At one time the natural system of racing, where the pigeons are mated and then flown whilst they are breeding or feeding youngsters, was the only system known. Belgium fanciers, however, discovered and developed what is today known as the widowhood system. The fanciers who discovered this method, kept their secret to themselves and for some time they dominated racing with their phenomenal results. Other fanciers, however, eventually discovered their secret and since then the balance has been restored. Everyone stood an equal chance once again, with success depending upon the quality of the pigeon and the knowledge, experience and management of the fancier.
There are no secrets in pigeon racing. The management and knowledge of the fancier and his experience alone will assist him. Fanciers who believe that they can make pigeons fly faster by giving them all sorts of secret medicines and drugs will inevitably be disappointed by their results. A pigeon can only achieve top performances when it is enjoying perfect health ; it reaches top condition through exercise and correct feeding.
There are two aspects of a pigeon's condition that influence the end result obtained. In the first place there is the physical condition of the pigeon, which will determine whether it can do the distance, at the pace allowed by prevailing weather conditions. In the second place, its performance will be influenced by its mental condition. This will be the motive urging it to do that extra bit which will bring it just that fraction ahead of the other pigeon, or make it try that bit harder, in overnight races, to reach home in the twilight when other pigeons have decided to call it a day and have perched for the night.
It sometimes happens that a pigeon's mental condition and will, will dominate its physical condition but this will be the exception rather than the rule since a pigeon's physical condition is usually the deciding factor in his performance. For this reason we shall first discuss the factors which influence the physical condition. Thereafter we can discuss the different racing systems which have a greater influence on the pigeon's mental condition, whilst also influencing his physical condition to a certain extent.
The physical condition of a pigeon is influenced by feeding and exercise in the first instance and is further qualified by hormones working in its body tissues. This hormone working begins when the pigeon is mated and has gone through the breeding cycle of laying eggs and rearing youngsters. It is further activated by the time of year, since the pigeon adapts itself to seasonal weather changes by throwing off its down feathers. Pigeons which have reared a round of youngsters will start moulting and will cast their first flight when having sat about 10 days on their second round of eggs. Pigeons which have not been allowed to rear youngsters will cast their first flights much later, when nature instructs the glands to release the hormones that activate the moult.
Experienced fanciers anxiously watch for signs of the fall of down feathers from their racers. This is not so much because the fall of the down feathers, in itself, is so important, but because it is a sign that the glands have released some hormones which will bring about the moult. It is an established fact that pigeons will only reach top form after they have cast their first flights. In other words, after the glands have been stimulated to release the hormones, which by their working, help to bring the pigeon into top condition. I have given this explanation to help you to understand how the racing system employed also influences the physical condition of the pigeon. Pigeons will reach top physical condition by feeding and exercise but will then still not race as well as expected. Yet, all of a sudden, a change will come over them and they will race exceptionally well for a few weeks. This is when the loft strikes form, a condition of super health and physical condition that comes and departs of its own accord. lts arrival is welcomed by all fanciers but no fancier has yet succeeded in bringing this condition about when he wishes it. It usually occurs when the temperature of the loft rises and the happy balance of work and food is reached.
The feeding of a racing team is very different from the feeding of stock pigeons, or pigeons during the off season. With the racing team one should endeavour to balance the amount of food given against the amount of work done. What I mean here is that you cannot expect your pigeons to work for two hours a day, give them two or three training tosses per week, race them every week and expect them to do all this on one ounce of food per pigeon per day. When you work them hard, you must feed them accordingly.
This is certainly the most difficult part of pigeon racing and is one aspect of the game which everyone struggles to master. The person who, by chance, strikes the happy medium between food and exercise usually cannot understand why others have problems. The person who feeds heavily usually tosses his birds quite a lot, to work the extra energy off, otherwise the birds would become heavy and fat. But even this does not help him to bring them into the right condition at the right time and therefore he also guesses when basketing day comes along. He sometimes succeeds, but in most cases the pigeons are either that little bit too heavy or just that little bit under weight. The fancier is not capable of working out exactly how much he must feed his birds or how much work they must get. He therefore works on a system of feeding and working, and hopes that he will strike the happy medium by chance. Fanciers who are overfeeding their birds usually are successful in the hard races since the birds can use that extra potential energy whilst fanciers who underfeed, succeed in the faster races, since excess weight becomes a burden.
