Why Long-distance Pigeons are a better Breeding Option

Pigeon breeding is easy. Get two pigeons, one of either gender, provide them with a loft, nesting material and a secluded spot and before long, on average 10 days later, the hen will have laid two eggs. Hatching begins immediately and after 18 days baby pigeons pip out of the shells.

About 4-5 weeks later they leave the nest, more or less at the time that the new set of eggs are ready to hatch. No problem here at all. It's merely a case of pigeons doing the work that nature has programmed them to do to ensure survival of the species.

On the other hand, breeding pigeons that can regularly win races or end amongst the first back when raced is not easy. In fact it is a road strewn with the 'corpses' of many fanciers who tried, red herrings, false starts and lots of money scattered along the way. But in spite of all, the hopes and dreams of those who try live on.

Blessed are those who, in the face of overwhelming odds, bites the bullet, persist and eventually breed a champion. Then, having proven itself as a superlative racer the champion bird is retired to the breeding loft, while its owner cannot wait to test the first progeny. His breeding enthusiasm having been rekindled, he dreams on with hope and anticipation. But in his thoughts one query keeps revolving; "Can the champion racer now reproduce its own kind, that is, birds that are better than the rest and with that special talent lift the loft to a new and exalted plane?" Chances are it cannot, but 'hope springs eternal from the human breast'. (I am convinced that whosoever first coined the phrase must have had pigeon fanciers in mind!!)

But there are such birds that become super breeders. We know this and fondly hope that one of ours will become such. This is the hope that keeps stock sales, one-race loft auctions and clearance sales alive, as most fanciers are forever looking for that one purchase to improve an established family and bring fame and fortune.

The demand for the best is so high that veritable fortunes are counted down – such as happens every year at Sun City and where the sale of Birdy recorded a never-to-be-forgotten record-breaking event. There is some justification for the fact that the Sun City auctions demand such astronomical figures; after all the birds do emanate from some of the very best lofts in the world. But as we all know being a good racer, is not the same as being a good breeder.

There is one way and only one way, to determine the breeding value of any pigeon and that is to test its offspring in races. And mating with just one partner is not good enough either, a second or even a third mate may have to be tried before its value as a breeder can be established with any degree of accuracy.

One thing is clear however and that is that the price paid for any pigeon whether it is on a public auction or in a private deal, is never a measure of the bird's breeding value.

Finding Good Breeders

There are guidelines that can help one in the search for breeding potential. First to consider, is the pedigree. And by pedigree I mean a full disclosure of the immediate predecessors and their performances, in either the race loft or the breeding loft. The reason is that the more winners that appear in the ancestors, the better are the chances that the bird in question will be able to breed winners itself. (By winners we refer to pigeons that can win or perform well, over and over. A single good performance must never be used as an indication of excellence, as followers will win on occasion; in big races too, with many participants.).

Secondly is the actual performance of the trial bird. A record of having flown well in a number of races, counts strongly in its favour. Throughout the years there have been pigeons of good stock that could not succeed at racing but whose brothers or sisters were champion racers and where the performances of its near kin persuaded fanciers to stock them, with excellent results.

Conversely there have been champions who were complete and utter duds at stock. However, to build a family of excellent pigeons that can be relied upon at racing and breeding, it is advisable to concentrate on pigeons with a record of good performances themselves.

Thirdly I am of the opinion that, on average, physical appearances play a huge role in good breeders. My quest has always been to seek pigeons with a build fitting for the task of racing. However this is confined to long distance racing without a strong following wind.

The anatomical considerations I seek are to be found in a wing of certain design, muscles that are supple, full but apparently weightless, a pigeon that is well-balanced regarding the shape of its body and an epiglottis that is 'clean' and as narrow as possible. Some of these do change following the fitness curve of the pigeon but when in top condition there is no mistaking. A little warning; never misjudge the exceptions.

Pigeons, that, by inbreeding, previous disease, quirky throwbacks etc do not have the physiques ideal for long distance racing and who really are the exceptions. These birds can often be recognized by the appearance of their offspring or near-kin that have these requisites.

Fourthly it must be descended from pigeons that were successful at the distance at which its youngsters are to compete. Success will be hard to achieve if the parents excelled at races no further than 500km but the trial bird's babies are to race 1000km events. This is very important, especially if one wishes to compete at the extreme long distances. The chances of success though not impossible will be much reduced if you were to attempt, say, breeding 2-300km winners from 1000km winner parents or vice versa, 1000km winners from 2-300km winner parents.

The latter can at times be quite confusing. So much so that many fanciers tend to think that the rules of genetics are not being followed when, for instance, two winners from 300km are paired together, with no success at the short distance races. Then, when in desperation the fancier tries the offspring at the distance, they do well. Why does this happen? If we assume that the loft, management, health and so on are all as they should be, we are still confronted by this apparent breeding contradiction. And it's not an infrequent occurrence. So why?

I believe that it happens because of the lack of specialization. And this lack of specialization is also one of the reasons why we, in South Africa, still lag far behind Europe (particularly Belgium) concerning the quality of our stock. Which is so aptly demonstrated almost every year at Sun City, when SA entries fail to hold their own? (At this stage I will not bring the moulting period or time of year, into the discussion.)

I believe we fall down because we do not appreciate the distance that most pigeons are best equipped to perform at. What happens is that we set out to purchase the best pigeons at auctions, clearance sales say or deceased sales. In most cases – unless we intimately know the pigeons of the seller – we are led by what appears on the sales catalogue.

