Elements of nutrition

The importance of nutrition is a hot topic in sports: it leads to interesting discussions and it is a field of study for the caretakers, who can be considered the sports directors of their racing pigeons. One thing is sure; there is still a lot to learn about nutrition and the way in which it can boost the performance of our pigeons.

Nutrition has a strong influence on health, reproduction, growth and performance of an animal. A good feed that provides all necessary nutrients enhances the resilience of an animal and allows it to perform better. Good nutrition helps to speed up and to improve recovery and helps to improve resistance to diseases. A healthy look, shining feathers and good performances are largely the result of good nutrition. You cannot make good results without good nutrition in any loft, irrespective of lines or stock. 

 Without getting into too much detail, it would be interesting to pinpoint some of the peculiarities in a pigeon’s digestive system, which is a seed- and graineater after all. Seedeaters generally have a highly developed crop, especially compared to an insectivore that sometimes does not have a crop at all. A pigeon’s crop is well developed and shaped for the production of crop milk. The crop does not play an important role in the digestion of grains, but it is rather a storage organ for nutrition where the seeds are soaked. In order to soak them the birds need water, hence the need to drink regularly, up to an hour after eating seeds. That is why you cannot basket a pigeon with a full crop.

A pigeon has a relatively small glandular stomach compared to other birds, and it does not play an important role in the digestive system of seedeaters. The gizzard or muscular stomach contracts regularly and rhythmically two to three times per minute. This stomach functions as a grinder and makes use of small stones to grind the food.

This explains why grit is an essential part of the nutrition for a seedeater and especially for a pigeon: it stimulates the stomach contracting and it improves the bird’s digestion with about 10%. So the importance of grit should not be underestimated, as it also provides important substances such as calcium, minerals and oligo elements. Grit should consist of hard rock, grinded oyster shells and also some charcoal. Not all available brands contain all these elements, so it is advisable to use or mix different brands of grit. Bad quality grit is usually not eaten by our pigeons, whereas good quality grit is.
The small intestine of a bird is shorter compared to for instance mammals, but it is longer for seedeaters. The small intestine is the place where most of the digestion takes place. The better the grinding in the muscular stomach functions the more nutrients are released in a soluble form to be sent to the small intestine. The quality of the mush that is released by the muscular stomach is thus of vital importance. I would like to underline the importance of a regular portion of grit for your pigeons throughout the year. I have already told you my feeding tray is filled for 50% with grit, and I always add some grit to the stone food dishes of my breeders. In addition, you can ask your partner to save eggshells and to dry and grind them with a bottle to feed it to the pigeons.

The nutrients
We basically distinguish four types of nutrients: water, the organic nutrients, minerals and vitamins. It is needless to say that water is vital, but you should note that it is not useful to add disinfectants to top water: it is still drinkable but the disinfectant could irritate the digestive system.
Organic nutrients are divided into three types: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Strictly speaking, a nutrient is used to build and repair tissues and provides the energy that the organism needs to breathe, digest, move, fly, etc. After the combustion of the organic nutrients, minerals are left over.
Proteins are essential nutrients: they cannot be replaced by any other nutrient but can act as a substitute for other nutrients such as carbohydrates and fats.

Proteins are built up of a large number of amino acids. Depending on the composition of these amino acids a protein is either more or less biologically active. Proteins are the main building blocks for muscles, organs and other tissues such as skin and feathers. It is also the major component of the nervous system and even the skeleton: proteins give it its elasticity and suppleness. Animals can only produce proteins for their body from the amino acids that are released during the digestion of proteins in their feed.

