A fancier who owns good quality breeders and who has a high quality loft has much more possibilities than a fancier who has been struggling for years to build a decent strain. But as a general rule, a fancier needs a lot of patience and he needs to consider the laws of nature when trying to build a good loft of pigeons.
A pigeon needs a natural period of development and we should allow the young bird enough time to develop into a fully grown pigeon. Flying is a natural activity for a pigeon of course, but you have to be careful not to overstrain them in the first two years of their life. Otherwise you risk disturbing their natural period of development.
Every attentive fancier should have noticed that a pigeon is only fully grown after it has moulted as a two-year-old. This explains why a champion will only race his pigeons seriously from the age of two years. A good fancier knows from experience that this is a good system and that it is worth sharing with other fanciers. Many of the questions I receive are about this topic and a lot of fanciers seem to believe that a youngster should gain experience as much as possible at a young age.
The orientational skills of a pigeon are innate and a healthy young pigeon should gain plenty of experience from his daily exercise, but I think it is vital to allow the youngsters to fly out whenever they want. This means that they need an open loft as much as possible: this allows for a natural intake of the vitamins provided by the sun, and it will make them used to changeable weather, heavy rain and even thunderstorms. As a result the pigeon will be better prepared for unforeseen circumstances in races in comparison to his competitors, which are allowed to do a few short training tosses in good weather only.
Another important factor and possibly the most important thing when it comes to youngsters is the way the youngsters are fed. I believe there is plenty of room for improvement. Fanciers often make the mistake of giving their youngsters way too much feed. Scientists have confirmed that a healthy pigeon does not need a lot of feed for a healthy body. Most of all it needs a lot of activity. We think a pigeon should not go to roost immediately after it has had its feed in the evening.
The best way to raise the youngsters is not to disturb their natural period of development and especially to allow them to moult in the most natural way, which is very important. We can notice a clear difference in moulting between good youngsters that only race once in a while and youngsters that do the full racing calendar. This is especially so in September, shortly after the racing season. The result is that the pigeons that have raced a full program are behind schedule, so they have to moult too late in the year. The difference in moulting is even bigger if the youngsters are raced as yearling pigeons, on widowhood or on natural. But youngsters that are not raced too often do not seem to have any problems in terms of orientation.
I think a good sense of orientation is innate and I also think that a pigeon gets to know its wider environment by ranging around the loft. It might be fun to take the youngsters on short training tosses of 5, 10 or 20 kilometres, but I believe these tosses are quite useless for their sense of orientation. A lot of fanciers basket their youngsters to release them a few blocks away. Their only goal is to get the pigeons used to being basketed. Just to illustrate: a friend of mine wanted to race his youngsters, but he was not able to enter them in the first short distance race from Brussels (60km). So he had to race them from Quievrain (103km) without decent preparation. The results? Nine out of nineteen youngsters arrived on time and were listed in the results. Four races later that same fancier had 18 of his youngsters in the results in similar weather conditions.