The Honey Factor
By Len Vanderlinde Jan 2011.
You are visiting the best fancier in your area; this guy is always at or near the top of the result sheet. You have got to know him over the last couple of months and you are both getting along quite well; so you pose a question to him “How much feed do you give your race birds”. His short reply is “all they can eat”; you nod your head in an understanding way with a clear picture in your mind of a feeder full of grain and the birds eating until they can’t eat anymore. You go home and change your feeding by giving them all they can eat; your results are if anything worst then before!
A couple of weeks later you are back at the champion’s loft, this time he is feeding his race birds, you notice that he takes a bucket of feed down to the race loft but gives only a tin full of feed to each side. The birds drop hungrily down and quickly gobble up the feed he has left for them, clearly looking for more! With a frown on your face you question his earlier reply that they get “all they can eat”, his answer is “for that number of birds in the loft they get one tin per side, that is all they get and so that is all they can eat!”. You are thinking to yourself, is this guy having a go at me or what? You resolve to be more careful how you question him in the future and not to jump to conclusions so quickly!
A scribe once wrote that honey consists of natural sugars fructose, glucose, sucrose, some vitamins and water and no doubt these are the main ingredients in honey. But try mixing those ingredients together and see if you get honey? Of course you don’t, in fact scientists have never been able to reproduce honey in the laboratory and it remains today the only food we know of that never spoils! How is it possible that an insect, a honey bee can feed on the nectar of flowers and produce a form of food that never spoils? The bee is the catalyst, the bee combines the basic ingredients to produce the wonderful product we call honey!
Another scribe wrote some years ago that the carbohydrate contents of maize (corn) and sorghum (milo) are approximately the same and therefore it made no difference which of the two grains you fed to your racing pigeons. Again there is no doubt that maize and sorghum do have similar amount of carbohydrates, but maize also contains significant quantities of oils or fats, which are, in combination with carbohydrates one of the best energy foods for racing pigeons. The difference between the two grains is like chalk and cheese, as they say ‘the devil is in the detail’ and it is important to know that detail! The proportions of carbohydrate to oil or fats in the grain is very important, there is a synergy between the two, and one without the other is detrimental to the absorption of the nutrients by the pigeon.
So what are the important ingredients or factors required for successful pigeon racing? The pigeons themselves must obviously be good enough to compete at your level of competition. The stronger the competition the better the quality of pigeon required to successfully compete. Like race horses, you need a better quality horse to win a Group 1 race compared to a Group 2 and so on. Horse races are graded to suit the assessed quality of the horses competing and so it is with our pigeons, you need top quality birds to win Open Federation races against thousands of competing pigeons, and perhaps lesser quality is required to be competitive at club level, depending of course on the competition within your club.
These days, well-bred pigeons are within the reach of everyone, unlike the old days when it took the death of a top quality fancier before the masses had an opportunity to obtain some quality birds. But nothing has changed as far as the proportion of good birds verses duds, which far out weigh the good ones. With the many racing pigeon auctions and studs these days offering well-bred pigeons for sale there is plenty of opportunity to obtain something good. By testing these well-bred birds or their progeny in the race basket their quality can be realised! Even the good ones will breed their share of duds, a pigeon that just cannot or won’t race is more common than those that race well. But if the breeding is there and with plenty of winners in the preceding generations you will have a reasonable chance of getting something good, time will tell!
The loft is also a very important component and good lofts come in many different shapes and sizes, the main point is that they allow the birds to remain healthy and to come into form. A loft needs to be well ventilated and kept as dry as possible, it should also be well built and not an eyesore, not for the sake of the pigeons but for the sake of your neighbours, if they start complaining your days as a pigeon fancier may well be limited. It is a truism that “a good loft is like a good wife, it does not need to be a thing of beauty to be thoroughly efficient, but it helps!” The loft needs to provide shelter and security for the pigeons. It is very important that the birds feel secure within the loft. If for instance a predator should gain access, that security is lost and so might the whole racing season.