Just to give you an idea of the importance of the first mentioned group: a young pigeon has doubled its birth weight after only two days, and that same pigeon can be weaned after only four weeks, the age at which it can already make any movement. Obviously, such a fast growth can only be possible with a protein rich diet. That is why nature has provided crop milk that consists for 70 to 80% of water, 10 to 20% of proteins, 7 to 12% of fats and 2% of minerals plus all necessary vitamins. So pigeons need a lot of proteins, not only for their growth but also for the formation of eggs and for their flying abilities. A pigeon uses much of its protein reserves especially in longer distance races. Pigeons need a daily amount of 5g of digestible proteins, which should be increased by half in case of additional efforts such as laying eggs, weaning, flying. This means that a bird’s nutrition should consist for 15% of proteins in winter, and even for 20% when breeding, moulting or racing. Since 80% of a bird’s feathers is built up of protein, it is advisable to give a pigeon a rich and varied diet when moulting.
What follows is a short overview of the amount of proteins (in %) in nutrition. Barley 11.5% - corn 9% - wheat 13% - peas 22% - beans 26% - bear yeast 45% - vetch 30% - sunflower 28% - linseed 24% - hemp seed 18% - rapeseed and coleseed 20%.

The carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are a major source of fuel for the body; they regulate the body temperature and provide energy. You might assume that our long distance racers need a lot of carbohydrates, and you are correct, but proteins and fats can act as a fuel as well. Excess carbohydrates can be stored in the form of fats in the body, which is an important thing to know.
We distinguish two types of carbohydrates: the soluble and easily digestible carbohydrates such as sugar and starch and the carbohydrates that are harder to digest, such as cellulose. With the help of bacteria, cattle, sheep and horses are capable of digesting a part of this cellulose material, but birds cannot digest it as their large intestine is not long enough.
The percentage of carbohydrates in nutrition: Barley 68% — corn 71% — wheat 67% — peas 59 — beans 49 — beer yeast 40% - vetch 50% - sunflower 16% - linseed 24% - hemp seed 20% - rapeseed and coleseed 16%.

The fats
 Just like carbohydrates, the fats in the diet are a source of energy, but they deliver twice as much energy as the carbohydrates. That is why they are particularly interesting for long distance racers but rather unfavourable for sprint racers: long distance racers can carry some extra fats just like youngsters that are about to do long distance races. Another important function is the resorption of vitamins, especially in the absorption of vitamin A, D and E and Calcium.

The fats that can be mainly found in seeds and in oilseeds are the so-called tryglicerides or oils; they are easily and entirely digestible and usable by animals. These fats are far more important to birds than to mammals: it is now considered a fact that pigeons mainly use fats as a fuel for their chest muscles in longer races. This in contrast to mammals, which use mainly sugar as a source of energy for their muscles. Besides, a race horse for instance uses its muscles for a much shorter time compared to long distance racing pigeons or migratory birds. Before a race, a race horse should not have too much fat, but its liver and blood are saturated with sugars. But for a pigeon, sugars are not interesting for longer efforts such as a long distance race, as sugar can only provide energy for short, powerful and quick efforts. But that is what makes sugar interesting for sprint racers of course. For them, it would be good to add four sugar cubes to one liter of drinking water. We usually give middle distance racers some white seed as a desert, or some candy to get them back home after training.

During a sustained effort, a pigeon is said to get 70 to 80% of its energy from the oxidation of fats, and the heart is mostly fuelled with fats as well. Research with an electron microscope has showed that the muscle fibers of a pigeon contain numerous fat particles of various dimensions. Tests have demonstrated that pigeons with a diet rich in fat and low in sugar performed better in long races than pigeons that were given much sugar and few fats. Young pigeons seemed to grow better with a diet rich in fat. This should not be a surprise: crop milk does not contain sugar but is rich in fat. The importance of proteins and fats is also evidenced in the composition of a pigeon’s body, which consists for 60% of water, for 25% of proteins and for 15% of fats.

What follows is an indication of the amount of fats in grains, legumes and seeds: Barley 2% - corn 3.5% - wheat 2% - peas l% - beans 1.4% - beer yeast 0.4% - vetch 0.8% - sunflower 41.4% - linseed 35.9% - hemp seed 32.3% - rapeseed and coleseed 43.6%.
Sprint racers do not need additinal fats because the normal amount of fats in their body is sufficient for a one-hour race at top-speed.