This usually reveals only the birds that won and how many races or positions were won. Usually the liberation sites are not mentioned; mostly they are glossed over, so that often only the positions are given with the distances raced, not mentioned. And to compound the problem, when, on occasion, this information does appear on the sales catalogue, it is often ignored by the buyer.

What happens in Belgium?

Most fanciers there concentrate on a specific distance; sprint/short, short/middle, middle/day race long or long/marathon. And each flyer knows the distance at which his neighbour participates. When needing new birds a fancier approaches someone who races in the same distance category as he does. In other words they all specialize at their chosen distance. And should a fancier wish to increase or decrease the distance at which he races what does he do?

He goes out and purchases new stock from the top fanciers flying at that distance. And once established; he borrows top pigeons from the same-distance fanciers.

Whereas most of the specialist fanciers in Belgium restrict themselves to racing either short, middle, long or marathon races, what do we do? We try the lot!! Beginning at the shorts we go through middle and long and if there are birds left we send them to the marathon races. Of specialization there is little seen and improvement in any sphere is infinitesimally slow, very limited and usually revolves around fresh introductions ...... from the specialists.

What do we do?

Typically we than mate our best to the best, could be a 1000km winner to a 300km winner and race the babies. Or we go to an auction or wind-up sale buying winners or best pigeons. But are those wins from distances at which we wish to compete? Sure they're good pigeons (according to our standards), but are they suited to the job required of them?

When we race the babies from a winner-to-winner breeding pair, they could turn out to be anything – good, bad or indifferent – but that's not unusual, in addition we do not know at what distance they'll do well.

Suppose we get two winners – let's call them the P1 who won from 500km say – and we breed from these winners. Their babies in turn – call them the F1 – would now be expected to win from 500km or thereabouts. But they do not. They do nothing from 300 or 800km and in desperation you try them from 1000km and hey presto, you're in the pound seats. But why?

What happened that these 300milers (reads better than 500kmers) can now suddenly turn out 600milers? Answer: Because of the lack of specialization. What we have in the P1 are good pigeons that won at 300miles but whose children fail at that distance. They performed at 600miles – as did their ancestors way back. Some people refer to them as 'throwbacks'.

Let's use a colour breeding example to make the above more understandable. We know that red (chocolate – as seen in the Meulemans for example) is recessive to ash red, blue or brown and is not seen if homozygous. So if we take a 'chocolate' and mate it to a blue not carrying the chocolate gene, all the babies will be blue. Call them the F1. These blue pigeons, F1, can now be mated to any other colour (pure) and no chocolates will appear. And so it can carry on for several generations.

But if we happen to mate maybe an F5 or F4 bird carrying chocolate to another pigeon carrying the chocolate gene, whether related or not, 50% of the offspring will be chocolate. When eventually we do breed a chocolate from two blues, ash reds or browns nothing strange has happened.

All it means is that the chocolate colour which is recessive to the normal colours has been carried invisibly on the chromosomes of the impure pigeons. (Another example would be the recessive opals that inexplicably appear in some families. Opal was hidden but was there all along). Similarly to this pair of short-distance pigeons can suddenly, without apparent reason, breed a long distance racer. The long-distance aptitude has been there all along but has been hidden on the chromosomes.

Why some present a better option?

So then why should a long distance bird have a better chance to be a good breeder than its short distance loft mate?

Quite simple really, if one thinks about it. We are agreed that successful racing, irrespective of the distance, begins with the mental capabilities and whether one separates them into homing ability, desire to be in the loft, ability or willingness to break from the group, and does not matter. What does matter is that it's a mental thing, totally divorced from the physical capabilities.

We are also agreed that short-distance pigeons come in all shapes and sizes but that the long distance birds tend to conform much more to a standard shape and size. (When we talk here of long-distance is does not include the birds that flew well at the distance ONLY BECAUSE of a strong tailwind with a resultant high velocity. Note well that it does not necessarily exclude the typical long distance pigeons as they can also compete successfully under the tailwind circumstances mentioned.)

Short-distance pigeons come in many guises and it is so that many of them are incapable of performing well at the distance. Why? Because they often have physical shortcomings which render them incapable of completing a long race of 12 hours or more. These changes however are not severe enough to prevent them being successful at the shorter distances.

They do well at the shorts in spite of their anatomical drawbacks and they are driven by a strong mental aptitude which 'overrides' their physical shortcomings, whereas the long-distance pigeons are what they are because, amongst other things, do not have these anatomical disadvantages. And, as like begets like, being anatomically suited for the distance, their offspring would tend to also be successful at the distance. In addition they can, with adapted feeding, training and motivation, compete at the middle or shorter distances.

One must be aware however that these differences are seen in the degree in which the pigeons differ. A marked difference is very often not discernible. Some short-distance champions have the requisites to be a success at the distances. It is however when one compares groups of pigeons i.e. groups of short-distance birds vs. groups of long-distance specimens, that the differences become observable. Briefly the short distance birds come in a variety of shapes with sometimes great differences in various physical qualities.

The long distance birds on the other hand, are usually of small to medium build, with good balance, a specific wing design and pectoral muscles that are full, appear weightless but are always soft and supple. Beyond these, the mental aptitudes of determination and perseverance are required, but as said, they are invisible and can, to some degree, occur in the sprinters also.

By Dr Wim Peters

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