Feeding is probably the most important factor; if you get the feeding right you can win more than your share of races. Both the quality and the quantity of the feed are important components for success. There are a number of ways of feeding your pigeons depending on the type of racing you want to undertake. Hopper feeding may well work for the long distance races but you will lose a lot of control over your birds that may make it difficult to perform in the shorter races. Good management makes the most of the bird’s ability by keeping them healthy, getting them fit and motivating them to come home as quickly as possible.
Like the production of honey the basic ingredients or components required for successful pigeon racing are fairly easily identified, as above, and they are important. There is any amount of literature out there with advice on the basic components required for successful racing, but it still requires a catalyst to combine them together in a way that results in success! In the case of honey it is the honey bee that blends the nectar of flowers into the product we call honey and it takes similar special attributes for a fancier to be able to combine the important components of pigeon racing into success. Do you have what it takes?
It is true that there are no secrets in pigeon racing, oh sure there are things that we may not have heard of or thought about but you can be sure they have been tried before. Looking for short cuts through a secret or in a bottle will not get you very far or bring you continual success. There is however a simple recipe for success and it is so simple it gets ignored by many new flyers and the less successful ones. It is the catalyst that is often missing in lofts that are not successful and it’s called “routine”, working to the clock. I read that saying about 40 years ago in an article by a fancier named Bill Stace, I never met the man and he has long since passed-on but his words are as clear today as they were back than, “work to the clock, I will leave you to work that one out” he wrote
Here is where the first conflict arises, humans hate routine, a 9 to 5 job and the same food every day at the same time is boring to us and we are always looking for change away from theses routines. But to pigeons the same routine at the same time each day brings them into form, whereas continual change prevents them from coming into form! Fanciers that are always chopping and changing their routine will never find consistent success!
Advice from successful fanciers often varies greatly because there are many different paths to success. We may even think at times that some top fanciers are telling us lies and some may do that, but it is more likely what they are saying is what works for them, but it may not work for everyone! The one overriding factor is sticking to your routine and improving it over the years by small gradual changes, this is the key to consistently achieving good results. It does not matter if you let the birds out once per day, morning or evening or twice per day, feed them once or twice per day etc, the important point is that you do the same thing each day at the same time!
Establishing a routine that suits the fancier’s lifestyle is the first basic step towards successful pigeon racing and never forget that every time a change is made to the routine it will set the birds back and the bigger the change the longer the time they will take to adjust. If you change your routine after every failure you will continue to fail, you are chasing your tail.
A good routine should include a daily routine rolled up into a weekly and finally a seasonal routine. Many good fanciers feed their birds differently at the end of the week compared to the start; this may seem like a change that conflicts with the statements above, but if it is part of the weekly routine that is done week in and week out then in fact it is not a change at all! Writing down what has been done or planned and some reason why you are doing it is a good way to start. Relying on one’s memory may work for some but it is surprising how easy we forget what we have done and when we last did it, particularly when looking back the following year. Keep good records and it becomes easier to make proper adjustments over-time to your routine for greater improvements.
It is a good idea to start with a seasonal routine by establishing when you plan to mate-up you breeders. It maybe best suited to the finish of the race season in your area as the time to start breeding, some fanciers like to breed early and have youngsters in amongst their race birds while still racing but it is doubtful this is a good practice. Others may like to have late breds and breed later to suit young bird racing in their area etc, there is no correct time but rather what suits you and your type of racing. Once you have established this point you can than start to put together the rest of your seasonal routine, what you will feed them during the moult, if you are going to medicate and again it is advisable to avoid medication as much as possible during the moult except perhaps a treatment for external parasites such as lice. Also if and when the birds are to be vaccinated and how often you intend to let them out and at what time, and any other activity you normally do leading up to the start of training and tossing for the race season. Once you have established your basic seasonal routine you can work on your weekly and daily routine, which may change depending on your seasonal plan. Even from an early age it is best to get the birds into a routine so that it becomes second nature to them and they know what is happening.
