Basic Pigeon Care

by Frank Mosca, August 2002
published with permission from author

This article is not intended to be a complete thesis on the care of pigeons in all circumstances or times. It is merely designed as something to answer a beginner’s basic questions to keeping pigeons alive and healthy. There are many pathways to the same end, but, all have similar building blocks. I have purposely not added lots of pics and links to this article to make it more printer friendly for you.

All pigeons, regardless of breed, have certain needs. These include food, water, and shelter. The type of shelter would depend on your local environmental conditions.  Someone who lives in Alaska or northern Canada is going to need a different loft (coop) arrangement than is someone who lives in Hawaii or southern California. Someone who breeds Runts (Romans), which are the largest of all domestic pigeons, weighing in at up to 3 lbs (1.5 kg) will need more space per bird and larger nest boxes than will a breeder, who is raising Figuritas, which weigh about 6 oz. (160 g.). If you have a heavily muffed (feather-footed) breed, you will need different perching arrangements than you would if you raised a clean-legged breed.

Let’s start with food first. Pigeons are grain eaters. They swallow seeds whole, store them in their crops, and crush them in their gizzards with small stones, which they have also swallowed. The choice of grains that you feed your birds will depend on your location. In Asian countries, fanciers feed rice as a good part of the diet. In western countries, fanciers usually use wheat and milo to form the bulk of the ration. The birds don’t care. They just need a mixed grain ration with a basic 12-15% protein. During breeding season, this protein percentage can safely be increased to 18-20% so that the young will grow well and feather quickly. Most areas have feed suppliers that have spent many years perfecting various mixes for pigeons and it is advisable to avail yourself of their expertise and buy from them rather than trying to mix your own ration, especially at the beginning of your pigeon breeding. There are also some excellent pigeon pellets on the market. These pellets are made with grain as well as with fish or other animal meals. These additional ingredients provide necessary B vitamins to the birds. However, until the birds get used to the pellets, which are not shaped anything like a natural food, they may not eat them very well. Once they learn to handle them, however, they have no problems swallowing them. Birds fed on pellets do tend sometimes to have looser and, sometimes, smellier droppings. Various pellet formulations produce various results. I can state that youngsters reared on at least a partial pellet diet seem to grow faster and feather better than those on a straight grain diet. This may be because of the protein differences.

If you are feeding your birds on mixed grain mixes, you must also provide pigeon grit for them. This grit is a mixture of oyster shell, minerals, salts, stones and charcoal which they used to process their food.  Most manufacturers of pellets suggest that you do not feed grit with pellets since everything is included.

Water : Pigeons MUST have water every day and it must be fresh . Pigeons drink immediately after eating and then usually take a second drink, at least, about a half hour to an hour after the first.  During hot, dry spells, they drink more than during cold, wet ones — as do we.  They will drink much more water when pellet fed than they will drink when grain fed.  When they are feeding young, they drink often since they will then go to the young and pump them full of feed and water.  Water should be supplied in such a way that the birds can not foul it with their droppings.  There are literally dozens of different watering devices available on the market. If you only have a few birds, the best ones are probably the gravity fed fountains which hold about a gallon (3.6 L).  You simply fill the fountain and invert it into his holder, which has holes cut into it in such a way that the pigeon can drink.  If you have young birds or birds new to your loft and your arrangements, you may have to dip the bird’s beak into the water once or twice until it knows where to find it.  Pigeons drink by sucking up the water, not by dipping their beaks and lifting their heads to let the water run down their throat like chickens do.  Water should be changed every day!  If it gets dirty, change it as soon as you see it to be so.  Dirty water is one of the leading causes of disease.

Housing : As I indicated above, housing is more a function of location than anything else.  However, there are some absolutes.  Whatever form you choose for housing your birds, it must be secure.  Cats, dogs, and aerial or nocturnal predators must be excluded.  Pigeons need as much air flow as possible through the loft — NOT drafts — but airflow.  The more airflow the healthier the birds – and the breeder.  The airflow will help to remove feather dust and it will keep the birds in much better shape.  Housing should not be crowded.   That means — DON’T CRAM BIRDS INTO IT.  There is always an urge to keep just that “1” more pair.  A rough estimate is that each bird should have about 3 cu. ft. (c. 1 cu meter) of airspace, though this can be modified if you have much airflow through the loft.  I am not going to discuss whether the front should be open or closed.  However, at least, three sides should be closed and, if you have an open side, it should face away from any prevailing storm winds.  Pigeons can handle cold if they are fed extra corn (maize) or other fat in their ration, but they cannot tolerate wetness.  Wet loft interiors usually lead to coccidiossis, an intestinal bacterial infection, and other diseases.  Loft interiors should always be bone dry.

