The Feeding Problem
Extract from "The Thoroughbred Racing Pigeon" by J. Kilpatrick

It seems to be the general opinion amongst those interested in the racing pigeon that the solution to the feeding problem would be sure to bring instant success. Therefore, when any of our prominent fanciers write explaining their feeding methods, we read with interest all they have to say on the subject, hoping to benefit by their greater experience.

Mr. A. tells us that he feeds on a mixture of peas, tares, beans, wheat and dari, all the year round. Mr. B. feeds on peas, beans, corn and wheat. Mr. C. on Tasmanian and New Zealand maples, maize and wheat. Mr. D. says: "I feed on a mixture all the year round, but for races over 150 miles, I give peas, beans and tares." Mr. E., maple and cinq. maize, with a little rice at night; he thinks beans make them thirsty.

After studying all the different methods we are more confused than ever, and come to the conclusion that the birds do not win on account of the feeding methods of their owners, but in spite of them.

This feeding question has occupied the minds of fanciers ever since the sport of racing pigeons was first introduced. But up to the present I can find no evidence of any progress having been made. Most writers on the subject seem to think that the feeding value of any grain depends on its size, and couple tares with wheat, beans with maize, millet with hemp, and canary with linseed. A reference to the following table of analysis will show how widely all these seeds differ in their nature and composition.

The solution of feeding the racing pigeon to get the best results does not depend on the use of any one grain or mixture of grains, but on the amount of protein the feed contains.

What is wanted is a simple rule or guide to enable us to value the feeding quality of the grain on which our birds are fed. Something that will not require any scientific knowledge or elaborate calculation. I will return to this later.

Any substance is of value as a food to an animal only if it can digest from it certain quantities of protein, carbohydrates and fats. All grain used as pigeon food contains these three substances in varying proportions. They also contain a greater or lesser amount of water, a certain proportion of fibrous material and various chemical substances, which later are shown in a complete analysis of a food under the name of ash.

The following table of analysis shows the average composition of grain in general use as a pigeon food. These
figures are arrived at by analysing probably hundreds of samples and taking the average for each class of grain, for two samples of any grain will give exactly the same results. This accounts for the difference in the figures given in almost every table of analysis. Some varieties vary more than others; for instance, the protein content of tares vary from 23-3 to 28-6 per cent, and beans from 24-2 to 25-6 per cent. The larger seeds in each variety showing the highest percentage of protein.
Moisture Protein Carbohydrate Fats Fibre Ash
Tares 13.3 26 50.8 1.7 5.4 2.8
Beans 14 25 49.8 1.1 6.9 3.2
Maple Peas 13 22 56.5 1.1 4.6 2.8
Lentils 14 25.5 52.2 1.9 3.4 3
Maize 12.9 10 69.2 4.4 2.2 1.3
Wheat 13.4 12 69.1 1.9 1.9 1.7
Barley 14.9 9 67.5 1.5 4.5 2.6
Dari 11.1 10 70.8 3.8 1.9 2.4
Millet 12.5 10.6 61.6 3.9 8.1 1.3

One difference between proteins and either carbohydrates or fats is that proteins contain about 16 per cent nitrogen, while neither carbohydrates nor fats contain any of this substance.


Protein supplies the material used in building up muscle, bone and feather, and for keeping the body in repair by renewing the worn-out tissue cells. Carbohydrates and fats are the chief sources of heat and energy. Neither carbohydrates nor fats can take the place of protein, but proteins can replace carbohydrates and fats to a certain extent, for when proteins are not required by the body for other purposes, they are used to supply heat and energy, and will put on fat.

Now, if protein can build up the body, and at the same time supply heat and energy, it would seem at first sight that all we had to do to gain success was to feed our pigeons on the grain containing the highest proportion of this substance, but it is not so simple as all that. There is a penalty for overindulgence in all good things, and proteins are no exception. There is a limit to the amount of protein that pigeons or any other animals can make use of, any excess over this limit will have a detrimental effect on their health, owing to the extra strain thrown on the kidneys in getting rid of the excessive nitrogenous waste.

Some years ago I reared my first round of youngsters on a very fine lot of Goa tares with a protein content of 28 -6 per cent. I never reared a better feathered or finer looking lot of youngsters. I could see nothing wrong with the condition of the old birds except, perhaps, that they were a trifle broader across the root of the tail than usual (which is a sign of internal fat), but as they were looking well, I took no notice of this. It was not until I started to lose them in short, easy races, and my best bird dropped dead in the loft that I became aware of the seriousness of the position brought about by feeding on this excessively high protein grain.

