Archive for February 2013

MAC II   2 comments

Mac and Mary Armstrong, extreme distance champs

Mac and Mary Armstrong, extreme distance champs.

The champ at his loft.

The champ at his loft.

Macs loft from the swimming pool showing those big trees which cool the lofts down.

Macs loft from the swimming pool showing those big trees which cool the lofts down.

An aviary doesn't go amiss!

An aviary doesn’t go amiss!

Smash Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2008.

Smash Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2008.

Smash Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2008

Smash Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2008.

2nd 2011, 7th 2010 and 10th 2009 Invercargill, a full brother of the Mealy Cock, the smash Invercargill winner for Mac in 2008.

2nd 2011, 7th 2010 and 10th 2009 Invercargill, a full brother of the Mealy Cock, the smash Invercargill winner for Mac in 2008.

The Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2009.

The Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2009.
Cheq hen - the Invercargill winner for Mac in 2010

Cheq hen – the Invercargill winner for Mac in 2010.

Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2011.

Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2011.

Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2011.

Invercargill winner for Mac Armstrong 2011.

In this second article Mac Armstrong answers questions from New Zealand fliers about how he prepares his birds to fly Invercargill to Auckland. He also answers questions on the breeding of his birds which have won from Invercargill to Auckland, a distance through a lower North Island Foxton breaking point of 780 miles i.e.


But first a quick recap about the races challenges. Invercargill is at the bottom of the South Island with Stewart Island below it. To fly the Invercargill to Auckland race on the day the birds have to take a fairly direct line of flight across the Southern Alps which are snow peaked all year round rising to 3754 meters and secondly they need to make the Cook Strait Sea crossing between the two Islands.

Mac normally starts the season with about 80 birds to race and keeps the cocks and hens separate. He flies to the perch which results in the birds being much calmer in the basket.

Mac never sends yearlings or latebreds to Invercargill. Although he adds that if the programme suited and there was sufficient gap between the latebreds’ 480 mile Christchurch race and the Invercargill race, then if a yearling was particularly right then he may send it after weighing up the weather forecasts. He usually chooses to send 2 year olds (in their 3rd year) and older pigeons, particularly liking 4 to 5 year old hens.

His lofts have about half grill floor and he employs someone to clean all his lofts out everyday.

Mac breeds off his successful Invercargill birds in January and will breed until April. Most of these late breds have to fly the ChristChurch 480 mile race in their year of birth i.e. as young as seven months of age.


What is the breeding of your 4 winners of 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. i.e. the MC, the BCC, the BCH and the BBC?

The Mealy cock which won Invercargill in 2008, being the only bird in race time is off the original vos Blenhaven Jansen import pair. The BCC which won Invercargill on the day in 2009 is of Blenhaven Jansen bloodlines as well. The BCH which won late morning on the second day from Invercargill in 2010 is also of Blenhaven Jansen bloodlines. The BBC which won Invercargill in 2011, arriving around 6pm the second day is 7/8 Jansen and 1/8 Vandie bloodlines.

What is the breeding of the RCC which was 2nd 2011 and 7th 2010 and 10th 2009?

He is a full brother of the Mealy cock which won the smash race from Invercargill in 2008.

Would you like some of your birds to have a go at Stewart Island to Auckland?

Too right I would!

If you don’t put a bird to stock that has achieved Invercargill greatness, does it usually do the Invercargill race each year?

Yes, it will be prepared, but only sent if all the indicators of form and health are there, it must be right!

What signs in a bird do you look for in not sending a bird to Invercargill even though you might have prepared it?

 While discussing this question with Mac, I realised it is easier to consider what Mac likes to see in his prospective Invercargill candidates at basketing. Mac says that he looks for very silky feathers, a full wing and abundant body feather cover as New Zealand is often wet. The eye tells a lot to Mac and he calls it ‘the window of the soul’. It should be super clear with lots of rich hues in it and must shine, indicating the bird’s super health and form. He likes a quick responsive pupil to different light intensities and the bird must have a ‘quick blink’ only of the eyelids. The muscles need to be just right with plenty of spring and not hard deeper in, corky like soft rubber, deep reddish pink with clear skin from the birds’ regular baths. He doesn’t think that there is anything in the ‘blood spot’ along the keel, he doesn’t look for it. Mac also emphasizes that the vent bones must be tight, even in the cocks. The vent bones are preferably short and thick.