Perches should be designed with the particular breed of bird in mind.  Many homer or roller breeders use regular box perches, while many fancy pigeon breeders of such birds as the Trumpeters and Wing Pigeons, which have large, heavy muffs, use a round perch held away from the wall by an angled arm.  Other breeders use a “V” perch.  Basically, that’s two pieces of wood put together with a rounded top for the bird’s comfort and hung in the loft like an upside-down V. PIGEONS DO NOT LIKE ROUND PERCHES. They will sit on them if nothing else is available, but they prefer flat ones.  Their ancestors dwelt on cliff sides and were not tree perchers and nesters.  If you’re not handy with tools, you can buy perches already made from many of the pigeon supply companies.

Nesting arrangements : Pigeons should have a cup-shaped area to nest in.  This helps to keep the eggs from rolling out under the parents and getting cold.  Most breeders provide the birds with either paper mache nesting bowls or wood, ceramic, or plastic ones.  There is one very important fact to remember if you use the ceramic or plastic and that is they don’t breathe and they may chill babies that come into direct contact with them.  There are plastic bowls specially designed now with air vents in the bottom and you can also buy pads to add to the nest for the birds.  I have easy access to long needled pines so I use those pine needles and the birds love them.  They will use various materials to nest with, straw is not a particularly good choice since it may harbor bugs. I, personally, hate sawdust (it gets into the babies eyes and causes problems) and wood shavings tend to blow everywhere. They also don’t provide enough traction for the babies and you sometimes get spraddle legged youngsters. If you are going to use shavings, I suggest you add a bottom layer of grit or small gravel to the bowl (about an inch or two)  (2.5 – 5 cm) before adding the shavings. Sand usually doesn’t work too well and again you often wind up with spraddle legged youngsters.

Pigeons usually go to nest again when the first round of youngsters is about 15-20 days old.  Your nesting arrangements should be designed to allow the parents enough room to have a second nest without their having to evict the first round. A classic design for roller sized birds is to have a box-like arrangement, for example, something 2 ft x 1.5 ft. x 1.5 ft. (0.61 m x 0. 5m x 0.5m)  with a partial divider in the middle.  This divider is attached to the back wall and comes about half way forward. This allows you to put a nest bowl on each side of it and allows the parents to claim that one box,  A good thing to do right at the beginning is to make sure you have some way of closing each nest box if it’s presently unoccupied. This will prevent one male from taking control of every empty box and causing severe disruption if you have to add a new pair to the loft.

Pigeons usually lay two eggs, though young hens and old hens may lay only one.  The first egg is laid about 4 p.m. and the second is laid two days after the first. Both parents incubate the nest, the male sits during the day from about 10 a.m. till about 5 p.m. and the hen sits the rest of the time. Incubation takes just about 18 days from the laying of the second egg. Depending on ambient temperature, however, this may vary by a day or so either way.

Breeder stuff : Every knowledgeable fancier tells every beginner to not bother the parent birds once they have laid. “Try to avoid disturbing them.” That’s what we say. That’s not exactly what we do, and we know it’s not what you’re going to do.  Fact is, we all check out the eggs and nest. Waiting to see what’s going to happen is part of the excitement of breeding pigeons. However, try not to do it every day. I usually check the eggs at about 5-7 days into the incubation cycle to see if they are fertile. You can determine that by shining a flashlight (torch) through them and checking to see if you can spot a darkened area or spiderweb-like pattern. I usually do this by carefully taking each egg from the nest, making a circle with my thumb and forefinger and holding the egg there, then shining the flashlight from the backside of the egg. If you can see this “spiderweb” of blood vessels, then put the egg back into the nest. There is a trick to removing and replacing the eggs. Cup the eggs in your hand so that if the bird on the nest slaps at you with its wing in an attempt to defend its nest that it won’t strike the egg and break it.  Don’t think it doesn’t happen, it does.  If you absolutely must check the eggs during the 17-18th day of incubation (hatching) be extremely careful. The shell is at its thinnest then since the minerals in it have been utilized for the developing embryo. If the egg has already begun to pip (shows small cracks in the shell where the embryo is pushing up against it), make sure that you place the egg back into the nest with those pips uppermost and not turned down. This is one time when it really would be better if you just left the eggs alone. Some eggs won’t hatch. In most cases those happen because the youngster is weak. Don’t worry about it unless it happens frequently, then it’s a sign that your flock may be infected with Salmonella or be vitamin deficient. If the young don’t hatch, the pigeons will lay again in about ten days and begin another incubation cycle.

