Testing, testing!   Leave a comment

I often watch the TV nature documentaries and it never ceases to amaze me with the toughness of species but also the inherent cruelty of nature.

We only need to look at the wildebeest. This is perhaps my favourite wild mammalian species and I have seen the footage of the annual migration of the wildebeest across the Mara River between Tanzania and Kenya many times. They are a very tough species. Calving is synchronized so that predators such as lions and hyenas are overwhelmed with the abundant glut of ‘pickings’ and many of the calves survive and just look at how quick they become mobile.

Surprisingly enough with the river crossing only 1% of wildebeest become casualties to the river and the crocs. The survival rate for a calf in a year is 1 out of 4 born.

I guess, with long distance pigeons particularly, by observing the natural survival system of the wildebeest we can conclude that the tougher our long distance pigeons are the better. It is also paramount to have quick maturing bloodlines of racing pigeons that can cope well with both the challenges of the loft environment i.e. pathogens and parasites and the rigours of loft flying, training and racing under different weather conditions and predation.

It all has to start with ‘the feather’ i.e. the quality and toughness of the stock pigeons. If we just deworm our pigeons periodically, then constitution wise they definitely need to be tough. Sure, the heritability of diseases such as dry canker isn’t 100% but it may possibly be 50% in some canker strains, which is quite high. Environment also plays its part in the transmission of canker and we have to do our bit in maintaining a reasonable water quality with preferably plenty of water changes daily and I feel the colder the water the better. I’ve even thought of placing big chunks of ice in the drinkers in the warmer weather during both breeding and racing to keep the little buggers (trichomona) more ‘pacified’ and I may do it yet.

Theoretically, it should be possible to produce racing pigeons that are highly resilient to any species of dry or wet canker organisms that challenge the pigeons. This task takes time, quite a few years, given that often the base pigeons that are sourced from foreign countries have not been selected much for disease resistance i.e. they’ve been dosed too much. The quality (innate racing abilities) may be there in a percentage of racing pigeons acquired, but the disease resistance and disease resilience genes may be somewhere between low and medium. So we need to breed up over a period of years and if not satisfied that we have all the building material to do the job, then acquire some new stock. I would advise fanciers not to buy off ‘dosers’ and once they have made some good progress the quality should still be there and perhaps has overall increased, with more multiple winners being discovered in the loft as the years go by for both the middle and long distance.

I recommend teaming up with some fellow ‘no dosing’ fanciers who select along the same paths and have good results who are willing to swap youngsters, latebreds often being the best option. Old bird brothers or sisters of their best racers being perhaps the next best option. Youngsters acquired with stock loft plans in mind are better off lightly trained as far as 100 miles. There will be a greater chance they could be a success in the breeding loft. Trying them at the distance you’ve acquired them to breed winners out of them is even better. But if you have plenty of room and you like the physical type and they appear smart and highly intelligent then you can start the testing of their breeding potential without any road testing. It really is the fancier’s choice.

Getting back to nature now: One thing with nature, naturalists and film crews is that the standard policy is usually never to interfere. The natural system is observed and beamed into millions of households across the world. This can on first observation often appear cruel, but this is the reality of nature. The crocs have been waiting a whole year for this glut of drowned carcasses to hoe into and hooves to lash out for.

I’m sure some viewers have envisaged building bridges or at the least cutting out decent earthen tracks with dozers for the wildebeest and zebra to have an easier traverse out of the river. But that would put a much lower selection pressure on the wildebeest and deprive those ugly crocs of their quota and thus disturb the food chain. Perhaps that would be the attitude of some in another natural food chain example i.e. of the rampant raptor problem in certain parts of the world decimating the local populations of song birds and ‘hounding’ the racing pigeons.

It certainly is a harsh selection for the pigeons in those areas affected around the world. I am told that with young birds the biggest problem is the terror and confusion of the flock and scattering to ‘all the ends of the earth’. Terrorised youngsters particularly can end up anywhere and might not have even been trained or ranged, making the job even more difficult finding their way back home. On that note I think this side of keeping pigeons is in the sports or fancy’s favour with the public, because in this case the racing pigeons are definitely not the victim of anything that fanciers have done, but of nature itself. That’s how I see it, but perhaps the likes of PETA would manage to put a distorted, farfetched spin on this subject, like they have done with racing pigeons in the last few years around the world!

There is a time when humans do intervene with nature and perhaps a good example is of the threatened native bird species breeding programmes here in New Zealand with the kakapo and the kiwi.

How does this relate to racing pigeons you might ponder? Well, I think we would all admit that with racing pigeons, although it might be a natural thing for our birds to do and enjoy, it is not the same set up as ‘the wild ecosystem’. Racing pigeons I think in most cases enjoy being raced. O.k., perhaps if someone has made a mistake in liberating pigeons from a middle or long distance event then the pigeons at some stage in negotiating their way back home could get a bit too stressed. Perhaps the liberator did their job magnificently but the weather forecaster let them down and too many pigeons didn’t make it home on the day from distances that given fair racing conditions to the pigeons, then most would have returned on the day, not that stressed and recover quickly after a drink and feed and not be exposed to the risks of predation or bad weather whilst spending a night out somewhere. Perhaps the fancier didn’t condition the bulk of their pigeons well enough for the task ahead. Perhaps they didn’t know to have them as big as ‘tanks’, as the forecast changed after the pigeons were basketed and then maybe they wouldn’t have sent, had they known that they would be released.

