Intensive Line-Breeding In Rollers

by Cliff Ball; September, 2015

This information is an assimilation of a brief review of the literature; observations and recommendations based on the successes and failures of the breeding programs of roller men who have decades of experience in the breeding, training, and competitive flying of Birmingham Rollers; personal experience; and particularly, an adaptation of a pamphlet given to me by my good friend, Eldon Cheney to coach my progress in the sport. The pamphlet on the line-breeding of high-performance racing homers, and formerly distributed by Chas Siegel & Son, is no longer in print, though much of the information is adapted, here, for use in the breeding of rollers.  It is remarkable that many fanciers of the Birmingham Roller pigeon try their hand at consistently producing birds that are capable of optimum performance, without the least knowledge of what it is all about, nor of what they might attain with the birds they currently possess in their lofts or that they may purchase in the future. Some men would argue that it is impossible by attention to any physical outward characteristics, performance in the air, or attention to pedigree, to judge the merits of birds that might be produced. “If it spins right, it has the right type” is often their mantra sighting the performance all manner of odd-looking specimens as “proof” enough. Others maintain definite theoretical notions as to the precise shape and structure a roller should be; including body and/or keel length, arm-bone length, feather quality, width and length of the primary and secondary flights, head shape, eye color, and more. For some these notions extend to what particular birds in the distant should appear in the pedigree, and what their performance in the air should look like; possibly founding their ideal or thinking on the particular family of pigeons that they are breeding from, on the word of some respected mentor in the hobby, or on the word of some long-dead “pigeon guru” or winner of competitions.

It is a singular thing with most breeders of rollers to try their hand at a number of different breeding philosophies in their quest for consistent production of high-quality rollers. A given breeder may try inbreeding, line- breeding, then turn about and try out-crossing to another family, expecting to produce a champion; or to get top-notch results in a relatively short period of time; or in the hope of stumbling upon some key mating that might establish a family of rollers in their name. Other fanciers, good fanciers at that, are motivated primarily by the drive to produce certain colors in high performance rollers, and use a variety of breeding methods to that end. All but the most astute and experienced roller fanciers have learned that too much emphasis placed on color, be they standard or those produced with imported gene modifiers, may limit their ability to achieve the goal with regard to performance.

Unfortunately, these goals, when it comes to performance, cannot be accomplished in a season or two; in fact, far from it. Depending on the knowledge and wisdom of the breeder, usually gained from experience (and if he is void of these, then his chances of success hang in the balance), he has in all probability wasted his time, or even his entire life, dabbling with something he actually knows little about without getting any closer to reaching his goal.

The cause of failure of many breeding programs comes after a fancier has been in the hobby for a few years, establishes relationships in the sport, and begins to have access to good pigeons from different families. In utilizing a number of family outcrosses, the basis for most of the trouble is the lack of line-breeding in the various candidates used; failing to create a homogenous gene pool from which the various genes for character, mental strength, physical balance, and propensity for roll may align properly to produce the desired performance in the offspring on a consistent basis. To make matters worse, this fact tends to be hidden from the loft manager, masked by an F-1 generation of hybrid vigor which creates a sort of “false positive” as a result of the attempted family out-cross. It is, indeed, a rare roller man that has the discipline, after seeing a performance of superb style, speed, depth, and frequency in a family of rollers other than his own, that can resist the temptation to cross such a pigeon into his own stud, should a well-meaning friend make such a bird available. It behooves the serious roller man to breed carefully, and avoid running the risk of the ruination of a solid family of rollers, by repeatedly falling prey to such a pattern of breeding….unless we know what is what and why it is so.

Any breeder of pigeons can mate two birds together and produce a decent result, occasionally. But being occasionally great is an outcome that falls short of what most fanciers hope to accomplish.  In order to develop a family that produces quality performance on a consistent basis, all that most men require is some type of reliable system or scheme that can be used to produce the desired result. “Best to best without regard to relationship” may be all that some men need to produce quality spinners; but for most, it is far too vague; too general, and with too many variables to manage in order to produce predictable results.

