About winter breeding - part I

Do not neglect the natural environment. Many fanciers are convinced that their breeding birds should live as close to the natural environment as possible in order to have strong and healthy young birds in the nest bowls.

The expression, close to nature, is in fact not very useful here: the racing pigeon as we know it is far removed from the pigeon that we find in nature. Our racing pigeons are fully fledged, well nourished and well looked after domestic animals. Wild pigeons such as the wood pigeon or the collared dove will not breed during the winter, just like any other European bird. Birds that live in the wild cannot breed because of a lack of nutrition. They can find just enough food to stay alive, without the complication of breeding youngsters.

A Dutch proverb says that every bird lays an egg in May (in mei legt elke vogel een ei). Still, pigeon fanciers falsely believe that the winter breed is a natural process for their pigeons. The opposite is true: breeding in winter is in fact against their nature. There is a food shortage in the winter months and due to the shorter days a wild pigeon does not show any breeding activity. However, a racing pigeon has been a domestic animal for decades and a fancier can give it a helping hand to get through the winter.

You have to stimulate your pigeons to make sure that they will breed or reproduce in winter. The length of the day and the outside temperature, greatly influence the sexual activity of a bird. A healthy and well fed pigeon is usually less influenced by these factors when it comes to breeding. Still it is very important to monitor the temperature in your loft and to lighten your pigeons from time to time if you want to have a successful breeding period in winter.

As a fancier you can gradually increase the breeding activity of your pigeons in November by exposing your separated pigeons to artificial light for about twelve to fifteen hours. You can monitor the lighting yourself and control it with an automatic clock that is pre-programmed. In a normal situation the sex organs of the pigeons and birds in general are inactive by the end of November. The testicles and the ovary are much smaller then compared to their normal size in the summer months. This is a normal and natural phenomenon. By lightening your separated breeding pigeons in the darkest days of the year, you stimulate one of the bird’s optic nerves. This nerve in turn stimulates a small yet important gland that is located below the brain: the hypophysis.

This gland is the main hormone producing gland in the body. If a light beam reaches the retina, the light is converted into electric signals. These signals are sent to the lower part of the brain, where the visual cortex and the hypothalamanus is situated. These two sections of the brain sit near the hypophysis. This is where the electric signals are converted into a chemical stimulus, which in turn triggers the production of the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).

This takes place in the hypophysis. This gland reaches the ovary and the testicles through the body’s bloodstream. The FSH makes the hen’s ovum grow and develop and it increases the level of female hormone. The FSH also triggers sperm maturation in the male pigeon and it increases the level of male hormone in its blood. This process is fairly complicated and it usually does not occur in winter. However, it is possible to initiate this physiological process in an artificial way.

Practical experience of other fanciers is useful

Every winter we see that fanciers have a high number of useless youngsters and some basically have a disastrous breeding period. This is generally due to hens not being capable of laying eggs; a high number of empty or unfertilized eggs and of course the fights between the most difficult breeding pairs. The percentage of failures is remarkably higher in breeding lofts that are less well equipped. Such equipment includes a decent heating and lighting system, which improves the living conditions in the loft.

The climate in your loft is influenced by the temperature in your loft and the humidity, which varies a lot depending on the loft. The general rule is that a good loft should be dry and the temperature difference between day and night should be kept to a minimum. In other words your loft should not be like a greenhouse during the day (dry and hot) and a damp and cold basement overnight. Pigeons can cope with very high and very low temperatures but they cannot endure sudden and large temperature changes. In addition the paired birds will not breed or lay eggs in very cold temperatures. We have seen lofts where not a single breeding pair would breed, although each of the couples was in perfect health. If that is the case in your loft, you have to separate your pairs as quickly as possible and you have to look to improve the loft itself. Another option is to wait for the weather to improve but that takes some patience. It is also possible to initiate the breeding process of your most difficult pairs with a hormone injection but only in exceptional cases. Our racing pigeons are no longer wild birds but domesticated animals. This means that an artificial treatment is not out of the question; it could be a useful tool in difficult situations.