This broaches the subject of how strong or perhaps even severe can the test of the racing pigeons be? How do we determine this, as there are so many variables, but clearly the liberation criteria, say for a long distance event, shouldn’t be that ‘we sent the pigeons, so they have to go up either on the Saturday or the Sunday?’ If the weather forecast doesn’t look great for the Saturday but looks even worse for the Sunday then does that mean that’s a case to say ‘bugger it, we’ll let them up today as tomorrows gonna be far worse?’ I think not and of course, this is where the keeping of racing pigeons and their racing differs from birds and animals in the wild. On the contrary, if the weather is particularly suspect on the Saturday but forecast to be much better on the Sunday, then it isn’t rocket science and the pigeons should be held over till the Sunday.

There has to be a certain distance after which it is still thought fair to release the pigeons, if it is likely that there will be no pigeons on the day. This distance may differ from country to country around the world due to differences in topography such as high mountains to traverse and the hilliness of the country and we have this here in New Zealand. Significant water crossings can slow things down too, particularly if there is a strong head wind over the water. I think that this distance in my country is around 600 miles through a breaking point and 550 miles if the measurement is racepoint to loft i.e. airline. That being the front marker in the races distance.

So for distances less than this here in New Zealand there should be a significant amount of pigeons home on the day. Really, each racing pigeon organisation around the world should have target figures. Fanciers should be encouraged to clock all pigeons returning in race time i.e. leave their electronic clock connected to the power source or if rubber rings are used, clock all those pigeons returning in race time. If we do this, then the officials who tabulate the results can put all the returning pigeon’s velocities on the result. By and large then we have a complete record of all homing pigeons in race time which can be scrutinised by fanciers and any other group.

We must realise that the public image of the fancy is very important and we need to be transparent. If there is a bad race, then the organisers need to think what they can do to improve things. The reasons for these types of races are myriad and I’ve covered the bulk of them in other articles on this site. It is not only weather forecasters and liberators that need to get their job right but also there needs to be flier education. This is particularly needed with long distance racing, but new fliers need to be guided at any distance, some will take to the sport in a better way than others. Stock sense and pigeon conditioning through feeding and racing e.t.c. is something that is gradually learnt over the years that one flies.

I haven’t really answered, ‘how severe or hard can the test be?’ Do the pigeons have to go up almost regardless, like if the weather is only really considered if storm conditions are the conditions on the day? What do you think?

This is what I think. No, it is fool hardy if pigeons are released, especially from the long distance in storm conditions. Foolhardy and reckless. It contravenes the intent and spirit of every country that has an animal welfare act. Even if the wind is a strong tail wind, if there are storm conditions and there is widespread rain for most of the 400 or 500 miles or more, it is a no brainer. We need the ‘pigeon welfare thinking’ of the new millennium. We should be improving all the time. We need to move on from things that have been done wrongly in the past. It should never be akin to, ‘last pigeon standing’ or perhaps that should be ‘flying’!

Over the last two and a half decades I have done very well in hard or very hard distance races. Middle distance, too. So for me to declare these things is solely as a ‘pigeon welfare’ purist.

I believe that the ‘hard nuts’ days in the pigeon sport worldwide are numbered, well I hope for that, for the pigeon’s sake.

My thoughts are that we need to give each liberation of pigeons a fair chance of the bulk of them returning to the loft on the day for races up to 400 miles airline. Really the intent of the liberator should be that 100% return from the 400 miles airline race on the day. However, there are other factors out of the liberators control. The weather forecasters sometimes get it wrong. Some fliers send pigeons that aren’t conditioned well enough to home on the day. There may’ve been a massive clash of race flocks, perhaps this affects young birds the worst. There may’ve been raptor attacks enroute that kill and maim pigeons, scattering and scaring the flock all over the place.

As the distance increases past 400 miles airline in my view it is o.k. to aim for less pigeons home on the day. As mentioned before, I believe that we should always get some pigeons on the day to the front marker lofts up to 550 miles if the measurement is racepoint to loft i.e. airline. But just how you’d work out acceptable returns on the day for 400, 450, 500 and 550 miles is a difficult one and feel free to comment below. You’d probably have to have at least the proviso that the weather forecasters got it right! Also I would say, that the earlier the pigeons are released the better, given enough light e.t.c. The Auckland Federation has this one correct in my view.

So, you might be thinking, who’s going to pay for the increased holdovers? Not such a problem for 1 or 200 pigeons which were air freighted to their destination. But definitely something that is quite a bit more expensive if they are in a truck, as drivers are normally paid by the day and then there are the accommodation costs. Correct me if I’m wrong? What happens in your part of the world?