By human standards pigeons are not intelligent; we rate intelligence by the IQ (intelligence quotient) test, which was first designed to establish the intelligence of children. This is not a test of a person’s knowledge but rather their ability to reason, to solve problems by logical thought, which is something pigeons cannot do or at least have very little ability to do. You will sometimes hear fanciers say, “put yourself in the place of the pigeon”, this is something you cannot do because humans apply logical thought in just about everything we do (even though some of us are prone to illogical thought a lot of the time). Most fanciers will at one time or another been exasperated by young birds out for the first time trying to land on just about everything except the loft, wires, thin branches etc, anything except the landing board. It seems so simple to us, “why don’t you just land on that big purpose built landing board, it is so much easier” we think or in even in frustration say out loud.
Pigeon’s actions are dictated not so much by thought but by instincts. Just about everything a pigeon does is based on instinct or previous experience and it is important to remember this fact! It is their instincts that keep them close to the colony or in our case the loft when first released but their instincts don’t tell them to land on the loft and at this early age they don’t have any previous experience to rely on. It is up to us to provide the type of experience the pigeon will need to function as a racing pigeon. A pigeon’s instincts are much stronger than ours, a young pigeon for example knows that a hawk represents danger without ever being told and no one has to tell a pigeon how to find its way back to its home loft or to fly in a pack, they inherent these instincts and with the right experience become better and better at using their inherited qualities.
The best animal trainers are those with a clear understanding of the animal’s Phycology, what makes it tick! The tricks animals can be taught are usually an extension of the abilities they may use in the wild. By understanding why animals behave as they do it is possible to train them to carry out tasks that suit their capabilities. Racing pigeons have been developed through the principals of evolution to return (race) home from locations far from their home lofts. By instinct the ancestors of our racing pigeons banded to together in flocks (for protection) and congregated in colonies (to breed). Usually these colonies were along rocky foreshores. Therefore they needed to fly far from the colony in search of food and this led to their ability to find their way back or to home, not through a logical-thought process, but an instinctive feel for the way home.
Racing pigeon fanciers have taken this ability to navigate and through selective breeding have enhanced the instinct and improved the pigeon’s ability to fly long distances from the release point back to the home loft.
Charles Darwin established his theory on evolution through natural selection back in the 1800’s; he was able to show that all creatures evolve to suit the environment in which they live. The same species living in different environments will develop differences that enable them to survive the changes they may face. Clear examples of this can be seen with animals that are able to reproduce very quickly, such as rats and mice. Humans have been trying to eliminate these creatures ever since we realised they carry diseases that are deadly to us. Alas the rats and mice continue to live with us in great numbers, in fact there are probably more now than ever before despite our best efforts to eliminate them. Other creatures have not been so lucky; we have managed to eliminate many others that were not able to evolve quickly enough to survive the pressures we put on them.
Poisons are given an LD (lethal dose) rating, which is based on the number of test animals (usually rats or mice) that a known quantity of a particular poison can kill. For example a given quantity of poison with a rating of LD90 can be expected to kill 90 out of a possible 100 mice. The genetic diversity of the (in this case) mice is such that a number of them will be susceptible to the poison and others will have carry genes that give them some resistance. If we were to then breed another 100 mice from the 10 survivors of the first dose of poison, their level of resistance will rise due to the passing of these resistant genes to the next generation. Eventually the mice can become totally resistant to the poison. In other words they have evolved to suit the environment in which they now find themselves. This evolution process has both advantages and disadvantages for us humans. Pathogens that we are trying to kill off, can and do develop total resistance to many of the products we use, even to viruses, such as those given to rabbits, which have over the years developed total immunity to the myxomatosis virus.
