beans just referred to are indeed very large. All beans are heavy food, which means that the proportion included in the mixture should not exceed five per cent. This is enough to enable our birds to benefit from the rich content of proteins and minerals. The vitamin content is modest. If he adds too many beans to the mixture, the fancier has to contend with the disorders characteristic of the time when fanciers still prized this product too highly: thick blood and inflammation.

Fresh beans must be the watchword. We can check this for ourselves. Old beans are dark or even black. If we bite into them, it can break a tooth because they are so hard. If you don't dare risk this, suspect beans can be put into some damp earth. If they are young beans, they will germinate after a few days.

This pulse is expensive, but we do not need to include very much in the mixture. Four or five per cent will suffice to enable us to benefit from the good qualities of vetches: they contain many proteins (actually the ideal of all pulses - not more than about 30 per cent) and many minerals. The grain size is very suitable for consumption by racing pigeons and the birds are very fond of them. But the fancier should note that vetches stimulate the sexual urge.

The colour of the different varieties ranges from light to dark blue. The grains are rather perishable, but can be given to the birds Wild vetches again after being washed and dried in the sun.

Like vetches, lentils are among the most expensive of the pulses included in the mixture, so that they are included in only some of the mixtures offered for sale. There are all kinds of lentils, varying in colour and size, the latter being partly determined by where the crop is grown. Although pigeons are fond of these pulses, which have a food value comparable with that of peas, they must not make up more than a few per cent of the total ration.

Katjang idju
The appeal of the katiang idju is the result of effective advertising rather than the true value of this product for the pigeon's diet. The katjang is certainly not comparable with the green pea, as is sometimes suggested. It has a reasonable protein and vitamin B content but much less provitamin A. Moreover, it is quite an expensive product. The katiang is not a bad pulse, but it adds nothing to the familiar and cheaper range of pulses.

Canary seed
This pigeon delicacy has many names. The reference to "delicacy" indicates that care must be taken in feeding canary seed. It is a good way of gaining the bird's trust, but if we are too generous with it we spoil them for other foods. If we bear this in mind, there is no objection to giving all the pigeons this seed, which resembles short, glossy oats, but is much more nutritious, on every day of the year, but it will be expensive.

The existence of linseed oil is already an indication that linseed is a product rich in oil. In addition to fats, the favourable effect of which on growth and health is strengthened by the presence of unsaturated fatty acids, it contains the necessary proteins. Linseed has a laxative effect because it encourages the mucins and should therefore be given only in modest quantities. Another reason for feeding only moderate quantities is that the concentration of linseed may result in the formation of poisonous hydrogen cyanide. It is generally accepted that linseed has a favourable effect on the moult and encourages the formation of soft plumage.

Rape seed, Cole seed, Wild Mustard seed
These three kinds of seed also contain a good proportion of fats and protein. The aphrodisiac effect, which is well known to experienced fanciers, derives from the mustard oil present in the seeds. The seeds must therefore be given with discretion. They may be fed during the pairing seas, for example, and to young birds. These seeds do spoil them.