Those pesky pigeons

Turn your on-farm nuisance into a new hobby for the New Year

Are there any farmsteads on the Canadian Prairies that do not have a flock of circling pigeons looking for spoiled grain?

Believe it or not, pigeons were the first birds to be domesticated many thousands of years ago. Worldwide, countless millions of pigeons are kept for racing, ornamentation, fun and food.

There are some 310 species of pigeons worldwide from mourning doves to tropical zebra doves. “Dove” is just a different name for a pigeon. The pigeons we commonly see are rock doves – initially domesticated but now just feral rock pigeons in a range of colours.

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DNA tests have shown that the nearest relatives of pigeons are flamingos. Pigeons and flamingos are unique amongst birds in that they produce milk. Both males and females produce a white digested fluid that they feed to their chicks.

Raising pigeons

A person who raises pigeons is referred to as a pigeon fancier. Pigeons are most commonly raised for racing, or as endurance pigeons called tipplers or tumblers. In Canada, we have some 300 pigeon fanciers with pigeon clubs in Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, 26,000 pigeon fanciers own around two million racing pigeons.

Racing pigeons are sent out hundreds of miles over the United Kingdom, Ireland and Europe to race back to racing club lofts. A good racing pigeon can fetch many thousands of dollars. A favoured food for these racing pigeons in the U.K. is maple peas, exported from Canada.

Enthusiasts have bred very many kinds of pigeons. These range from white doves all the way to fancy coloured and feathered exotic types to the biggest of all: the carrier pigeon.

In times of war, from the earliest days up to the Second World War, carrier pigeons were used to carry messages. In the First World War, pigeons were used to carry messages from British and Allied troops behind German lines to military intelligence units. German sharpshooters shot down many of these carrier pigeons before they made it to the U.K. or France. Ten carrier pigeons are named as wartime heroes with names like G.I. Joe and Mary of Exeter. These pigeons made it to their destinations after losing an eye or leg to enemy sharpshooters.

As a youth in Wales, I raised tippler and tumbler pigeons. These were endurance birds that could fly above the pigeon loft for 20 hours or more. Tumbling pigeons made spectacular moves in the air. Both tipplers and tumblers could avoid peregrine falcons by out-climbing them in the air or tumbling downward before the falcon could strike. I once sold a female racing pigeon to a racing enthusiast. Over the next five years I had to return the pigeon to its new owner three times.

When I was given exotic eggs such as guinea fowl, pheasant eggs or duck eggs, I would put them under a pigeon (two at a time, or one duck egg). They had 100 per cent success in hatching, mainly because male and female pigeons take turns in sitting on and guarding the eggs. As soon as the eggs hatched, I had to remove the chicks or duckling or both male and female pigeon would drool their white, sticky pigeon milk over the new hatchlings in an attempt to feed them.

Young pigeons are called squabs and are an expensive delicacy. Squabs are around a month old, weigh up to a pound and are fed pigeon milk by both parents. One and a half million squabs are produced annually in Canada and the United States. A pair of pigeons can produce 12 to 16 squabs a year – a cottage industry in some parts of Canada.

Feral farm pigeons are not without their drawbacks since they can carry disease. This happens if they habitually occupy part of a building and there is a build-up of pigeon manure and feathers. Breathing in the dry dust from these areas can result in fungal infections such as Histoplasmosis and Cryptococcosis that can affect the mouth and skin.

However, pigeons are not known to carry any specific dangerous diseases to either humans or farm animals. They may be pesky, but they are not dangerous carriers of disease.

Anyone for raising squabs or exporting pigeon (Canadian maple peas) to Europe? It could be a remunerative sideline.

About the author

Contributor

Dr. Ieuan Evans is a forensic plant pathologist based in Edmonton, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected]

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