Breeding Better Racing Pigeons
By Len Vanderlinde 2016
There is no science to breeding winning racing pigeons! Scientists demand repeatability before they will accept something as a scientific fact… Take boiling water for example. Water, at sea level will boil at 100 degrees centigrade, it doesn’t do this sometimes, nor occasionally, but rather every single time! Fresh water boils at 100 degrees centigrade is a scientific fact!
But mating two pigeons together that have both won multiple prizes will not guarantee you youngsters that can do the same. Mind you, we have a much better chance of breeding winners from winners…. At least we know that the parents have the gene combinations that we are looking for…. The trouble is, no matter how good the parent’s individual gene combination are; how they pass those genes to their offspring is in the balance!
The best way I have heard this explained is like a game of poker…. Take two winning poker hands, let’s say a flush and a straight. Now shuffle the 10 cards and re-deal them. The chances of getting two winning hands is definitely in the balance with these particular cards….
Now take two different winning hands, such as two full houses. Re-shuffle these cards and you have much better chance of dealing a winning hand…. It is the same sort of thing with our racing pigeons….. Get two stock pigeons with the right gene combination that complement each other and you can end up with a “Golden Couple”, like Karel Meuleman or Staff van Reet did with their super pairs.
Charles Darwin Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection
Charles Darwin established his theory of evolution through natural selection way back in the 1800s. Darwin was able to demonstrate that the same species of animal or bird will evolve differently to suit the environment in which they find themselves…He noted that the same breed of finches living on different Galapagos Islands had evolved differently to suit their environment. In other words, when a mutation in a species occurs that enables that species to better find food, shelter or avoid predators, that mutation is better able to survive and reproduce in the environment that it lives, and so the mutation becomes the norm in that environment after a period of time.
How does this help us pigeon flyers? Well, we breed our pigeons based on selection through the race basket, and just like mutations in nature, when they occur with our racing pigeons that enable our pigeons to better find their way home at a faster rate than the rest of our team, we breed around those particular birds and therefore “fix” the mutation, until all our birds have similar features. At least that is the theory!
Obviously the more pigeons that are bred the better chance we have of producing that very special mutation; that has all the physical & mental features that enable it to race home quicker…. This is why Europe tends to breed more champion birds than say Australia…. The far greater number of pigeons being bred and raced, means that they have a better chance of producing the mutation that is a champion bird…. Because champion racing pigeons are greatly in the minority; they are in fact freaks. Nature is always looking to breed to mediocrity or if you like normality, whereas we want the very special birds that are a freak of nature…..
Evolution of Racing Pigeons
It has been said that if we could trace our pigeon’s ancestors back over the last couple of hundred years, they would all go back to just a few pairs of pigeons!… I know that sounds rather improbable,… but when you consider that every thoroughbred race horse in the world today, and there are millions, can all trace their ancestors back to just three stallions over 300 years ago, then it is probably not so hard to believe that our pigeons do in fact go back to just a few pair that maybe started out in the Antwerp zoo several hundred years ago. The racing pigeon has undergone major changes since then through this process of evolution through (unnatural) selection.
One of the reasons we can get away with inbreeding our pigeons is the large number of genes that pigeon’s carry, many more so then mammals. This gives us greater variety and therefore more variations in what we can produce when we inbreed our pigeons, which are not available to the breeders of race horses or dogs.
Scientific Facts about Racing Pigeons
There are some scientific facts that can be of some assistance to us with the breeding of our pigeons…. I am no scientist or genetic expert but it is helpful to know some common facts. We should all know that a pigeon receives half of its genes from its sire and half from its dam.
Each pigeon is a combination of the genes that it has inherited from its ancestors, 50% from each parent, 25% from each grandparent, 12.5% from each great grandparent, and 6.25% from each great great grandparent and so on….. Another way of looking at this, is each pigeon is losing 50% of its parent’s genes, 75% of its grandparent’s genes and so on down the line. This is why by the time we get to the 5th generation they are said to have so very little genetic influence on the pigeons that we breed, that it is no longer considered inbreeding if we have common ancestors past this point!…. But is this really so!
