The Fascinating and Useful Pigeon

By Armani Tavares, Tennessee

June 29, 2013

Young German Modenas. Young German Modenas.
An American Fantasy pigeon hen.. An American Fantasy pigeon hen.

My hope for this article is to promote the wonderful pigeon and teach you a little about its husbandry. Rock pigeons were first introduced into eastern North America in the early 17th century by colonists who brought them along by ship mainly as a source of fresh food, and they eventually became feral on the continent from these colonial source points. They have since been seized by many hobbyist and, in certain varieties, been greatly changed from their original form into even more beautiful and useful creatures.

This is one of the greatest game bird species and yet seemingly it has been overlooked by many poultry and game bird enthusiast. Consider the following attributes which the pigeon masterfully displays: minimal space requirements, extremely simple housing needs, simple and easy to feed, can be allowed to free–range or be kept in total confinement, efficient producer of delicious meat, raises its young up until butchering time (i.e. no need to use incubators and brooders), fun and entertaining, intelligent and beautiful, as well as being healthy and hardy. That’s pretty good! I can think of a few other species that match these criteria, but I do find that many birds which are much more popular than the pigeon come far from reaching them. I can only wonder why.

Requiring no specialized feed the pigeon can thrive on anything from straight grains and legumes to pellets designed for chickens or turkeys. Plus, you only need a square foot of space per bird, which means they take up a minimal amount of room. The housing can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. Give them a recycled rabbit hutch or a loft that can hold a hundred birds and they’ll be happy and healthy all the same. On solid flooring, or wire for better sanitation. Even better, where city ordinances prohibit the keeping of other poultry, pigeons are most often legal. So you can enjoy some birds of your own whether you’re keeping them in a window box, on a balcony, in the front yard or amid hundreds of acres. (Talk about adaptable!) If kept as pets and ornamentals or an additional source of meat on the homestead, the pigeon fits its place well and is not nearly as popular as it deserves to be.

There are many, many different sizes, shapes and abilities that the various breeds of pigeons display. From the very common Homer, which returns home when released from hundreds of miles away, to Flying Rollers, which perform summersaults in the air, and flightless birds that roll around on the ground. There are birds that have feathered feet, crests gracing their heads, curly feathers, and some can blow up their crops like balloons and appear to stand on stilts. Still others like the Thief Pouters are used to capture other pigeons. Don’t forget about those that are specially bred to produce a delectable meal.

Here’s a little basic pigeon terminology: A male pigeon is called a cock, a female is called a hen, and the babies are called squabs or squeakers. The building that a pigeon is kept in is commonly called a “loft” (which is usually a walk–in building with nests, roost, windows etc.). Though remember that, as already mentioned, they can happily live in almost anything that gives them suitable protection from the elements and predators.

Now, a little info on breeding pigeons: Pigeons are very prolific. Once mature, at about six months of age, they will find a mate, which they may stay with for life, and continually go on nest after nest unless you stop them. Once the weather gets cold you will either need to provide special insulation pads designed to go in the nest, heat their enclosure or keep the pigeons from nesting. The reason being, that when the weather gets cold enough the squabs will sometimes freeze in the nest after about two weeks of age when the parents stop covering them. To stop from having squabs you can either separate your cocks and hens or put artificial eggs under the birds in place of their own eggs.

The breeding cycle tends to proceed in the following manner. First of all, pigeons only lay to incubate. They lay an egg and approximately the next day they will lay another egg and then start to incubate. The incubation process, which is shared by both parents, elapses about 18 days. When the squabs hatch they will be continually covered by one of the parents until about two weeks of age, then the parents tend to no longer sit tight on the babies, but will continue to feed and care for them. The squabs are fed a special “milk” secretion that the parent pigeons produce in their crop and regurgitate for them. The parents eventually switch to regurgitating seeds (or whatever other feed you’re giving them) as the squabs age. At approximately four weeks of age, the pigeons are old enough to be put by themselves or in a pen with other young birds. Be sure to check that they are eating and drinking fine out of the feeders and water containers before and after separating them. You may even want to dip their beaks into the water. Also make sure that they know where the feed and water is! You will want to have it on the floor for the young birds. Four weeks of age is also the time when they are butchered if that’s what you wish to do. If the pigeons haven’t laid another set of eggs by this time then they will do it not long after separating them from their young. And the cycle just goes round and round, often year round if you don’t interfere.