This resistance to products we use to control unwanted pests and pathogens causes many problems for our pigeons but on the other hand the resistance we can develop in our birds by breeding from the most resistant birds (evolution) can also be of great benefit to us. Resistance to disease is not in itself an indicator of racing ability but keeping our birds healthy is part of the requirements for success. The giving of various products on a regular basis to control disease in our pigeons will eventually lead to resistance by the pest or pathogen we are trying to control. By allowing our pigeons to develop their natural immunity, will in the long run be the most practical solution, even if it means eliminating some of the more susceptible birds. Feral pigeons have very good resistance to canker (trichomycosis) because they have evolved in the wild without any medication to control the pathogen. The weak or susceptible birds die out whereas the strong or resistant birds survive to pass on their resistance to the next generation.
Medical treatments do have they place in a successful race team. Among human athletes, the iron men (and women) are one of the fittest groups but they are often prone to viruses. By living on the edge their bodies are struggling to maintain the energy levels needed to compete and at the same time trying to fight off the various pathogens that are always lying in wait ready for any lowing of resistance. Our pigeons are very similar, by nature they are very resistant to disease but once they are placed under heavy pressure through training and racing their resistance can be lowered thus allowing the pathogens to take hold. You may need to give them some medical help and/or sufficient rest to recover their resistance during the race season, particularly when they spend some considerable time in the race basket and thereby come into contact with many others pigeons that may pass-on various pathogens.
It should be relatively easy for every fancier to be competitive for at least two or three races every season. You may not win because your competition may also be in form that weekend and the wind or drag may suit them more than yourself. But you should at least be up there with the leading packs a couple of times a season and that will give you a chance of winning. It only requires a simple routine to achieve this, all other factors being equal, such as the quality and health of your pigeons. The basic training and tossing of your pigeons, along with a simple routine is usually enough to insure some limited success but it will take special qualities, which not everyone has to keep your birds consistently up there with the leading packs for the entire season. You will need a very good well thought out routine that has been tested over time to achieve this!
Once you have established the basic components of pigeon racing and by gaining an insight into why pigeons react the way they do, a simple routine can be put in place. Here is an example, establish when and at what time and for how long (20 minutes maybe all they require) you will exercise your birds each day, and stick to it! Buy enough good quality feed to last for 6 weeks, mix the feed so that it remains exactly the same for the six weeks. Feed the birds after exercise at the same time each day until say 5 or 6 birds take a drink, the moment you see that happen remove all feed from them; do this whether or not all the birds have trapped after exercise. Toss them once per week on the same day and from the same place. Assuming it is the early part of the season, you can race your team each week or at least each fortnight. After 3 to 4 weeks your birds should come into some sort of form and you will get a couple of good races from them. How long the form lasts is debatable, but they will not last more than a few weeks before they start to lose their form. It requires more than the above simple routine to stay at the top but it is a start and it can demonstrate how a routine can benefit your race birds!
How you keep them in form is now up to you, write down your routine and be sure to include important details, such as why you did what you did and what were the results? Make small gradual changes to your routine and give the bird’s time to adjust to the change. Over time you will get better and better at this sport if you are working to a plan and a have a well thought out routine. Don’t be in a rush, you cannot become a top class fancier overnight. Start at the beginning and slowly build-up your knowledge, listen to what the good flyers have to say, be careful to correctly interpret what they say and remember that there are many ways to the top, what suits one fancier may not suit another, you need to find the one that best suits your lifestyle. Here is a tip, if you are basketing on Friday and racing on Saturday “do not give your birds anything different after Tuesday!”
A complete review of your notes at the end of the season is a great way to find out what you did (rather than what you think you did) and what the results were. Look at what went wrong and what worked for you and what overall improvements you can make for the following year and stick to that routine. Don’t go looking for something extra to give them just before important races thinking that this will help them, it won’t; the change will only set them back.
Don’t try too hard and remember why you are in the sport in the first place, it is a hobby that is meant to be fun, learn to enjoy it! That might sound funny but it surprising how many fanciers get so up-tight with their expectations on race day that they forget the simple pleasure of breeding, training and watching that pigeon, the one you bred and prepared come home to your loft after a race, if it wins a prize that’s a bonus, enjoy it!