Mathematically correct but mate a grizzle to a non-grizzle
Mathematically it is correct. But for example if we were to mate a grizzle to a non-grizzle, and keep on breeding the pair until we get a grizzle youngster,… and in theory this should happen twice in every 4 youngsters bred…. The grizzle youngster we breed has inherited the gene coding for grizzle from our original grizzle, be it a cock or hen, we know this because the grizzle colouring is a simple dominant gene….. In other words if a pigeon inherits a gene coding for grizzle from either parent it will always appear as a grizzle…. Non-grizzles are not carrying the gene and therefore we cannot breed a grizzle from two non-grizzles.
Now, if we take the grizzle youngster that we bred from our original grizzle, and mate it to another unrelated non-grizzle; and again we breed as many young as necessary until we get another grizzle youngster…. This youngster has again received the same grizzle gene from our original grizzle…. We can go on forever breeding grizzles in this way and each of them will have inherited the grizzle gene from our original grizzle passed down for generation after generation. We can easily follow the passing of the Grizzle gene to each new generation because it is easy to identify which birds have inherited the gene by the simple fact of their colouring.
Of course each grizzle we breed may well be totally different-looking to our original grizzle, because grizzle is not a colour, nor a wing pattern…. We know this because we can get grizzles in both blue & red, or more correctly Blue Black & Ash Red, and they are our two basic pigeon colours… We can also get grizzles with bar or chequer wing patterns, so again it is not a wing pattern…. Grizzle is a simple modifier, so if a blue bar also receives a gene coding for grizzle from just one of its parents, it is still a blue bar; but with the well-known white flecks throughout its plumage. Some people like the dark grizzles and these can be obtained by breeding dark chequer into grizzles.
Other such modifiers are slate, dun, opal, pencilling etc. All these modify in some way the original colour and wing pattern of our pigeons. But not all of them are dominate like the Grizzle gene. Slate for example is a recessive gene, which means a youngster needs to inherit a gene coding for slate from both its sire and dam before it will display the familiar modifier we call slate or plum. Thus it is different to our grizzle gene, whereby only one parent with the grizzle gene is needed to produce grizzles.
Selection for racing ability by physical appearance
If we could select our best performed birds by their physical appearance we could, just like the grizzle example, continue to breed top performing birds through each generation, all carrying the gene combination of our original champion…. Unfortunately the genes that are required to produce good race pigeons are many; unlike the simple dominant gene coding for grizzle.
Also there are no sure-fired physical features that we can use to select the good ones! The race basket is the only selection tool that we can use to sort out our race birds; to find and maintain the winning genes
The only measure of a good stock bird is its ability to breed race winners, and the only measure of a good race bird is its ability to win races.
Of course, we fanciers are always looking for ways around the race basket as our only selection tool…. Eye-sign, wing theory, the throat and many others features have been put forward as selections tools, but really they are only guides that may work to some degree within a particular line of pigeons… There will always be pigeons with perfect features, as far as these guides are concerned, that are simply no good at racing, and likewise they will always be pigeons that don’t have the features we may be looking for that win races despite of this. It is only the race basket that can help us to select the good pigeons that we need to continue winning races.
If we were to line-up 10 or so average everyday people, we may have some chance of selecting which one of them can run the fastest based on their physical appearance,… but line-up 10 well-built athletes and try the same thing!… It is impossible to pick who can run the fastest by their physical appearance if they are all of a similar build! Why one person with the same build as another can run faster or for longer; is a bit of a mystery,…. put simply they have what it takes in their genetic makeup, the size, length and co-ordination of their muscles is better than the rest of us…. We want similar features with our pigeons, but with the additional ability to navigate the shortest route home.
Genetic fact, the cock carries two X chromosomes and the hen an X & Y chromosome
One genetic fact that science does tell us, is that the cock bird has two X chromosomes and the hen an X and a Y chromosome…. The hens Y chromosome does not carry any other genetic information other than the determination of the sex of her young…. However the cocks two X chromosome do carry other genetic information besides determining the sex of the young…
This is of some interest to us fanciers, firstly it tells us that it is the hen who determines the sex of a pair’s youngsters, and secondly that the cocks X chromosome has a bigger influence over his daughters; because she always receives her X chromosome from her sire. This can be more clearly demonstrated by the simple chart to the left.
Here we can see that there is a 50% chance of getting a cock (XX) or a hen (XY) from any given mating…. The cock having two X chromosomes will always pass one of these two X chromosome to his young, while the hen can pass either an X or a Y chromosome…. If she passes the Y chromosome the resulting youngster is always a hen, if she passes an X chromosome the youngster will be a cock…. Therefore hens determine the sex of a pair’s youngster and hens will always receive their X chromosome from their sire.
