Practical microscope use - looking for solutions

Examples of situations in which the information gained with a microscope can aid an individual flier to improve his results are given below.

Loss of Form

If there are 20 races in a program and a flier is going to do well in, say, six of these, then given the vagaries of wind direction, individual birds becoming fit etc., one would expect his good results to be scattered through the season. In fact, this is unlikely to be the case. It is more likely that his six good races will occur out of eight starts. Up until recently, this peculiarity was accepted as normal. Such birds were said to have either come into, or alternatively lost, form. Indeed this is the case, but one must ask the question, Why?

When monitoring an in-form team at my clinic, the birds are consistently Chlamydia-negative, have no trichomonads in their crop flush and their faecal smears are negative for worms, Coccidia, yeasts and E. coli. Most fanciers’ tossing, feeding and racing regimes are relatively constant through the season. Given a constant management regime, when form is lost, a health problem is usually detected.

It is unrealistic to think that an individual team is resistant to the factors that lead to loss of form. There is continuous exposure to disease in the race unit and the inherent stress of racing itself leads to disease flare-ups. In the past (pre 1990) when the birds stopped being competitive it was simply agreed, almost as if it was normal, that the birds had lost form. The answer for many fliers was to continue with the same tossing and feeding regimes and hope that form would return or, alternatively, try something different to spark the birds up, eg a ‘hit out toss’ or ‘hoppers in, baskets out’, etc.

With loss of form, fliers should see if this has a health basis and organize a veterinary check (crop flush and dropping analysis) to identify a problem, which, with correction, will lead to a return of form. More importantly, once a problem (e.g. wet canker) is known to be active in the loft, it can be monitored (through crop flushing) and preventative medication (2 days on an anticanker drug) can be given strategically to prevent further flare-ups.

Unexplained bad year

Even the very best fliers have that occasional bad year that they just want to forget. Even if it is a year that others might consider satisfactory, it may be well below their best. To the concerned, experienced flier standing in his loft, looking over his birds they all seem okay. This year’s team is genetically from the same base as in other years, it is in the same loft and under the same management . Then why are the race results just not there? Obviously, in some years breeding produces those one or two exceptional birds, but the overall result should not dramatically change, i.e. in the top 20 in the Federation averages. One factor that can cause a bad year is the birds’ health, remembering that most pigeon disease is, in fact, hidden to the naked eye. Problems as diverse as a new strain of Mycoplasma, tapeworm infection, a virus, etc., can all appear in a loft, leading to poor results and a frustrated fancier. Straightforward veterinary testing can identify and control such problems.

Resident Diseases

Resident diseases take several forms. They can either be loft-based or relate to the birds themselves. When a fancier persistently fails to achieve good results at a particular time of year, this is suggestive of a loft-based health problem. Closed in lofts give the fancier control of the birds’ environment and enable the fancier to create the ideal temperature and humidity conditions for health all year round. In open lofts when the weather gets cold, the birds get cold and form is lost. Pigeons can always handle a single stress but when stresses start overlapping their health break down. If the birds are stressed, e.g. by a hard race, and we then superimpose cold, high humidity or draughts, then the birds will break down.

A good example of a loft-based resident disease is E. coli infection. E. coli is a bacterium that is found in the bowel of pigeons almost always, but usually in low numbers. Its level fluctuates over a 24 - 48-hour period, depending on what stresses the birds are under. When levels are high, they cause a low grade enteritis, interfering with nutrient and electrolyte metabolism and, in the process, lead to the birds developing green droppings or, with on-going stress, green and watery droppings. The problem is managed by identifying and correcting, if possible, any predisposing stress and, on days when significant numbers of green droppings are noticed, by treating the birds with probiotics. A common stress associated with E. coli is cold, damp conditions and so we see it as an intermittent but persistent problem in certain lofts, for example, open lofts, lofts facing south, lofts overshadowed by trees or in particular geographical locations. Some avian veterinarians state that mild E. coli is worth 10 minutes in a normal 200-mile race. Once veterinary checks identify this as a problem, longer term steps can be taken to control the problem, which may involve structural changes to the loft. However, if predisposing factors cannot be avoided, e.g. high-humidity areas, fanciers aware of the problem when alerted to a flare-up by the presence of green droppings can effectively prevent any loss of form through the use of probiotics.

Also as mentioned, some resident diseases relate to the birds themselves. Some strains of pigeons under particular management regimes are more susceptible to particular diseases. A well-known example here is wet canker and respiratory infection in some strains of European birds, particularly when in full training. Wet canker and respiratory infection have an enormous effect on results but only if not identified. Once these diseases are identified and correctly managed, the birds can win and win well.

The Microscope as a Management Tool

Traditionally, the microscope has only been used to diagnose a problem when the birds appear unhealthy, and yet the microscope, just like the perch scraper, can be used to manage the birds. Many organisms that cause disease in pigeons are always present in low numbers and their levels fluctuate, depending on what stress the birds are under. Regular checks can monitor these levels and can be used as a guide to modify the birds’ training regime. For example, when pigeons are stressed for any reason, initially the E. coli level but later also the level of yeasts in the droppings start to increase. A common stress for a race team is overtraining, i.e. too much tossing. If a flier wants to check whether his current level of tossing is excessive, he can check the droppings microscopically to see if the E. coli is elevated or if yeasts are starting to appear. If they are present, he knows it is best to cut back on the team’s tossing for a while. If they are not present he knows he can continue.

Interestingly, in winning teams it is not unusual to find elevated yeasts in individual birds. Fliers that are not doing well often do not toss their birds much and give their birds, perhaps, too much to eat. These birds are not under stress, no stress changes (i.e. elevated E. coli and yeasts) are detectable in their droppings but they are not winning either. Fliers with currently winning teams exercise and work their birds to create a race fitness and trim out excess fat while, at the same time, monitoring both the quantity of grain and energy content of the feed mix. These birds, once right, are fit and can win but are being pushed close to the edge and can therefore more easily break down. If training is overdone, E. coli and yeasts will start to increase in individual birds. The astute flier can learn to monitor these changes microscopically and use this to help manage his birds’ training.

Healthier individual teams improve the quality of racing for everyone. With individual fliers ensuring that their birds’ health problems are controlled, not only is racing better for the individual bird but the general level of health of the entire race contingent is higher. This not only improves the quality of racing but makes racing more enjoyable and obviously benefits the sport in general.