I’d envisage that each organisation just have a fund, perhaps a small percentage can be put aside from each distance race that isn’t held over. Or the money can just come from the organisations bank account. I don’t think that the fanciers should have to pay just because a liberator is doing their job right and looking after the pigeons the best they can. But a little bit put aside from each distance race that’s not heldover might be a good idea. However, the bottom line for those organising distance races is the public image and with PETA on the prowl, it’s better that the organisations do it right here. A few extra dollars spent by the racing organisation to look after the pigeons better is money very well spent in my opinion.

You see, by threatening to charge the fanciers for the holdover it gives the liberators an excuse for letting the pigeons up, perhaps in those storm conditions that often result in no or very few day birds even from only 400 miles airline. Surely the pigeon’s welfare is more important than the driver’s situation of having to stay another day or two or more. However, this is why when liberations are of only 1 or 200 pigeons it is much better flying the pigeons to the long distance race point. One healthy person can look after that amount of pigeons quite easily for 4 or 5 days and usually the weather will improve enough to get a good race that is fair to the pigeons in that time. Boxes can be monitored and cleaned if the liberator deems it necessary. Usually for the extreme distance e.g. Invercargill to Auckland there are very few pigeons in the boxes, they have square wire mesh floors and cleaning boxes is not necessary.

So now, as far as the severity of the test. This is my feeling. Don’t bash the pigeons in the build up events to the extreme distance races of 7 to 800 miles airline. Send as many as you can to the extreme distance but don’t send them if they aren’t perfectly right. A yearling may do it, but not many do it well, in my country anyway.

I honestly don’t think that the pigeons should be bashed from any distance, tested, yes, but not bashed! Organisations around the world that don’t have good release protocols in place with their liberations need to do so. I don’t think it’s worth risking the consequences of not having them or not implementing them.

The wise pigeon organisations have them, so when asked for them by the authorities they can produce a written copy of consistent release protocol and the full race results of that season(s).

So, it’s not a matter of waiting for storm conditions to consider not releasing. Yes, migratory birds such as the Bar tailed Godwit actually do this, however these birds have evolved over many, many thousands of years. Bar-headed Geese which traverse the passes of the Himalayas, perhaps as high as 6,500 metres, have evolved different adaptations, such as a much higher haemoglobin level in their blood than normal birds. Again, it has taken eons. The racing pigeons in general are still light years behind them from what I can ascertain.

If you do have pigeons that can fly on the day from distances of greater than 500 miles airline in the pouring rain then contact me! Perhaps if in my country then you could breed me some. Then I could compare. I bet they are just plodders and would get left for dead by pigeons of higher quality under conditions that don’t bash the pigeons.

The modern pigeons are much quicker than the old slogger lines. You only have to look at Mac Armstrong’s pigeons from Invercargill to Auckland, a distance of around 780 miles through a breaking point and traversing the Southern Alps which are as high as 3754 metres i.e. Mt Cook.

I predict that the extreme distance pigeons will become faster and faster in New Zealand and around the world as the years go on.

Part of that quickness will be the confidence and ability to break from the liberation point e.g. in the Barcelona International race when the drag is by miles in favour of the European pigeons i.e. in 2013 a contingency of 304 British pigeons competed against a total International liberation of 25,382 pigeons i.e. they had just over 1% of the entries. Mannor Lofts of Southampton was 57th in the International Open result. It is just a matter of the English fanciers being patient and to continue entering pigeons in the Barcelona International. You can be encouraged by this year’s International Pau win by Geoff and Catherine Cooper of Peasedown St John (a small village near Bath, England) scoring 1st and 8th International. British fliers winning 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 8th e.t.c. International! Conditions suited them and when they suit for Barcelona the British will win it for sure!

One thing that I would be pushing for with the Barcelona International race is for as early a liberation as possible. It’s fairer on the pigeons too, as stated previously.

Back to the New Zealand pigeon scene, there will always be some rain or showers to go through somewhere between Invercargill and Auckland Federation lofts. The returns are reasonable in race time when they get a bit of a south tail wind start. It is seldom south all the way i.e. seldom a blow home. A blow home isn’t really a blow home when it’s from that far, the pigeon has still flown it.

Well I’ll wrap this one up here and would love to hear from you from any part of the world either on this site or email ferguselley@gmail.com


What do you think are the ‘race condition’ limits for the humble racing pigeon? Please note, I am not talking about what distance here, but rather what weather conditions are presenting the liberator for a liberation from say 400 to 800 miles airline?

What are acceptable percentage returns on the day for races of 400 miles airline (front markers) if the forecast was accurate?

What are acceptable percentage returns on the day for races of 450 miles airline (front markers) if the forecast was accurate?

What are acceptable percentage returns on the day for races of 500 miles airline (front markers) if the forecast was accurate?

What are acceptable percentage returns on the day for races of 550 miles airline (front markers) if the forecast was accurate?

Who pays for hold overs in your part of the world, the governing organisation or the fanciers?

You can post a comment below on the site or email me and I will give feedback confidentially in the next article covering this interesting subject of ‘testing’.

Posted July 19, 2013 by ferguselley in Breeding better pigeons, Food for thought

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