 Mac picks up a lot about ‘where a bird is at’ by how it carries itself and behaves in the loft; he doesn’t handle the birds a lot. The hens could be eager to try and get into the cocks’ section when they are out. The cocks often enjoying parading around, walking, stamping, turning, flying off and clapping around. The weight of the bird is very important too. Earlier in the season Mac likes the old birds to be quite heavy, since they know the ropes and it gives him something to work with in the roughly 2 month preparation race schedule the candidates have. Sometimes his birds are very heavy at basketing for these ‘over the water’ 350 and 480 mile races. However, at basketing for the Invercargill most of this weight has been worked off and the birds are ‘corky’ with just a little weight. Other features Mac looks for are clear throats and noses although he doesn’t flock medicate apart from for worms 4 times a year.

Finally, do you think we race our Young Bird Season at the wrong time of the year, and would he agree to the same method that Australia race?

I am happy with the way we race both Old and Young Birds here in Auckland, New Zealand as separate seasons. I usually nowadays don’t race any of the young bird season. I usually start up in Old Birds about 6 weeks into the season. I have a lot of commitments that keep me busy throughout the year and tire me out at times! I do very much enjoy seeing others do well and enjoying the sport in all its different forms and seasons.

Well, that’s the wrap from Mac for this time. On behalf of all the Auckland fliers we wish him all the best for this year’s Invercargill in December 2012. Thanks to all those that have emailed me questions from New Zealand however we can’t cover them all this time. Many thanks also to Kim Anisi my photographer for visiting Mac and Mary last May.

If any readers have any questions for Mac please feel free to email me at


Breeding to improve II   Leave a comment

Yesterday I touched on discovering the weaknesses in lines of your birds when the supports of routine medication of the birds are thrown away. By this I mean particularly no antibiotics and no canker treatments. O.k., an individual pigeon might be treated occasionally but that’s about it.

So to reiterate, what is to be gained here. Well, starting with young birds, if the weak are suppressed in the nest and I’m only talking about a small percentage here in my loft, then immediately you’ve saved yourself time, money and space for a better equipped and reared pigeon constitution wise. Alright, there might have been one that went on to be a good bird, but what goals are we aiming for here? Do we desire and yearn for pigeons that need a lot of propping up in their breeding and racing careers, or alternatively a loft of pigeons that can stand on their own against most pathogenic challenges. Obviously I am not talking about very high mortality diseases such as Paramyxovirus. Theoretically it would be marvelous to have excellent racing pigeons that do not die and remain relatively healthy when exposed to the usual serotypes of this virus in pigeons. Perhaps some fanciers overseas have tried it, however, it would be an expensive exercise as far as deaths are concerned. It is a virus that in general has no mercy on its victims. Vaccination to protect all the pigeons is the only fair regime here, that is, if it is present in your country and your countries animal health regulators have certified an effective vaccine. The other concern around the world in racing pigeons are very pathogenic serotypes of Salmonella bacteria. Some fanciers around the world vaccinate their pigeons against Salmonella, too. These two organisms are real nasties. If there were problems here I would not be against vaccinating all my pigeons. This is totally different than blanket treatment with medications. For example in humans, vaccination against smallpox led to its eradication in 1979. It was a very nasty disease of high mortality particularly in children at over 80%.

But the mundane cankers in their wet and dry forms, Chlamydia and Mycoplasmosis, these are the endemic diseases I wish my flock of pigeons to be able to stand alone against. Are you willing and adventurous enough to give it a go? It isn’t for the faint hearted if you do embrace it and your medication programme in the past has been a strict one. The first year you try it you definitely won’t wean as many. Some of your breeders may break down, maybe even only on the first round and it is usually when they are feeding a lot of crop milk to the squabs. If for you it’s like my loft when I started in the 2011 breeding season and gave it a go, then most pairs will do fine, but overall they may take some extra care. You need to have the feeding sufficient. I give plenty of peas during breeding and a good level of mixed canary seed for the oils.