Given that the hens X chromosome came from her sire and that it carries additional genetic coding, while the Y chromosome she received from her dam does not carry this additional information, we can therefore assume that cocks have a greater influence on the genetic make-up of their daughters, and the daughters will in turn pass the X chromosome that she received from her sire, onto her sons.
Select hens from good cocks and cocks from good hens
This is very useful information if we are looking to in-breed or line-breed our pigeons to top winning birds that are based on a champion cock or hen… In order to establish a line of winning pigeons we should select the best hens from a top producing sire, and in turn the best cocks from these daughters, in order to keep the winning line… This is known as uninterrupted line breeding… It can be claimed that the winning family line is lost once hens are selected from the daughters of top winning sires, which is known as interrupted line-breeding…. The study of most pedigrees of so called line bred pigeons will mostly show up as an interrupted line!
Of course each generation must be race-basket-tested to ensure we are maintaining the winning genes…. Remember that 50% of the sire’s genes and 50% of the dam’s genes are lost every time we breed a youngster. Which 50% are lost and which 50% are inherited we simply do not know! It is not good enough to select and keep birds for stock without testing them… Sure you can try a pigeon that is bred from champion stock birds without first racing that bird, but its off-spring must be raced and fully tested or we risk passing on unwanted genes to the next generation…. If a pigeon does not breed anything worthwhile it must be disposed of, because not all the young, even from a champion pigeon will carry the gene combination that we are seeking…. This why it is so hard to maintain an uninterrupted family-line of winning pigeons.
Inbreeding or out crossing
We have two basic ways of mating and breeding our racing pigeons, either in-breeding or out crossing. Out crossing for us pigeon fanciers refers to mating’s between racing pigeons that do NOT have the same ancestor in the previous 5 generations. And obviously in-breeding is were the same ancestor appears more than once in the pedigree of a pigeon within the last 5 generations…. Again, obviously the more times that same bird appears in both sides of the pedigree the closer inbred the pigeon is…. Some will argue there is also line-breeding, but really this is just a form of in-breeding and in fact very few pigeons are actually truly line-bred. Most so called line-bred pigeons are in fact inbred…In its true form a breeding line can be traced back to a single champion bird, whereas most so called line-bred pigeons are bred around a number of related birds and by the very definition these are in-bred birds.
Interrupted and uninterrupted line breeding
We can have two types of the so called line-bred pigeons based on the information given earlier; that is an uninterrupted-line and an interrupted-line. With the later it can be said that a particular line of racing pigeons is lost once we breed from a hen from a hen, rather than a cock from a hen from our champion. Uninterrupted line breeding is when we always choose a hen from a champion cock and a cock bred from that hen…. I know that sounds a little confusing! The chart may help, click on the chart to view a larger version.
In the chart we can see that our “producer’ cock (F1), the cock that we want to line breed with is the great grandsire of our stock hen (F4), whilst he is also the grandsire of our stock cock (F3). In each generation we have selected a daughter of our champion and from that daughter we selected a son to carry on the line to our uninterrupted line-bred youngster. You can also see that the uninterrupted line-bred pigeons must always be situated in the centre of our pedigree. Interestingly you cannot breed an uninterupted line of pigeons other then from those in the centre of the pedigree.
All pigeons outside the centre of the uninterrupted family line in our chart can be crosses and it is important to introduce crosses on a regular basis to improve the quality of a line-bred family…. In this way we can move forward with our winning family by introducing winning genes from other lines and at the same time maintaining the original winning line. The hardest part is of course is finding our original champion, one that has the right gene combination to carry forward to each new generation.
Of course we can use inbreeding to maintain our winning family as well, sire to daughter, dam to son etc. are well tried inbreeding techniques that do work, but of course not all the time, it isn’t that easy!
The good thing about having a proven winning family is that the crosses can be tested against the family line, and kept or discarded based on the resulting performance…. Many winning families are lost through the incorrect use of crosses…. It is very easy to head off in a different direction following the line of a cross that was a successful, only to find at a later time that the original line has been lost and crossbred family has come to a dead halt as far as breeding winners is concerned.
Breed forward not back
Many of us spend our entire racing life looking for the pair of champion breeders on which we can base our winning family…. Many others have found just such birds and have in turn lost the line after a few generations, which is very easy to do!… The worst thing we can do is to try and go back and breed yesterday’s pigeons…. Moving forward with our breeding at all times should be our aim, leave the champions of yesterday in the background of your winning family, don’t waste your years trying to re-breed these birds!