Intensive line-breeding is a system that appears to represent just such a breeding method. With the right quality of pigeons to start with, any breeder of rollers who cares to try it cannot fail to achieve greater success than ever before. However, it is not a system for the casual hobbyist who views meticulous record-keeping and the accurate observation of his birds as unnecessary labor. The true quality of the rollers used to initiate the line-breeding depends upon whether the fancier is able to identify proper performance, proper type, and proper character in the rollers that are produced. Intensive line-breeding is not advocated to anyone unless the fancier is committed to identifying quality performance, to good record-keeping, and to knowing his pigeons. The “knowing” denotes acquaintance with, or a clear perception of, all the facts as they begin to appear; especially in their practical relationship to the performance of rollers, and to pigeon life and conduct. It requires an absolute refusal to delude one’s self as to anticipated or desired results. It implies depth of insight and richness of experience.

Depending on the breeding practice in any given loft, some flyers can readily locate lines within their family of rollers where they have already employed this method to some degree, requiring only that the proper cocks and hens be paired to continue the process. Others will be fortunate enough to have several breeding pairs and can practice several different line-bred chains or subgroups within their families of rollers. After several generations of line-breeding have produced highly inbred cocks and hens in each chain of related birds, one can effectively use these cocks and hens from these two different subgroups or lines with excellent results. More on this later.

One can also practice line-bred matings with two different strains or families of rollers, both birds being line-bred off different blood-lines, and which can be referred to as line-bred crosses. Intensive line-breeding to produce highly inbred chains, then combining these two distantly-related chains and practicing line-breeding on that pairing can be very effective. These are usually good pigeons and can produce good pigeons. But this practice is not always advisable, as it creates too many variables for the breeder to master and control. It is difficult enough for the average fancier to do a good job managing the many variables within one family of line-bred rollers.

When we select pigeons for such a breeding program, we need pigeons of near faultless quality: rollers possessing great strength of character, stability, propensity to roll, quality, style and speed in their performance, strong and robust in conformation, well-balanced and properly proportioned. They must have the physical strength for control, and the impulse to roll and spin with depth and speed. We must remember that we are trying to produce many factors that are essential to the makeup of the breed and essential to optimum aerial performance; factors that act and work with and for each other (and everything that goes with these factors) in our quest to create a champion. What we must start with then is a pigeon or pigeons that are proportionately excellent in all those characteristics which are desirable in a quality roller; having demonstrated the ability to perform in the air and not something apart from or different from a good member of many competitions teams in the sport today. Those fanciers having the good fortune to be able to draw upon other line-bred lofts, when necessary, would find it very advantageous to begin their intensive line-breeding program by obtaining THE pigeon they may need to complete a mating; possibly to bring in some desirable aspect of flying height or speed, kitting ability, depth or speed of performance, type, or character in the pairing.

This does not mean that any given fancier is necessarily on the road to evolve a strain of high-class pigeons merely by virtue of intensive line-breeding. Some individual pigeons unfortunately fail to reproduce any semblance of their own excellence in their direct descendants or even in generations further removed. The explanation of this lies in the fact that such birds are not, themselves, typical of the line or family from which they descend. These “superstars” represent chance productions; remotely possible alignments of particular genes…. perhaps “throw–backs” through many previous generations back to some remote ancestor where a similar chance alignment occurred to produce good performance. The chances are that such pigeons, however mated, will never throw a youngster as good as themselves. Similarly, one good bird out of ten raised…a “flash in the pan”….though perhaps valuable in the first generation or two of the intensive line-breeding program, means nothing in the overall scheme of things. This “flash in the pan” stuff has happened for decades in roller lofts the world over; is still happening quite frequently today, and will continue to happen as long as the sport of flying rollers is indulged, no doubt.  Indeed, it is the mainstay of the productive capacity of a majority of roller lofts.

Looking at the other side of the picture, a bird of superior excellence may sometimes be bred from a  very moderate performer, but do not be fooled, it is not through the occasional production of such birds as these that one will find a consistently successful strain of pigeons being bred. It is imperative, therefore, to start with birds of unquestionable antecedents; and by that I mean whose parents, grand-parents, and great-grandparents are, or have been at one time, of suitable type, character, and performance quality. These are the birds that can be relied upon to reproduce themselves in their offspring with reasonable certainty and in sufficient numbers such as will give us a strain of rollers second to none.

