People have bred the common pigeon, Columba livia, for almost four thousand years. Those, who loved and cared for these birds, have ranged from emperors to peasants, from old to young, have been members of all races, creeds and types, and have provided their charges with accommodations ranging from palatial to just a few simple holes in a roof. The birds don't care. They are easy to please and thrive well for their breeders, provided they are allowed their few basic necessities.
These needs are simply clean water, clean food, and a dry living space where they can rear their young. Pigeons are not ducks. Permanent dampness, such as that found around a leaky water container or in a soggy-floored loft because of poor construction, often leads to disease problems. So, too, does food or water that is allowed to be contaminated with fecal material or other waste.
A just weaned, blue bar (wild-type), racing homer in juvenile plumage. Photo by N. Verkist.
A "lemon" check cock and hen from South Africa. This may be a new combination or a new mutation. At first, they look to be simply Ash-red dilute, but closer inspection of these and other photos of more "lemons" shows them to be much more "yellow" than known ash-red dilutes. Addendum: 2009 - these birds have been shown to be a new mutation called extreme dilute. This mutation is recessive sex-linked and is also recessive to both prviously known alleles dilute and pale. Photos from Dr. Wim Peters.
A pigeon's basic needs include either a whole grain or pellet mix. There are some outstanding pellet mixes on the market designed specifically for pigeons, and, also, outstanding grain mixes. Pigeons need a mix containing at least 13% protein. This should be considered a basic maintainance diet only. During breeding season and molting season, a diet up to 18-20% protein is preferred since both the growing young and new growing feathers demand the extra. So-called dove mixes are usually too low in protein for pigeons to do well on.
Black Kiev Tumbler -photo by T. Hellmann California Color Pigeons - Photo by F. MoscaPigeons also need supplements to their diets that include salts, minerals, and calcium. You can do this by purchasing each item individually, but probably the simplest way of providing these is with a pigeon grit mixture. There are many on the market, but be sure to ask for pigeon grit. Most other types of grit are nothing but stone. Pigeon grit, though, includes oyster shell, salt and minerals. It wouldn't hurt to also pick up some water soluble vitamins and give them to the birds once or twice a week as indicated on the package or bottle.
As for water, pigeons are fairly unique in the bird world since they suck their liquid rather than letting it simply run down their throats as do most birds, including chickens. Pigeons need a water container with at least 1.5 inches (3.5 cm) of free standing water that they can drink from. There are many different types of waterer on the market, and most work very well. Again, the most important thing is to keep them clean. Scrubbing them out at least once a week is a very good idea.
Other than the food, water, and dryness, pigeons merely need some place where they can rear their young in safety and where they can be kept under control so that they don't become a problem for the neighbors.
Pigeons become sexually mature at between five and seven months, though many people won't let them breed until they're at least a year old. Pigeons can range in size from the Runts, which can weigh in at 3.5 lbs. (1.7 kg), to the Spanish Figurita and the African Owls, that tip the scales at barely 6 oz. (170 g). No matter their size, all pigeons breed the same way.
Once mated, the cock bird begins to search for a nesting area. If the hen approves of it, they begin to build a nest - you will have to provide nesting materials. One of the best is long needle pine. Otherwise, anything similar will work. In the southern part of the U.S., breeders often use tobacco stems. Pigeons prefer to have a nest that allows for a cup shape to the nest. Many feed stores sell paper-mache nest bowls (often called disposable doggy bowls). These work well for all but the largest of pigeons and they can be disposed of after either a single use or a few uses.
A cock bird will often drive his hen, i.e, he will worry and chase her, sometimes unmercifully, to keep her away from other males just before she is due to lay her eggs. Most, however, are only moderate drivers. Make sure that your hens are able to find food and water during this period of a few days.
Normally, the hen will lay her first egg about ten to fourteen days after mating. This egg is usually laid in early evening. The second and final egg will be laid about 44 hours after the first one. Young hens and very old ones may lay only a single egg. Incubation doesn't usually begin in earnest until the second egg has been laid. The hen bird normally sits from about 5 p.m. till about 10 a.m., and the cock bird sits the rest of the time. Both parents produce the crop secretion known as pigeon milk, that they use to feed the youngsters for the first few days fo their lives.
Blue Bar racing Homer, adult plumage. Photo by B Hubert.
Hatching takes place eighteen days after the second egg is laid. If you decide you want to look at the hatching eggs -- not a great idea, but we all do it once in a while -- make sure that you always place the egg back into the nest with the pipped side up, i.e., with the side that is being pecked open by the squeaker inside.
Once the squeakers hatch, the parent birds will remove the egg shells from the nest, and will begin to feed the youngsters. At about five to ten days, they will begin adding grain to the pigeon milk that they regurgitate to the babies, and by about fifteen days, the young are being fed on a straight grain diet. If you are going to seamless band (ring) the youngsters, the time to do so is between five and twelve days, depending on breed and speed of growth. For example, Racing homers need to be banded (ringed) before Archangels do. To band, you slide it up over the front three toes and pull the back toe through so that the band is resting on the upper part of the foot and all the toes are in their normal position on the floor. DO NOT LEAVE ANY TOES UNDER THE BAND ITSELF.
Parent birds are almost frantic for a fresh mineral, salt, and grit mix as well as a calcium source during the time they are rearing their young, and this should be provided for them at all times. Pigeons do not use the cuttle bone that you sometimes find in parakeet cages.
The youngsters are weaned by about 35 days, but at about 21 days most parent birds will have already gone to nest again. They should have another nest bowl and nest area (it can be the other end of their nest box) available to them. Most hens will stop feeding the young once they lay again and the cock bird wil bear the brunt of feeding the babies until their final weaning.
Obviously, there can be more to rearing pigeons, but that comes with experience. As for medications, probably the two or three most important are something to deal with canker (trichimoniasis), paramyxovirus (PMV-1), and coccidiosis (an intestinal one-celled parasite that causes severe diarrhea - and normally only found in damp situations.)
Any of the treatments for these, or vaccine to prevent it in the case of PMV-1, can be purchased from one of the many pigeon supply companies in the U.S. or around the world.
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Text & California Color Pigeon photo copyright by F. Mosca