A roost and single-bowl nest boxes. A roost and single-bowl nest boxes.

Note on Nests: A double nest box is recommended because of the pigeons’ tendency to lay another set of eggs while they have young that they’re caring for still in the nest. All this is, is a nest box divided in two across the middle (in a manner that the pigeons can see and jump across the divider) to keep the present squabs and new eggs separated. They should ideally have a nest bowl on each side of the nest box. It should be round and large enough for them to sit inside comfortably. Make sure it is secured as not to tip over when the pigeons stand on the rim! The nest bowl helps keep the eggs from rolling around and improves nest cleanliness. They also need some nesting substrate in the nest. This could just be some of the bedding off of the floor or sand, with a dusting of Sevin Dust or similar insecticide. They do build nests, although they are usually quite flimsy. Provide them with some pine needles, straw or other similar, readily accessible material for this behavior. Be aware that pigeons are somewhat territorial in that they (a pair or just a single bird if not kept in pairs) will claim an entire nest box and/or roost for themselves, keep this in mind when “furnishing” their pen or loft and determining the number of nests to accommodate.

Some other points of interest that you should note are as follows:

Sun: Pigeons love to bask in the sun. They should have as much exposure to it as possible every day; it really helps them to stay healthier and happier. You should pay special attention to this when building/situating their living quarters.

Bathing: Pigeons also love to bathe. Even though it’s not a necessity and they can live perfectly well without it, allowing them to do so really does help them stay healthier and happier, too. Just give them an open container of water that they can’t tip over and they’ll jump in when they want to and start splashing around. Do not do this inside a pen or loft unless the floor of the pen is wire. Remember, one of the most important things in sustaining their health and reducing the chances of disease is to keep the living quarters dry. Also remember to change this water often or remove the bathing pan when they’re done, this is because they will drink the dirty water.

Note: I recommend adding an all–wire pen to the pen/loft that your birds will inhabit. It should have a southerly exposure. This allows them fresh air and unlimited sun when they want it, as well as a place to put the bath pan for their bathing sessions. It only has to be about two feet square and can just be attached to the outside of a window.

Grit: Pigeons also need grit like other poultry and game birds to help them digest their food. “Red pigeon grit” is best; it provides grit as well as being mixed with minerals and vitamins and has some other supplements. But if not available, and you are feeding a pelleted feed (or using another mineral/vitamin supplement with an “all grain” feed), than regular poultry or game bird grit will suffice. With the addition of Crushed Oyster shells being beneficial if using an “all grain” feed (if you have access to pigeon specific products then there are many other options as well). See more below on feeding.

Feed/Vitamins: This can get very complicated depending on whose opinion you take and how involved you want to get. I am going to keep it as simple as I know how. Generally, when raising squabs you may wish to raise it up to about 20 percent, a pigeon’s diet should consist of about 13 to 16 percent protein, possibly the most important part of the diet. It should be high in carbohydrates, also very important, fairly low in fat, about 4 percent and be very low in fiber, of which they do not utilize very well and don’t need much of, if any. There are three simple ways of feeding pigeons that I will list.

1: Feeding a balanced pelleted pigeon feed will provide just about everything your birds need, and only optionally, some regular poultry grit, or the special “red pigeon grit.”

2: Feeding an “all grain” pigeon feed and “red pigeon grit” and/or regular grit and a vitamin/mineral supplement that is sprinkled on their feed or added to their water.

3: For method number three, I use what I have locally available, try not to spend a fortune and try not to have to order things. And that while still keeping my birds in excellent condition. For me, this usually consists of feeding a 16 percent layer pellet, “Premium scratch grains” and/or wild bird seed, poultry grit and crushed oyster shells.