Well, let’s get back to those young birds and we’re up to their management after weaning. Nowadays I don’t show youngsters the water. In most cases the water system is the same as the stock sections. I usually note any that are slow starters with the tucker over the first three days, these may be the dummies. I definitely don’t mollycoddle youngsters nowadays, but I do like to feed them a lot of peas. It’s good for them to get used to all the grains that you feed. I would say that I am a heavy feeder volume wise. They have a lot of growing to do and at Summers end the body moult to tackle. The flight moult starts well before this even if they are reared in the first month of Summer. So good tucker, fresh oyster shell grit, sometimes table salt added. So that’s sodium, chloride and iodine from the salt and oyster shell grit which should contain calcium carbonate, the building block of egg shells at around 90%. I do not give the youngsters any pickstones or mineral blocks or powders. I do not think it is necessary. I feed about 5% chicken layers pellets in any food mixed up. There is one here that contains blood and bone and is supposed to get the hens laying better due to the higher protein. Quite a few minerals are in the pellets and of course all these brands of pellets contain a vitamin/mineral premix. Most commercial pellets, which anyone can also buy don’t contain blood and bone due to health regulations over ‘mad cow disease’.

So youngsters aren’t propped up, they are very well fed, no vitamins are given other than in the pellets and of course the grain’s natural ones. Youngsters are let out every day by my helper within an hour of sunrise and always just explode out of the loft. This is always a good sign and when the team of any age stop doing it things might not be as good with them as is desirable. Early on in the piece the youngsters are locked out of the loft until about 3pm. I live in the country, I don’t have any raptor problems, it is good for the youngsters to have these long periods outside in the fresh air every day and I don’t mind if they go up in the three Rimu native trees next to the loft or under it or pecking around in the paddocks. Once they enter the body moult phase they are got in about 1.30pm, any earlier they wouldn’t all come in due to the heavy feeding.

I will admit that a small percentage of youngsters do get sick but one must ask the same question as one asks if a few don’t grow in the nest, “why are all the other healthy, robust youngsters doing fine?” I think in general terms the answer simply is inferior genetics of those individuals in the nest or post weaning squeakers. The other factor is luck or chance, but these are factors that we can’t control and are part of pigeon racing and keeping per se. From my December breds, which were 20 in number, three got sick. One of these was off a love pairing of race birds. I killed it as it had dropped a lot of condition and didn’t look happy for a few days, it had internal canker. The other two I killed, one was off a breeding pair that breeds some of poor constitution, it had a moist nose after weaning and it didn’t look happy soon after weaning and I killed it about a week after weaning. The other was a very tough bird, it tried hard to beat its disease challenge, it had breathing problems, breathing was laboured and he struggled in the heat outside. When it went off its food I culled it and on pm the lung was infected (had the appearance of canker). It was probably a Chlamydia/Mycoplasmosis infection, they look visibly similar to dry canker. It was a nice strapping young cock. The parents had bred a nice hen in the first round in 2011 which I killed as she went down hill, on pm it was an internal canker.

I do not like seeing any bird suffer, however my policy now with young birds is no dosing apart from worms which I have done recently. It might sound cruel to some but the youngsters have to ‘sink or swim’. The end result in five years will be even tougher racing pigeons than I currently have which don’t require dosing apart from for worms. Three culled from 20 is 15% and I don’t think that is excessive given reports I have heard locally over the years and internationally i.e. young bird sickness.