Baby Birds : Once the babies hatch, the parents will begin to feed them a special secretion from their crop called pigeon milk. At about ten day or so, the pigeon milk begins to be supplemented with the normal grain diet and by about twenty days, the babies are being fed almost exclusively on the standard grain/pellet mix. If you are feeding grain, the parents MUST have fresh grit in front of them each day. The grit has salt and minerals they need for the youngsters as well as the oyster shell.

If you are going to seamless band (ring) your babies, you can do this from about six-ten days after hatching, depending on the breed. My racing homers need to be banded by about day seven or they’ve grown so large it is hard to get the band on to their leg. My Color Pigeons, on the other hand, need not be banded before eleven days old. In fact, if I do it earlier, the band often falls off.

The one thing essential about banding is this: MAKE SURE NONE OF THE TOES ARE STILL UNDER THE BAND. This will only create agony for the youngster. A band is slipped on by holding the first three toes together and sliding the band up onto the foot. Pull the band farther up and gently work the rear toe through the band and free. Now the band is up on the leg (we call it the leg, but it’s actually the top of the foot.)  Gently replace the youngster into the nest and you’re done. One little trick to make life easier for you. When you band, place the band on upside down. That is, the numbers would look upside down if you were looking at the standing bird.  The reason for this is that when you hold the bird in your hand, the numbers are now right-side up and easy to read. No one cares which leg you band on. Make it convenient for yourself. I’m right-handed so I tend to band on the right leg since that’s the one closest to me when I handle the bird. If you’re left handed band the left leg. Again, no one cares.

Weaning : Young pigeons wean at about 28-35 days. Some breeders have special weaning pens and remove their youngsters at 22-25 days, but I wouldn’t recommend this for beginners. There are too many things that can go wrong and if you don’t know how to fix it immediately, you could lose them. While the hen is on the nest with the second round, the male is feeding the older youngsters.  They will often chase after him squealing and screaming to be fed. As they get up in age, he will be less and less willing to feed them and hunger forces them to begin looking about the loft for food. If you can provide a separate section for the youngsters at this stage, it is much preferable to do so.  They won’t be attacked and harrassed by older birds that way and will quickly find the food and water. If you see a bird hunched up with its eyes closed (and it’s not just sleeping) there is a good chance it hasn’t yet found the water. Take it and dip its beak into the water and it will likely drink deeply. Once it does, it almost never needs help finding water again. Food for just weaned youngsters should be rich in protein. Peas are good for this.

Once the babies are fully weaned, you should have no real problems with them. I’m assuming there is no disease present. They will grow and begin their wing molt at about 45-50 days old. At about six months, they are sexually mature, but most don’t let them breed until they’re at least a year old to allow them time to fully mature.

Disease : Pigeons are naturally hardy animals.  Even so, every fancier should have some basic medications on hand. One for canker (trichomoniasis). One for coccidiossis. One for Salmonella. For canker, Ridzol and metronidazole are the most readily available. Amprolium (Amprol) is a good one for coccidiossis, and Ampicillan is a good first use for Salmonella. Baytril is the best presently, but it is extremely expensive.

PMV 1 (Paramyxovirus 1). This disease is deadly, to pigeons and doves only.  It came to North America from Europe which got it from the Middle East in the mid-1970’s.  There are vaccines that are readily available to use for it, but you must vaccinate before the birds are exposed to the virus. The instructions on how to vaccinate are in the boxes of vaccine. (It’s very simple and I’ve had 12 years old vaccinate hundreds of birds with no problems)  Even if you use no other medications of any sort, it has become practically essential to vaccinate for PMV 1.

Parasites : Lice and mites can infest the birds. There are many good and safe insecticides available to use on them.  You can buy them at any pigeon supply company or even at most garden shops. 5% Sevin dust is useful as are most of the Pyrethrin based insecticides. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. I have had to answer tearful calls from people who have accidentally killed their pets because they sprayed them with some house product insecticide that was never designed to be used on animals.

If you’re worried about intestinal parasites, there are many good wormers on the market. DO NOT use wormers designed for chickens.  While some are safe, some are lethal to pigeons.  Until you know what’s what, always use a wormer that you get from a pigeon supply company.