The Annual Moulting of Pigeons

As we are approaching the time for the annual moult of our pigeons it might be the opportunity to refresh our memories by having a close look at this annual phenomenon. Most of the local literature and pigeon books agree that in South Africa the moulting season ranges from mid January to end April, mid May, depending on factors such as the date of hatching, whether the birds were breeding etc.

According to Ernest Pawson in his book "Wedvlugduiwe – die praktyk" birds hatched before 15 October will under normal circumstances complete the moult by end April.

Young pigeons will normally take six months and older birds four months to complete the process. The primary and tail feathers are moulted simultaneously followed by the secondaries to be completed plus minus one month later. The moult of the secondaries takes place soon after the moult of the fifth primary. The time it takes the primaries to renew itself is on average three to four weeks.

Soon after the sixth primary has moulted the moulding of the coverts begins. As the large primaries, the last four wing feathers, (also called the fighting feathers due to the beating it takes during flight) are the last to moult, and as indicated above, it might take approximately four weeks to renew a primary, the last two months are of vital importance where the quality of these major primaries are concerned.

Experience has taught us that pigeons, after a very busy and heavy racing season, especially if the races towards the end were difficult, an experience a bad moult because they must undergo the moult without sufficient time to recover and to rebuilt the necessary reserves that are indispensable to them and which the organisms are in need of in order to renew their feather cover.

The moult is controlled by influences such as the hours of daylight, hormones, and to some extent, the temperature.

According to Dr. J.P. Stosskopf a veterinary surgeon resident is Bresles in France in an article published in the magazine "Natural Winning Ways", the feathers are formed in a follicle, the anatomy of which is not well known, but one key organ is a gland which draws on the blood for the various components of the feather and converts them into ...a feather. This of course is a highly complex process but it can be said that the formation of the best feathers is a function of:

• The presence of sufficient quantities of all the necessary constituents in the blood;

• An undisturbed supply of blood to the gland and therefore the absence of any form of lesion in its neighbourhood.

Chemically the feathers consist of keratins, which are proteins very rich in organic sulphur and the minerals silicon, fluorine, zinc, copper and calcium.

Dr. Stosskopf's article continues to explain that the gland referred to earlier on must be able to find and abundance of all these constituents in its blood supply. The avenue for these constituents to reach the gland, is through the quality of feed, during the critical period of the moult, especially when the last four primaries are moulted, and a state of perfect health to enable the perfect absorption of this quality balanced diet. This is a pre-requisite for providing the feather in the course of formation with everything it requires.

Good absorption of the food depends on the healthy state of the intestines, which filters out the nutrients resulting from digestion i.e. amino acids, fats, minerals and vitamins, and also the liver, which carries out the initial conversion.

It is therefore of utmost importance to ensure that the pigeons start their annual moult in super health. The presence of any parasitic or bacterial infection of their intestine or a liver condition will be at a disadvantage during the moult. It is therefore advisable to ensure that your pigeons are in super health before the commencement of the annual moult.

Some champions claim that the next year's races are won during the previous moulting season. So vigilance is absolutely indispensable. A touch of trichomoniasis hanging on (acidosis of the blood), or coccidiosis inflaming the intestine and reducing its permeability of Pseudomalaria (Haemoproteus Columbae) the parasite which invades the cytoplasm of the red blood cells, all very easy detectable conditions, can cost very dear the following racing season.

So why not visit your local veterinary surgeon with two of the pigeons you wish to cull and let him make sure that your birds are ready for this annual phenomenon. This should be done well in advance for your vet might prescribe some treatment for which some time might be needed. Remember that the moulting season is just as important, if not more important, than the racing season, for reasons already mentioned.

It has already been explained that chemically the feather consists of keratins, which are proteins very rich in organic sulphur and minerals. While busy with the chemical constitution of the feather it might be interesting to consider the role of the protein called melanin in the feathers' pigmentation.

In his book "Masters of Breeding Racing" – Victor Vansalen tells us that the dark colour or pigmentation in the pigeon feather consists of a protein called melanin in which an important role is played by an amino acid (tyrosine) and an enzyme (tyrosinase). He continues that the presence of the element copper (only in minute quantities or traces) is an absolute essential for the conversion into melanin. Copper works as a catalyst and the reaction would not be able to take place without it. This melanin, the feathers' colouring matter, which has to increase resistance to friction including that of air, is therefore indispensable during the annual moult. It might be of interest at this state to note that green peas (Rondo) contains 0.80 mg/100g. of copper as opposed to wheat at 0.17 mg/100gr.