Of course, knowing what illness a bird had through the pm exam is an advantage that many fliers don’t have and should learn. In fact it is quite easy to the layman given all the information and pictures available in books and on the net. Does it sometimes make me think I should medicate individual young birds? No, because I know that I must stick to the plan to achieve my goals. There can be no compromise, not with the endemic pathogens such as Chlamydia and Mycoplamosis and Trichomoniasis (canker). I am becoming better at not delaying the elimination of the sick bird which will only keep suffering to increasing degrees. Of course, some sick youngsters can pull through an illness challenge. I think ethically speaking it is a fine line between allowing a bird to face all the lofts immune challenges by itself and letting it suffer unduly. I guess this is why many people still medicate their pigeons a lot and I fully understand that position. They may think “we have the tools i.e. medicines, so why not use them”. They might approach the control of diseases in the loft from the philosophy “there mustn’t be any pathogens in the loft” or “they must be kept at low levels”.

The latter I’d agree with, but you’d be surprised how tough racing pigeons are in most lofts. They have to be considering the rigours of racing, especially if sent to the long distance, particularly 7 to 800 miles. The latter is also more ‘in vogue,’ as it supports the theory of allowing a gradual immune exposure over a period of time to build up a strong and experienced immune system. However the advantage of the no dosing system is that the immune exposure is likely to be greater i.e. the squeakers are tested more. I have plenty of breeding pairs the progeny of which never get sick. Obviously I’m onto something with my no dosing programme.

So what led me to this more radical approach to keeping pigeons. This approach is really akin to how things were years ago when I was a boy and most people only wormed their birds. Actually it was because I ran low on medication! I also noted whilst dosing pigeons individually, that half my pigeons didn’t develop clinical signs of e.g. a respiratory problem prior to dosing. These birds were cohabiting with birds that had moist nostrils, there might have even been a case of one eye cold. So I decided to experiment. I knew others were doing this too i.e. not dosing, perhaps giving some treatment once in a season prior to the big race they were really aiming for. They were also giving natural products, cider vinegar in the food or water, garlic products were the main ones. I haven’t found that these products make much of an impact on pigeon health, so although I’ve tried them as well as kelp, wheat germ oil, brewers yeasts, probiotics and other fancy, expensive products, I choose not to use these things. I’d rather spend the money on feeding the birds very well and rearing a few more youngsters with the hope there is a cracker amongst them. A cracker racer and or a cracker breeding pigeon that will help me reach my goals.

Incidentally the water the birds get is roof water. I add nothing to it. I drink it unboiled at times but our household drinking water is boiled. I think the birds get plenty of extra bacteria through their water intake to replenish the flora in the gut if an imbalance occurred. I’ve used probiotics in the past. I’m not convinced about them yet. The odd loose dropping is not a concern to me plus I’m not wiping out the good bowel bacterial flora with antibiotics.

Remember that everything you prop the birds up with hinders your selection pressure of finding the birds that are the best immune system wise. Probiotics often contain acid nowadays. Don’t you think that it is more logical to find the pigeons that have naturally higher alimentary tract acid than average and hence can ward off rising levels of pathogenic strains of E.coli or Salmonella much better? I guess it would be even hard for me to test for this, but if we look at wild birds that have evolved pretty tough digestive systems over the eons of evolution then wouldn’t it be better to attempt to change the makeup of our pigeons in this department.

Vultures come to mind with their very acid stomachs and tough gut linings, which seabirds must have too i.e. particularly very tough gullets, required for swallowing fish. Shouldn’t we be attempting to design a better racing pigeon through our breeding and selection programmes? I think it is much harder to improve one’s genetics by propping the birds up. You are operating at a much lower selection pressure. You are masking the birds inherent ability or lack of it to withstand disease pathogens and remain healthy. You can’t see for sure which are the tougher pigeons amongst your best racers on an intricate medication programme and everything used to prop the birds up reduces the selection pressure.

I guess the same could be said in the illustration of weather conditions for liberations and the ensuing race. If the birds never go up ‘when there is a cloud in the sky’ (this is a joke of some in my area) then it’s not the same test as if it’s a mixed bag of liberations including some crap or dodgy ones. However, as we all know, it is the public image of the sport and welfare of the birds that is paramount in our liberations. We are better off without the crap and dodgy liberations. If we want a strong test of the birds then how about trying 7 to 800 miles or more? Even on the rare blowhome you get, when the best pigeons make it on the day, they are certainly not blowhome pigeons, not from that distance.