Some fanciers have bad memories of winter breeding in recent years. This is reason enough for them to start the breeding process later in the year. This is, in fact, an important observation. We are convinced that if Belgium had a few very harsh winters like in the past many fanciers would soon start to change their breeding habits. One reason is that your breeding pairs will have a more difficult breeding season during a harsh winter. In addition the squabs will have a hard time surviving in severe weather conditions and it will be difficult for them to explore the environment and to make their first flights. Germany has much longer and harsher winters, as a result of which there is hardly any winter breeding. This also applies to the fanciers in The Netherlands. We are not against winter breeding, not at all, but it would be wise to take into account the obvious downsides of this in our country.

Some years ago we noticed a lot of hens that laid infertile eggs and sometimes no eggs at all, even after three or four weeks. Fanciers thought they were because of a diseased family of pigeons although not a single disease had been found among their pigeons. If you consider the number of pigeons in your family that do not breed in addition to the inevitable fights between the birds you could expect a failure rate of 25% in your loft.

Still we have seen a lot of fanciers with a 100% successful breeding period in winter. They were obviously satisfied and enthusiastic. How do they do it? What are the reasons for failure and what mistakes should be avoided? How do you cope with the problems? This could be an interesting topic for a night of discussion but there is one thing to remember: racing pigeons are domestic animals, not wild birds. The racing pigeon is an intelligent creature that is susceptible to changes in racing methods, to being moved from one loft to another and to a change in breeding partner. It is important not to disturb the pigeon by adopting a new system every once in a while. You should not be too demanding on your pigeons. We advise the following approach: the young cocks that are newcomers to the breeding loft are put together with the retired widowers: the new breeders sit together with the old breeders in the breeding loft. The male breeding pigeons have to get used to each other and to a different environment over an extended period of time. Each of the birds should be able to choose its box depending on its location. This transitional period takes place preferably in November, when the other pigeons are separated. The cocks that are paired (which are given a different hen) and the young couples that are new in the loft might also be paired in advance for a few days, together with the old pairs that stay in the breeding loft. This could be done prior to the transitional period, somewhere in mid November. During this pairing in advance the hens become acquainted with their partner, their box and their future environment. In this period you will also learn a lot more about your new breeders. Now you will see which of the birds do not want to be paired. You can also recognise the cocks that prefer a different hen or box and you also notice which of the birds tend to fight a lot. Basically you get a clear view of the problems that can occur in the actual breeding period in advance. This means you can take precautionary measures to avoid these problems. After this process the pigeons are separated again until the right moment has come to pair them again.

The best moment to pair is somewhere between the end of November and the end of December, preferably in nice weather and when the fancier has a day off. As a fancier it is important to be present: remember that a mad male pigeon can kill its female partner very quickly. In moist and cold lofts the weather conditions play an important role in whether or not the breeding period will be successful and whether the hens lay all their eggs at the same time. This is important if you want a homogeneous round of youngsters. At these moments it is advisable to lighten the pigeons for 12 to 15 hours to make the pigeons more excited and willing to breed. You should also try to keep the humidity as low as possible with a special device. This applies especially to garden lofts.

Shortly before the breeding we give our pigeons some vitamin supplements. Vitamin E is especially important here. You can add it to their drinking water (soluble vitamin E) or to their feed (vitamin E oil solution). For your information, this vitamin is often called the fertility vitamin. 

The reason why the hens should be given vitamin E supplements is because it helps the pigeon to improve the digest of calcium from their feed. This calcium is vital for the formation of the eggshell. One week before the pairing you can give your pigeons some extra peas or beans etc. to excite the hens a little bit. This is often called flushing. Breeding birds that leave the eggs or youngsters uncovered for too long in very cold weather are not good breeders. They should be removed from the breeding loft. A good breeding pigeon will not leave its breeding bowl when it is very cold, even when it is hungry or thirsty.