Dr. Stosskopf also has sound advice on the health of the plumage especially during the formation of the feathers during the moult. According to him diet plays an important role during the moult. There are certain dietary requirements pre-requisite for a good moult. These are the proteins from leguminous seeds in sufficient quantities – but no more – lets say 30%. Fats in large quantity for the fatty acids of vitamin F (linoleic acid and its compounds), i.e. linseed oil, rape etc. Traditional minerals (calcium, phosphorus, silicon), vitamins A, D3, B6, PP (brewer's yeast, multi-vitamin complexes) and finally sulphureted amino acids such as cystine and methionine which means that you will choose grains which are rich in these constituents (sunflower, cardy) or artificially add supplementary multi-vitamin compounds of which there are a wide range of South African products available.

The fine plumage in the process of formation must stay fine. The shape and length of each feather is fixed for a year, until the next moult, whenever it occurs. The enemies of good plumage will resume their activity as soon as the new feather is formed. It might be of interest to mention a few; Syrinophilus which passes from the old feather to the new, fortunately not very common; Mange a parasite living at the base of the feather, in the follicle, where it enters the skin. Microscopic examination is necessary to uncover these parasites; the feather lice (Colunbicola Columbae) and the Pigeon fly (Pseudolynchia canariensis) the cause of Pseudomalaria. All should be eradicated before the start of the annual moult.

Just as important to eradicate the ectoparasites attacking the plumage from the outside is the eradication of the endoparasites (internal worms). There are many of them but mainly the ascarids, hairworms, (Capillary species), tapeworms etc. These are very easy to eradicate once their presence is known – but this must be done before the new plumage is grown! Deworming during the moulting season is not advised!

Another matter concerning the annual moult is whether the birds should be kept closed up or given open loft during the moulting period? During my research I did not find anything published on the matter. Many of the fanciers I know allow their pigeons an open loft during the moulting period. Unfortunately I did not inquire as to the reason for this practice but a calculated guess could be that due to the large number of youngsters added to the team the loft might be a bit crowded and that the open loft may alleviate the problem. Another reason might be that exposure to direct sunlight is beneficial to the birds, which cannot be questioned.

My concern, however, with the practice of open loft is the dangers of fielding exposing the birds to unwanted particles, gutter water and possible poisonous substances. One of my friends who was a champion participant once told me that he practiced open loft but closed his birds in during the month of February. An alternative to open loft is to keep the birds in the loft but then I would suggest that the lofts are equipped with an aviary allowing the birds sufficient oxygen, sunshine and a facility for a regular bath, this has an energising effect on the metabolism and influences the moulting development. A little added bath salt to the bath water improves the desired reaction. If this practice is adopted I would suggest that the birds be allowed at least two exercise spins during the week. I will also keep them closed up with access to the aviary during the month of February to expedite the moulting process.

There must also be different sorts of grit, chalk and stone and minerals at their disposal in the loft or aviary. I find it a good practice to throw some fresh grit down the aviary in the mornings. It is also advisable to provide some vita-minerals twice a week if no supplementary products containing vitamins are provided.

To conclude the article it might be of interest to some fanciers to have a look at various moulting mixtures formulated by two companies in Belgium.

Company A

Maize: 24%

Wheat: 20%

Barley: 14%

Sorghum: 6%

Peas: 27% (mixture)

Tares: 1.5%

Linseed: 1.5%

Rapeseed: 1.5%

Millet: 1.5%

Cardy: 3%

Company B

Maize: 30%

Wheat: 13%

Barley: 10%

Sorghum: 12%

Peas: 23% (mixture)

Tares: 2%

Linseed: 2%

Rapeseed: 2.5%

Sunflower: 2.5%

Cardy: 3.5%

Do not forget the importance of including green peas (Rondo) in the mixture!

Both companies recommend that the mixture be supplemented by by-products and supplementary compounds such as moistening the feed with an oil substance of which there are many commercially available and brewers yeast powder or other products containing multi vitamins, amino acids, minerals, trace elements, electrolyte and anti internal parasite control components. These products are usually high in the essential amino acids methionine, lysine and cystine which are often in short supply in the grain mixtures. When the amino proportion does not quite represent the feed proteins, the absorbed proteins can only be partially used. Sufficient methionine in the feed mixture or additive strongly influences the degree of participation of all the other amino acids in the protein synthesis and as a sulphur carrying agent it is of special importance in the qualitative development of the feathers and therefore it must never be first limiting in the moulting time feed mixture or additive.

If you don't mix your own feed, check the commercial mixture you are using to satisfy yourself that you are not taking any chances, because once the moulting season is over there is nothing you can do to correct any possible mistakes you have made, and that can cost you dearly! Finally to check if your pigeons have had a successful moult, fan the tail feathers and check if the two outside tail feathers were moulted. 'This is easy to observe as the pigmentation of the new feathers will be much darker than of the previous year.

Good luck with your moulting season!

By Joggie Peters

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