However, as the weather was good and the distance of the races not too great, I was able to save the situation by making a drastic reduction in the proportion of protein in the food. This I did immediately I realized that something was wrong, and before the end of the season I had the birds in fair condition and was able to put up some sort of a show; but I had learned the lesson that one can have too much of a good thing. I tried two other experiments to find out the minimum of protein on which pigeons could be reared. I need hardly mention that after my last experience I did not use my racers for these experiments, but procured two pairs of cheap pigeons. One pair was fed entirely on wheat (12 per cent protein), and the other on maize (10 per cent protein). Each pair had a small loft to themselves, where they were prisoners, so that there was no chance of them picking up anything outside. When the youngsters were fourteen days old I killed the smaller in each nest, the other two were killed when eighteen days old. What determined me to kill them so young was the continuous plaintive crying of the wheat-fed youngster. Although its crop was always full it never stopped whining. It was then only about threequarters of the size a properly-fed bird should have been at that age. It was fairly well covered with small feathers, but when I examined the body I was surprised to find that there was not a trace of fat on it-even the small layer of fat which should cover the bowels was missing. The bowels were much inflamed, but whether this was caused by want of fibre, or the glutinous nature of the wheat, I was unable to determine.

The maize-fed youngster was smaller still, with long, pippy feathers, but it was quiet and content, and I have no doubt but that if the parents had been able to get into the fields, where they could have picked up protein in the shape of slugs, they would have made some sort of a job of rearing it, but nothing would have saved the wheat-fed youngsters.

In the first experiment the young birds were able to stand up to the rich food better than the parents, because they were turning the protein into muscle, bone and feather so fast that there was not the same amount of nitrogenous waste for the kidneys to deal with. But had I persevered with this excessively rich feeding, I believe that their health would have suffered eventually.

1, like many other fanciers, once thought that the richer the food the better would be the performance of the birds, but experience has compelled me to make a drastic change in my opinion on this subject.

In the other two experiments where the protein content of the food was too low, it was the youngsters that suffered, the want of protein in the food did not seem to have any detrimental effect on the health of the parent birds.

I have also reared on food containing 25 and 22 per cent protein, but have obtained the most satisfactory results, both for the young and their parents, on 19 per cent proteins.

Pigeon milk, the principal constituents of which are proteins and fats, is derived from the breaking down of living cells of the bird's body which have been built up out of the proteins in the food, not from the food direct. Therefore once breeding is finished and the old birds are relieved of the necessity for providing soft food for their young, the amount of protein in the food may be reduced, as it is now only  required for the purpose of renewing the tissue cells of the body used up in training and racing.

 A mixture containing 16 to 17 per cent protein will give very satisfactory results up to any distance and under any circumstances.

No change in the feeding should be made until the birds  are heavy in the moult, when the protein content may be  increased to 19 per cent. For the winter, with the moult  complete, 13 per cent is sufficient, and this can be further  reduced if the hens start pairing up among themselves. I make no claim to have reached finality in the feeding  problem, nor do I claim that my experiments have been  carried out under scientific conditions. Having only one racing loft, it was impossible to have controls so that one lot of birds could be compared with another under different  feeding conditions at the same time. Instead, I had to rely on comparing the results of one season against the other,  which can never be quite as satisfactory. But I make so bold as to believe that I have given the fancy something to work  on, and trust that someone better situated for loft accommodation will carry on the work and publish the results of  their investigations for the benefit of the sport.  It would help if fanciers, instead of telling us what kind of  grain they feed on, would simply state the amount of protein  their mixture contained.

If the reader will refer to the table of analysis, he will see that all grain generally in use as pigeon food contains from 50 to 70 per cent carbohydrates, so that, no matter what mixture of grain is used in the food, there can never be any shortage of this substance. Therefore, the only column in the table of analysis that need concern the fancier is that under the heading of proteins.  Look after the proteins and the carbohydrates will look
after themselves. The suitability of the ration for breeding, racing, moulting or resting depends on the amount of protein it contains.  Now let us consider the different varieties of grain used as pigeon food. The analysis shows that tares, beans and maple peas are all very much alike in their nature and composition, the principal  difference being in the proportion of proteins they contain, there it matters little which of these we use. I prefer maple peas because they vary so much less in their composition than either tares or beans. And it is seldom that one sees a sample that is not in first-class condition.

Of the cereals, my first choice is yellow maize; the colour is important, as yellow or red maize is the only grain used as pigeon food which contains vitamin A and D in useful quantities. White maize does not contain a trace of either of these vitamins.

The protein and fats in maize are supposed to be of poor quality, yet maize seems to have a beneficial effect on the feeding qualities of other grain with which it is mixed-up to about 25 per cent-as any farmer will confirm.

I prefer dari, when available, to wheat, as it contains more good quality fats.

Dari, dura, kafir corn and millet, all belong to the same family and are very much alike in composition.

A small proportion of fibre in the food absorbs the urine in the cloaca and keeps the droppings firm, making cleaning up easier. And as barley contains a moderate amount of fibre, it is useful for this purpose. It is not, however, to be recommended for feeding to birds which are breeding.

A little extra fat in the ration is useful when birds are making soft food, or when heavy in the moult, and to put the finishing touch on condition. This is where the oil seeds come in useful. As the oil content of rape, hemp and linseed is very high, a small quantity is all that is required. We are often warned against the use of these seeds on account of their so-called heating properties, but they have very little, if any, effect on the temperature of the bird's body. Any heat generated is turned into energy, and so long as the pigeons are able to get sufficient exercise to work off this energy, no harm will result.