Set your mind on the ideal and on your objective of consistency in production, until you have attained your goal, or at least until you have accomplished something worthwhile for a couple generations of line-breeding, then practice alliances between two separate lines of line-bred pigeons in your own loft. Do not, at first, think of going elsewhere, and do not think of buying a pigeon from some other fancier whose breeding practices you know little about, especially one who is doing no better than your are yourself on competition day. On the other hand, if you know of a good fancier who has been successful with his line-breeding, evidenced by the scores he posts or by your personal eye-witness of the birds in the air, yield to the temptation. Try to get a bird or two from him and mate them with one of your own in a separate line-breeding program; then watch the results.  

But do not make the mistake of thinking for one moment that you will set the world on fire in a single season with any sort of breeding program. Though relative success may seem apparent in the first year, beware of the illusion that hybrid vigor can bring in the first generation or two. There is much more to it than the mere mating of a couple pigeons together and hoping for the best. It is only after several generations of careful breeding and flying out the progeny, that you can truly evaluate the success of such an endeavor.

It can be done. It has been done….by many advocates of the line-breeding method in many performance breeds of pigeons and livestock, as well. If other men can do it, then you, too, should be able; provided you get the right birds to start with, then do a good job of working at it, and honor your commitment to the program. Anything that is worth doing at all is worth doing well. So do a good job of it, and if Lady Luck happens to throw you a particularly desirable result from your matings, keep it safe. Do not think of passing it along when some other fancier makes you an offer for it. Keep it and breed from it before you risk losing it to a bird of prey.

Only too frequently, as stated before, it happens that two pigeons, apparently suited to each other in type and character, each of them excellent spinners as proven by their performance in the air, will fail to produce youngsters of anything more than average ability. For such reasons as these, breeding has been described by prominent fanciers as somewhat of a lottery…..a gamble….and so perhaps it sometimes seems from the breeder’s point of view. But it is a lottery only to the extent that we are ignorant of, or unable to recognize in our birds, those factors which, when grouped in their proper order and blended in their true proportion, most assuredly would determine success to a greater or lesser degree. There is no law in nature more certain than the laws of heredity; no doctrine more true.

There is no such thing in the art of breeding as standing still; of maintaining the status quo. It is a basic law of nature that in biological systems, one must advance or one will recede, and so it goes in breeding pigeons. Therefore, in selecting two pigeons that are intended to be mated together for intensive line-breeding purposes, one should attempt to minimize the faults, of course, so that a happy medium can be expected; even though it may not be attained until later on down the line.

In so far as certain physical characteristics of type, feather quality, color, etc. are concerned, we should aim at the production of birds conforming to a moderate standard, the happy medium. Avoid extremely large or small pigeons, or those with abundant or abnormal feather development in shape or number, not forgetting that a well-feathered bird is always necessary and essential, coupled with a wedge-shaped body, prominent wing butts; not too long in the leg or neck, nor too deep in the keel, but possessing a strong back, wide chest, a deep powerful “rooster eye” with a good frontal and back skull.

On the other hand, when we come to consider the inner faculties such as stamina, resistance to disease, character, and intelligence, we should endeavor to accentuate and magnify these to the utmost extent, and not conform to an average or moderate standard. Pigeons of moderate health and vigor that are prone to going light, those of poor stamina, those with whom you have trouble trap-training, those satisfied with the bottom perch or the floor, or that fly and roll from the back of the kit are all of no use whatsoever for intensive line-breeding purposes, less these weaknesses be concentrated in the progeny.  

Forget the idea of compensation or equalization; of setting lesser qualities in one pigeon with extremes in the other. By this I mean the mating of fast rollers with slow ones, deep spinners with short performers, frequent birds with less active ones; high flyers with low flyers; long-cast birds with short cobby ones; large birds with small birds. For the purposes of intensive line-breeding, the best selections to make are to mate the best of the like birds with the best; the second-best of the like birds with the second-best, and so on. What we like to see most of all in the youngsters is a certain part or portion of the best qualities from each parent, and as much of each grandparent as possible. We know then that we have a good mating and the youngsters will usually turn out to be good performers in the air and in the stock loft.