I find both the pelleted and “all grain” pigeon feeds to be quite expensive. And in the case of the “all grain” feed, not only do the pigeons waste tons of it, but you need “red pigeon grit.” Which is another expense and unless you get lucky, you’ll most likely have to order it (or you can buy a vitamin/mineral supplement, which you may be able to find at a pet shop or feed store and then just feed regular grit, but again, it’s one more expense and another product to mess with. You may also find a mineral/vitamin supplemented grit at a pet shop, similar to the “red pigeon grit but used for caged birds, the pigeons sometimes eat this stuff like candy (as they tend to do with the “red pigeon grit”) so it can get expensive).

For the pelleted pigeon feed all you will additionally need, and just preferably, is some regular grit to help them digest any seeds/grains that you may give them, or just anything they may eat that isn’t water soluble. I would prefer to use the pelleted pigeon feed, but don’t have it available to me, so I use my personalized feeding method. The “premium scratch grains”/bird seed is not a necessity, just something I really like to add in their diet for variety. The grit would be unnecessary if I wasn’t feeding grains/seeds. And the crushed oyster shells are really just optional as well, since I’m feeding the layer pellets which have plenty of calcium already in it. I just like to have it available to them if they want it. The pellets I’m feeding also provide a fairly balanced ration of minerals and vitamins, so I’m covered there, too.

Note: The products that I’m using and recommending (layer pellets, seeds/ grains, grit and oyster shells) are mainly because of the difficulty for me to find products in my area for birds other than common poultry such as chickens. You may be able to find pigeon products in your area or be willing to order them. I have to figure out what is the best feeding method for me, using that which I can acquire from my local farm/feed stores. I use what I have available, and find suitable substitutes for the things that I don’t.

Worming: Pigeons should ideally be wormed at least twice a year against internal and external parasites. There are many products available and I use the 1 percent tincture injectable Ivomectin cattle wormer, as it is readily available for me and is amongst the safest wormers with a large margin for error and is also used to treat both internal and external parasites. Be sure to do your research before going with any one and make sure you know the proper administration method(s) and dosage(s). Per bird I give three drops, down the throat, out of a syringe and I repeat in 21 days. You can also mix some wormers in their water. I also recommend dusting them with Sevin Dust or similar product.

Diseases: Pigeons are susceptible to most of the common poultry/game bird diseases such as canker, coccidiosis, etc., but with good management they should not suffer from them at all. I like to regularly add apple cider vinegar or crushed garlic to their feed. Bleach in their water is a very effective means of preventing the spread of disease, I use a half–ounce of the eight percent bleach per gallon of water. It also keeps the green gunk and other “nasties” from developing. These are easy, effective and inexpensive ways to keep your pigeons strong and in good health. There are many products available for pigeons and you should check out the links provided below.

Breeds: Be aware that not all breeds are equal in their abilities. Some show breeds should not be let out to fly, other breeds, which have been bred for extreme length of feathering around the head, very short beaks or huge globes cannot raise their own babies and you need to use foster parents. Some breeds just aren’t very good parents period, even if able to raise their young.

Sexing Pigeons: This is not as easy to tell as with chickens. Male and female pigeons look very much alike, but there are a few ways to help you tell them apart. Cocks are often much louder than the hens and their voice can even sound deeper on some birds. They will likely coo and grunt more than the hens and spread out their tail feathers while prancing around and cooing, they will also puff up their “chest” (it’s really their crop) a little while doing this display. Cocks may also be a little larger than hens.

Another way to help tell is to feel the two bones that are under the bird and form a V–shape toward its rear end. Hens will have a larger gap at the “valley” of the V to accommodate egg–laying, while on the males they will be closer together and sometimes even touch.

None of these methods are “sure–fire” and age, condition and individuality will all play a part in how accurate they are.

We’ve come to see how the pigeon is more than just the feral pest we see flying around the barn and scavenging about the city. And that they can be a valuable addition to just about any home. Whether it’s for meat, pets, ornamentals or just a hobby and another sport, you’re sure to be pleased. And this may just become your new favorite bird on the yard!

References: npausa.com; Pigeons. biz.com; Slobber Knocker loft; Circus Loft; Foys Pigeon Supply; Jedds Pigeon Supply; Siegels Pigeon