Perhaps that is a good place to close. We have opened up plenty of ideas and thoughts which can be revisited in future blogs. Thanks for taking the time to read. Any questions or comments please use the comments option below and feel free to email me at I don’t for one moment consider I have all the right answers, it is just my story and experience with my pigeons the last two and a half decades or so. It’s a ‘work in progress’. Get stuck into my ideas if you like. I’ll probably enjoy that!

Finally I welcome any articles any of you may wish to contribute on these or any other topics.

Posted February 27, 2013 by ferguselley in Breeding better pigeons, Ferg's birds

Tagged with

Blog and Auckland Racing Pigeon Federation (ARPF) update.   1 comment

Its been a while since I blogged. There are a couple of blogs which I’ve put on the site a while ago, this is a site I write for when I am able to and is an excellent site. I will place them on this site in the next few days depending on how my health goes. These include another article on Mac Armstrong and a race report on the 2012 annual Invercargill to Auckland pigeon race. Upcoming Elimar articles by myself are one on a top Auckland flier Theo van Lier and another has questions for Mac Armstrong from nz and U.k. fanciers. If the forementioned blogs don’t appear soon then just check out the Elimar site and search Fergus Elley or Mac Armstrong if you like the extreme distance racing!!

If you happen to have any questions for either flier just mentioned don’t hesitate to ask one in the comments section below or email them to me at

Fliers in Auckland are gearing up to fly the 2013 young bird season. I didn’t have anything hatch until December, but have some lovely youngsters. I might have my wife train up a couple of dozen of them with untrained yearlings of about the same number. I will wait until the birds are through the body moult which has just started.

I have only treated these youngsters with hi mineral matrix to eliminate internal parasites, none were seen. This doesn’t mean there were no hairworm. I have culled a few youngsters which weren’t up to it constitutionally. It certainly is the time of year to breed i.e. December hatched and onwards through our warm dry Summer and I expect some ‘crackers’ amongst the birds I’ve bred. But I will be patient with them.

I’m really only interested in the long distance now, particularly 560 miles (Timaru) and 750 miles (Invercargill). I had a pretty good old bird season, winning 3 of the 7 Auckland Racing Pigeon Federation trophy races. Considering that I didn’t give a canker treatment until a fortnight before our last 3 races I feel that I achieved something. Mac doesn’t dose apart from for worms. Long distance pigeons need to be really tough and he hasn’t antibiotic or canker treated for well over a decade now apart to some bought in birds which got canker.

I feel that it is an achievement that I didn’t use antibiotics last year in old birds. I’m quite pleased with that. It does give an idea which lines of birds are the toughest immune system wise from a genetic perspective. Doesn’t seem to matter if the birds are closely linebred or crossed, some birds just never show signs of breaking down and remember I’m a Veterinarian by training and I see things that many don’t, even without using a microscope, although I do have one.

I have also not treated my breeders with canker drugs or antibiotics the last 2 breeding seasons. I did treat the breeders against internal parasites recently and gave them some old baycox. There were some loose droppings and some birds were looking for salt which I’ve since been giving, just iodised table salt added to the fine oyster shell grit that I give them. I also have used Clements tonic at times during breeding in the water. I used this during racing in old birds too and even gave the odd bird some individually at times via a crop cannula and syringe. It can be effective in drying up runny noses. I use the green one with selenium, ginseng and ginkgo. This one probably supports immune system health better than the red one which contains iron.

I hope eventually to just have pigeons that need water, good feed, worm treatments occasionally and no other flock treatments. If you want to shift to the no dosing regime then if your loft has been treated for many years I suggest that the first year at least that you perhaps treat some birds individually with medicine as required. I haven’t done this with my racers last old birds but last year in young birds I decided to treat them leading up to our young bird National, the last race. I had prepaid as you have to, otherwise I would have stopped racing and let the birds clear themselves of any respiratory illness or wet canker. From April my loft environment changes from one giving superform very easily, to one which is a struggle to achieve form with unless there is dosing. It gets cold and windy here in the Onewhero hills and the roofing iron needs some internal insulation to eliminate condensation under the roofing. The lofts are also shaded by trees, which is good in the Summer. The roofing is alternating sheets of zincalume and polycarbonate. In Spring I get super form with the current situation. From October when the temperature and humidity increases the current loft situation isn’t perfect. Over this last Summer I have placed extra sheets of roofing iron on top of the polycarbonate to shade and cool the loft down and the loft doors are opened from mid afternoon to keep the temperature cool i.e. warm but not hot. Thus the humidity percentage is lower and this helps keep respiratory disease at bay by and large.