To begin the process of intensive line-breeding, we start with a mating of two birds, which we will assign numbers; #1 will be the original cock, and #2a will be the original hen, not forgetting that each subject is usually unrelated to begin with, but from the same family or strain. #1 and #2a producers will be used but twice in this line of breeding, simply because we are running one line straight through to the tenth generation as an illustration of what can be done with any particular line. Of course the same two original birds will continue to breed on and on, starting new lines, as long as they produce good birds.

In fact, every bird used in this method will be used twice. It is very important to take the time to record each generation as it is produced, keeping track of such things as hatch dates, the age the progeny begin to spin, quality of performance, type, feather, etc., in order to assist the loft manager in selecting the best from each mating as we go along; so that no pigeons with poor qualities are used; and so that only the best subjects are used in each successive generation.

The first mating of #1 and #2a will produce ten young in the first year, from which the best cock will be selected, which we will call #3. After #3 has proven himself in the air, he will be mated with his mother #2a. This pair will also produce ten youngsters, from which the best hen will be selected and which we will call #4a.When #4a is proven, she will be mated with her grand-sire, the original cock #1.

#1 and #4a will now produce ten youngsters. At this point, a relatively high percentage of young should perform well in the air. (If not, then the production capacity of the original pair may not be sufficiently potent for our purposes, and another pairing should be considered.) We now select, again, the best hen from this mating of #1 and #4a, and will call her #5a. #5a will be mated with her grand-sire #3 and they will produce ten good youngsters, of which the best cock #6 will be selected for breeding. #6 is mated to his grandmother #4a and they produce a cock #7. #7 is mated with his grandmother #5a and they produce a hen #8a. #8a is mated with her grand-sire #6 and they produce a hen #9a. #9a now goes with grand-sire #7 and this pair produces cock #10. And so it goes right along the line, generation after generation ad infinitum.

By this method it will be seen that there are several definite operations which must be followed correctly or we will break the chain, and various complications may result in mediocre performance and in mediocre percentages of good performers in the progeny….. so follow the method religiously. In all likelihood a typical line-bred loft will have many such lines being bred simultaneously at any given point in time, depending on the time and kit box space available to the fancier. After the #10 cock is produced in any line, one may consider mating two lines within the same family or with a line-bred bird from another family of quality pigeons.

If we study this method carefully, it can be seen that two cocks are produced in two succeeding years and then two hens in the following two succeeding years, but this does not begin until the third generation with hen #4a followed by hen #5a, then two cocks #6 and #7, then two hens #8a and #9a, and so on down the line. It will also be seen that every mating after the second is made with a half-brother and half-sister, plus each bird’s grand-parent, regardless of whether it is a cock or a hen. The half-brother is also a grandson or a grand-sire of its mate. The half-sister is also the grandmother or the granddaughter of its mate in every instance beginning with the third generation with #4a. These are very important steps in concentrating the gene pool. We have used forty matings of only ten pigeons in propagating ten generations of line-bred rollers and probably flown out four hundred youngsters from which we have derived the best.  By now, kits of solid performers of each sex have been generated, as well, and can be graded by performance, depending again on the kit box space available. Tracing back the family tree from the #11 cock produced (and all its siblings), we find that the #11 cock goes back to #1 cock nineteen times; back to #2a hen twenty-two times; back to #3 cock thirteen times; back to #4a hen nine times; back to #5a hen six times; back to #6 cock four times; back to #7 cock three times; back to #8a hen two times; and back to #9a hen and #10 cock once. As we have alluded to, it is understood that more than one bird is produced from each mating, but only the best and most typical of best, possessing the most desired traits and the least negative traits, is selected for each mating. The other birds all become permanent kit performers. However a fancier need not depend upon only a single bird from each mating, should the selection of “best” be difficult to make, because of subtle differences in the strengths and weaknesses of various birds. In fact, he may select two or three good subjects; classify them according to their qualities, and line-breed them accordingly. This consideration maintains resources to draw from when a bird is needed to complete a mating, helping to offset losses to BOP, disease, or varmints.

Commitment to such a breeding program, perfecting a colony of rollers second to none, with greater expediency than any other method will yield not a single chance of weakening the physical characteristics or the mental faculties of the family, with little cause for concern for the surfacing of undesirable recessive traits due to inbreeding.