It is difficult to strike a happy medium but by study and experience one gradually evolves a system to which one's pigeons respond and by which one can achieve success.
I have found that one should become acquainted with your pigeons individually and through daily inspections of their physical condition, learn to teil whether you should increase their food or give them more work, to get them into the desired condition on basketing day. For this purpose, I prefer to use the system of breaking them down by racing and feeding over the weekend and then gradually building them up towards basketing day again.
If you handle your pigeons regularly, especially at night time, you will learn to feel what the condition of their muscles is. For this purpose, one takes the pigeon in one hand in the normal way and places the other hand in front with the thumb over the back and the four fingers next to the breast bone. By pressing these fingers slightly into the muscles you will feel a certain resistance and with practice will soon be able to teil whether the muscles are swollen with energy or flat and deflated.
The best procedure is to handie the pigeon on basketing day and again after the race, when you should be able to feel the difference. The pigeons which have taken part in the race will have deflated muscles as a result of the work, whilst those which have not been raced will feel full and round like an inflated rubber tube. Jules Gallez of Belgium made me acquainted with his purifying mixture on his first visit to the Republic of S.A. a few years ago. This mixture consists of barley, rice, small sunflower, kaffir corn (Dari) and wheat, mixed in equal proportions, with linseed and rapeseed added to taste. This mixture is fed to the pigeons that have not been to the race, while the others are away, and is also given to the racers on their return from the race.
Those that have not been to the race would lose condition, by which I mean that their muscles would become deflated, whilst those that have raced would slowly start building up. The pigeons are kept on this mixture for two or three days and the daily exercise is continued as from the evening after the day of the race. Depending on how hard the race was, you may cut down on the time they exercise.
This mixture is called a purifying mixture, which is a direct naming after the work it does ; it actually works as a purifyer, so that the use of a purgative becomes absolutely unnecessary when this mixture is used. Keen observation will soon prove to you how beneficial the mixture really is, since your pigeons will almost immediately regain their pinkish flesh colour, about a day or two after the race. Although they will appear to be very hungry when fed on this mixture they will still exercise when let out, but not as vigorously as when fed on the usual racing mixture.
The period which you keep them on this mixture depends entirely upon your working system, but I have learnt through experience that it is possible to calculate exactly how long you must feed your usual racing mixture to have the birds in approximately the same condition each basketing day. You will notice how quickly they built up again when fed on the usual racing mixture and you will also note an improvement in the way they exercise as basketing day draws closer.
By adjusting this feeding system to suit your own training methods you will find that it is possible to reduce the amount of work given and still have your pigeons in the desired condition on the day of basketing. You will readily appreciate that you can, by these means, control the physical condition of your pigeons at will. Most fanciers are inclined to overwork their pigeons and fail to realize that pigeons sometimes need a rest in order to recover their strength.
One must realize that the pigeon's body is not a machine and that though some fanciers succeed in getting it to work like a machine, they can do so for only a limited period of time. The training methods of different fanciers vary according to the type of pigeon they have. It is therefore essential that you use a system as close as possible to the one used by the fancier or fanciers from whom you acquired your pigeons. You will find it necessary to work your pigeons reasonably hard when you wish to race them successfully over the short distance races. However, they will need more rest when the long distance events come along.
Furthermore it will be necessary to adjust your feeding mixture accordingly. Pigeons will need more energy for the long distance races, and for this reason one should feed more maize when these races are flown. The usual racing mixture should contain at least 60 % carbohydrates, but this percentage can be increased to 70 % or even 80 % when long distance races are flown.
It is essential to learn to know each pigeon individually since no two pigeons are alike and since the quality of pigeons varies so considerably. I mentioned earlier that each fancier is inclined to breed the type of pigeon which responds to his racing methods, but it is also true to say that each fancier has only a few pigeons of outstanding class in his loft. As the secretary of the Pretoria Racing Pigeon Union, I have made a study of the numbers of the pigeons which have flown well for each fancier, when signing the prize certificates at the end of the season. This has revealed that very few fanciers have many birds which have managed to get into the positions given by the Union. One usually finds that if a fancier has had 10 positions for the season, that one pigeon has scored three or four times, with another one scoring twice whilst the other positions are made up by different pigeons. From this one may deduce that there are very few pigeons of outstanding quality about, or other pigeons would also have scored more often. If the quality of the pigeon is not the deciding factor, then why is it that one pigeon will succeed in scoring more than once, while other pigeons fail to do so?