Just like the game of poker example used earlier, not all pigeons are capable of passing their winning genes to their off-spring…. It takes continual effort on our part to find and maintain these winning lines through racing their off-spring.
Getting to the top is hard enough in pigeon racing, staying there is even harder…. A champion pair of breeders can keep us at the top for 3 or maybe 4 years…. If we haven’t been looking for and working on our next good pair in this time we will go backwards very quickly… It not easy to breed winning pigeons, no one ever said it was! This is why pigeon sales are so popular, we fail to breed winners from the birds we have, so we look to buy birds from fanciers that have managed to breed the winners.
Most of the current popular import families that are doing the rounds have been bred by good fanciers using the very same line of pigeons that we ourselves may have tried and discarded in the past… These fanciers were good enough and maybe a little lucky to get the right ones; and from there they have had the skill to breed the winning pigeons that we now want. Mind you marketing plays a big role in selling pigeons, they are not all as good as some sellers would have us believe.
No new racing pigeon genes
The thing is there are no new racing pigeons suddenly appearing out of nowhere, no one has gone out and discovered a completely new line of pigeons….. As was stated earlier, all of the birds we are breeding today can be traced back to the original pigeons from hundreds of years ago…. Evolution through strict selection has helped to provide us with pigeons that are capable of feats that weren’t possible say 50 years ago… We only have to look at the results around the country to see amble evidence of this, and yet these birds have been bred from the same ancestors.…. Everyone today has access to pigeons that can put up marvelous efforts; efforts that are taken for granted these days! We don’t fully appreciate just what these little 500 gram birds are capable of! Of course not all of the pigeons imported or bred are going to be any good, in fact the majority will not be any good, nature will see to that, we are seeking the best racing pigeons possible and they will always number very few.
As said before, we continually see fanciers chasing the latest in-vogue pigeons of the moment, names like Janssen & Meuleman are yesterday pigeons to many of us, we prefer the latest, such as Vandenabeeles, Hereman Ceusters etc. and yet all of these birds have the same ancestors in their background….As was stated before there are no new pigeon genes suddenly appearing out of nowhere…. Check the background of the latest in-demand pigeons, and you will find all the names of great fanciers from the past…. It is just that the best fanciers of today have managed to breed champion birds through blending winning genes from these “yesterday pigeons”….
We go chasing these so called “new” birds because they race better than our own, and yet they may very well be based on the same families of yesterday’s champion fanciers that we ourselves have had and discarded
There are not too many families of today’s champion racing pigeons that do not contain the blood of the Janssen Brothers. And yet the Janssen brothers bred their well-known, and very good family from a blend of birds they obtained from other fanciers, such as Ceulemans, Schoeters etc!!! Meuleman & van Reet both bred their well-known and again very good pigeons using half Janssen pigeons. They both did what today’s champions have done, taken the best of yesterday’s birds from various sources and blended them into a winning family by strict selection using the race basket; and the rest of us go chasing these “new’ pigeons.
We are all capable of breeding good pigeons if we have the correct knowledge, and maybe a little luck in getting the good gene combinations within our pigeons… It’s not easy, nobody ever said it was, and if it was, breeding and racing pigeons or for that matter race horses or greyhounds would lose its fascination….. The continual search for the champion, the freak of nature!!!
As a beginner we should all look to obtain the best pigeons we can afford, many a top fancier is only too happy to help out a beginner, and remember if they have been racing successfully for many years they won’t have any poorly bred pigeons in their loft, mind you not all of their pigeons are going to be any good either….. The continual search for the champion birds will see a lot of good pigeons discarded along the way by these top fanciers. To quote Ad Schaerlaeckens “kill the bad pigeons, sell the good ones and keep the champions”.
These “good ones” can be very good birds to obtain as a starting point for new flyers and you can get them cheaply or even for free if you approach in the right manner….Select the best pairs based on the performance of the youngsters in the race basket…The first birds to your loft is the starting point… lift the bar each year…club placegetters… club winners… section winners and finally Open Federation winners should be the goal you are aiming at…
Once you reach the goal you now need to breed around these top-line winners…. Introduce new blood on a continual basis but judge this new blood against your winning family…keep the good crosses, back mate to the family and move forward, adding new winning genes as you go until you too are a champion flyer or not, it is up to you!!!!