One thing that I will mention is that the birds had no training the whole season until the week of the Invercargill race in early December. This was just a 15km Glen Murray single up of the 6 birds that I was considering. Given that 750 miles to me shouldn’t be taken lightly, I in the end just sent the one bird, as did David Moors, his finishing 3rd and mine bird 6th. This 2 year old BCH of mine had flown Timaru-560 miles 2 weeks before. I have a youngster off her and 2 fresh eggs which I plan to feed out and let her moult out. I put her to a pretty good long distance cock. I am tossing up whether I will permanently stock her. I also bred off 6 other yearling race hens, mainly mated to stock cocks. Just a round each.

In reflection on the season last old birds I’d have to be happy with the results given the next to no dosing. It probably will take another 5 years (if I am spared) to hone onto the genetics within my own loft which lean towards stronger immune systems and gears the loft up to a high percentage of individuals which don’t need the standard treatments which most people give, some in abundance I might add! I already have alot of individuals that don’t show signs of breaking down the whole season and I’m aware of a couple of Janssen lines which are weaker in this department and can’t be raced as hard on just a deworming treatment regime. In 2013 old birds I plan to have some tossing for the long distance races. I was thrilled with the 2nd and 3rd from Timaru and 6th from Invercargill, but I would conclude that to perform well at the distance and I mean super well, as Mac does and Theo did from Timaru, that you just have to do it even if it is only 10 to 30 milers. If the weekends races or training flights on the Federation truck while away racing are on the nose enough at times, then you might get away with just plenty of loft flying and perhaps very short tosses. It is hard racing pigeons with this severe chronic illness. I don’t drive much so rely on my wife to train up young birds e.t.c. I’ve also, since January 1st this year, given up the anti inflammatory pain killers which I’ve been on for over a couple of decades and coffee too. I am choosing to grunt it out in painful times and its giving my liver a rest and there’s less rebound migraines.

In pigeons also we must always remember that nearly all medicines put pressure on the pigeons liver i.e. the organ of metabolism. The folk that dose alot need to take a step back and consider this and amongst other things, the future of their loft genetics. You won’t find the weaker lines of birds (immune systems wise) during breeding or racing, unless you allow a greater selection pressure of only deworming the birds. Remember, you can always find a compromising system by marrying the system that I am using with the use of a personal microscope or sending samples to a lab for analysis. This is to be favoured over ‘blind treatments,’ which I did for many years. Notwithstanding the terrific results my loft achieved at times in 4 different Auckland locations as an adult.

I will say though, that individual dosing would be my choice if I ever went down the dosing path again. This also allows you to select over a period of years for those individuals that don’t need the dosing (every loft has some of them). This way, you can still retain the lofts speed and endurance, as you have the choice to not breed off individuals that are less hardy immune system wise. Or if you choose to breed off such birds because they are superior for other reasons, then select from the offspring, those with a hardy immune system and tested by basket performance. This also enables the balancing of immune system defects when planning a mating by using a mate which has a hardy immune system. Of course there are environmental factors which help an immune system strengthen and gain antigenic/pathogenic experience. However my belief is that inherent starting material at the pigeons conception are highly heritable, even if it is a hard graft in the breeding loft achieving a high level of immune system hardiness throughout the whole loft.

I believe that it is a fallacy that all birds won’t achieve their potential without dosing. If you are serious about your lofts future, then perhaps you should look into it and consider my words and those of chaps like Ad.S on the matter seriously!

If you’d like to comment on any of the above it would be appreciated, just use the comments feature below or email me at