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PIGEON CARE by Frank Mosca

    Since I've received a lot of e-mail asking how to care for baby pigeons which have been found abandoned or fallen from a nest, I've decided to add this brief summary page.

    While there are quite a few good books out there on keeping pigeons as pets (see especially the book by Vriends), few mention anything about what to do when you have to hand-raise a foundling baby.

    Some people are able to raise a baby pigeon from hatch to fledging, but even with the latest in feeding technology - special food, small feeding tubes, heating pads or incubators - this is problematical at best. Quite honestly, for most people, the effort needed in terms of time, energy and money for feeding from day one till about day five is simply not worth it.  However, rearing an abandoned youngster from about five days of age onward is fairly simple, if a bit time consuming, and quite rewarding. (Most foundlings are at least five days old unless you've found a nest which has young less than about three inches (7.5 cm) long.) The result of rearing a baby pigeon is invariably an extremely tame fledgling which will seldom make it on its own if released into the wild.

    Usually, such a bird seeks out the first person it sees and tries to find food that way. Once, I actually received a call from a frightened woman who claimed she and her neighbor were being attacked by a "vicious" pigeon. I got there to find a hand-tame blue check feral hen which immediately lighted on my head when I held up some grain. So, if you choose to hand-rear a baby pigeon, plan on a pet for quite a while. As adults, pigeons reared this way will attempt to mate with their owners. While they are not totally imprinted on humans --they will often mate with a pigeon if humans stay away for a while, they always prefer something which "looks like mommy."

    The first thing a baby pigeon needs is warmth. Until they get their feathers, they're totally dependant on their parents to keep them warm, so you have to do that for them too. I don't know the exact temperature to keep them. I've done well at about 90 degree F. You can either use a small heating pad under them (not directly - they'll mess up a heating pad, so put you might want disposable or washable rags or towels over the pad, and then put the bird on that.  Squabs lose a lot of body heat to the air so I'd place the pad/rags/bird combination in a box with a top on it. No matter what you chose, if you are using an electric heating pad make sure that whatever you use is not something that's going to burst into flames on you. Better a pigeon that never lives to grow up than a family lost. A thermometer placed inside the box should let you keep an eye on the temperature. If the pigeon looks "sweaty", it's too hot.

Personally, I've never used a heating pad. Since the baby normally needs extra heat only until it's about twelve days old -- and since I'm too cheap to buy another heating pad for use with the birds -- I just put the baby on a nest-like old towel and place a few well-sealed bottles of hot tap water in with it to act as radiators. Just make sure, you don't cook the poor beast.

As for feeding the bird, you can do it the hard way - popping individual peas/corn/wheat down its throat and then squirting some water in with an eyedropper or small squeeze bottle.  If you choose this method, you will also need to add a few pinch of grit - tiny granite or other hard stone about the size of a half of a wheat grain -- or you can go the "three second" feeding method. I usually choose the latter.
    Go to any feed/pet store and get chick or game bird starter mash or pellets; a two or three pound (c. 1-1.5 Kg.) bag should last you almost the whole rearing period. In a blender, mix about a half cup of mash with about a cup of water and blend until smooth (the amounts are approximate, (c. 1 mash to 2 water). What you want to end up with is a somewhat loose custard or pudding-type substance which can be piped through a small squeeze bottle without clogging up the tip. (There ARE proprietary feeds for young parrots, etc., which you can buy and use. Most of these are extremely easy to mix and use but they also tend to cost more than simple mash feeds. The choice is up to you.)

    IMPORTANT: The slurry fed to the baby should be warm but not hot; if you had it in the refrigerator, I'd suggest you rewarm it by setting it in warm water rather than heating it in a microwave which can cause very hot spots that may burn the baby's crop.

    When you're feeding the youngster, look for the small hole in the bottom of the inside of its mouth. ABSOLUTELY DO NOT get any food into this opening.  This leads directly to the bird's lungs and food in here will likely kill it. Instead, slip the tip of the squeeze bottle past that hole and more into the bird's throat. Squeeze the bottle GENTLY and begin to fill the baby's crop. Do NOT give a massive squeeze on the bottle because, especially with very young birds, you may over fill the crop and force food back up the gullet and into the lungs. Unlike many altricial birds, baby pigeons need to be feed only two or three times a day.

    Now, obviously, you can also purchase special nestling foods put out by many pet supply companies. They tend to be somewhat expensive though. However, they are also somewhat easier to use than the mash if you've never done anything like this before and the instructions are right on the can. Many pet/veterinarian supply companies also sell special feeding tubes and various sized tips for them. You pay your money and take your choice.

    When the youngster is about 21 days, (at about this age, the bird is almost fully feathered except under the wings and the flight and tail feathers haven't yet reached their full length)  I begin putting some grain in a small flat dish nearby. I also occasionally pick up a few grains with two fingers to let the bird get the idea that this is food. With luck, it'll begin to peck tentatively at the grains within a day or so. When it does, I begin to cut back on my handfeeding. Not all at once, but I usually cut my feeding my 1/4 and after another few days, I begin to skip the morning feeding to let the bird begin to get hungry enough to start looking for food on its own. This is a bit earlier than the parents might wean them, but, then, I don't have quite the patience of some pigeon mom or dad.
 
    The reason I use a flat dish to place the grain in rather than a bowl is that a pigeon seems to be genetically endowed with a realization that something small and round may be edible and it sets off the peck reflex.  If the seed is all in a bowl, the requisite "small, round" look doesn't seem to be quite as obvious to them.  After a day or so of pecking on the flat surface and finding that the seed is edible, a pigeon will usually recognize the seed in anything else.  If you begin to add seed, you MUST also begin to provide water in a non-tip container so the bird can drink after eating to help soften the grains.

    Between 28 and 35 days is when you have to tough it out with the youngster.  It needs to be weaned unless you want to feed it until it's ten years old or so.  You needn't totally cut off a meal, but I always give only one a day.  That is usually about 1/2 of what I've been feeding it before.  A bit of hunger, not necessarily gnawing starvation, will force the bird to seek food from that flat dish, if it already hasn't found it.  With luck, your youngster will be fully weaned by 30-40 days, though, it'll still often try to sucker you into feeding it, even if it's just finished stuffing fifty or sixty seeds down its own throat and can barely waddle.  .

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Copyright by Frank Mosca (1999)

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