Pigeon Raising and Squab Production
by P.B. Ruggles of Wyoming, OH
excerpt from Farm Knowledge 1919
The article which follows was written one hundred years ago. Please exercise common sense and care if you should decide to follow these instructions. As always we publish this material because SFJ believes it has a duty to keep original farming methods and practices alive and accessible. There is information out there on modern methods, now you may include this to round out your knowledge. LRM
The pigeon industry has two branches; the breeding of squabs for market, and the raising of breeding stock for sale. The first brings the surest and quickest returns, squabs being safely turned into cash at 4 weeks of age. The second requires more room for raising the young, also more care, more feed, more cleaning of the houses, more advertising, and often involves more losses; but it offers freedom from the unpleasant weekly task of killing and dressing, and better prices for stock sold, if of good quality.
The following pages discuss chiefly the squab raising or utility phase of the industry; but the same general directions apply to the raising of fancy breeds for show purposes, recreation, or sport. Of the many breeds and types of fancy pigeons, the most popular are the Fantail, Pouter, Pigmy Pouter, Carrier, Jacobin, Archangel, Magpie, Nun, Swallow, Trumpeter, Barb, Turbit, Owl, and Frillback. Among the so-called sporting breeds are the Flying Homer, the Tumbler, the Tippler, and the Roller. Runts, Maltese Hens, Show Homers, Dragoons, and Duchesse are bred as either fancy or utility stock.
Breeding Stock for Squab Production
There are varieties to suit all markets and the beginner should study the demand he is to supply before choosing his stock. If an eight-pound-to-the-dozen squab is most salable, select Homers; if a ten-pound-to-the-dozen, choose Extra Large Homers, Maltese, Dragoons, or Duchesse, or Carneaux, Mondaine and other of the numerous crossbred strains; if a twelve-pound-to-the-dozen, Runts, Runt-Maltese crosses, etc., are all good. The special advantages of cross-bred stock are uniform and increased size, vigor, and tameness.
Select breeders with great care; there are lazy, worn out and worthless individuals in all breeds. Economize, if you must, on the number of pairs, never on the price of the birds, for cheap stock produces few and undesirable squabs, may breed disease and in many cases soon wears out. Avoid odd, job lots of pigeons, and, in general, large dealers who are known to buy up all sorts of cheap birds for reselling. If possible attend shows and study types and breeds, selecting thereafter from stock raised by reliable breeders. Buy in small quantities (5 to 10 pairs is enough at first) and only mated pairs. It is well to buy from several sources rather than one, in order to obtain different lines of breeding and insure healthy, vigorous young stock in future. If possible insist on having “seamless banded” birds; open bands of metal, celluloid, etc., may be put on at any time and do not guarantee the bird’s age. Two-year-old breeders are best, yearlings second best. Reliable dealers guarantee their pairs to be mated and good breeders; never accept stock showing defects or any sign of disease. Late winter to very early spring is the best time to start with pigeons or to buy new stock.
The Pigeon Loft
The site is as important as the building itself; choose a high, dry spot with good drainage where the flying pens may be on the south or east side of the house. If one or two sound trees are in the way of the pen they need not be removed. Simply take off the lower branches and build around them; the top will provide desirable shade in summer.
The Building. The design and size must depend on (a) the number of birds to be kept and (b) the taste of the owner or the style of surrounding buildings. For a small beginning, with probable growth in mind, a good pen is a simple shed roof affair 8 feet high in front, 6 in the rear, and 15 x 15 feet in size, as shown in the diagrams. This makes a unit which may be added to as fast as necessary, a solid board partition being built between each 2 pens. A pen will hold 24 pairs of large breeders or 28 of small, providing the combination grit, water, and feed box is used, and the floor space left entirely clear. If no stock is to be raised above squab size, or if it can be kept elsewhere, the adjoining nursery pen may be changed into a breeding pen by substituting nests for perches. A good plan for the beginner in such a case is to start with one breeding pen, use the second as a nursery the first year, then turn it into a breeding pen the second season.
Construction. A solid concrete foundation is best, but cedar posts or brick or concrete piers can be used. The floor should be at least 8 inches from the ground, double, with matched boards on top; nail 12-inch strips of tin bent at right angles down the middle, between the two floors all the way round to keep out rats and mice. The siding should also be double with sheathing paper between. In mild climates heavy tarred building paper may be used in place of the inside matched boarding. The roof should also be of matched stuff and roofing paper, or shingled – in which case it must have a steeper pitch than 2 feet in 15. To prevent cross draughts put two 6-light windows as close together as possible in one side of the double house (toward the flying pen) to admit light and air and provide a large flying exit for good weather. Hang the sash to swing outward, have long hooks outside to keep the windows rigid when open and smaller ones to keep them closed, and reinforce the sash at the corners with 8-inch “L” shaped irons to prevent sagging. Sliding windows are much used but cannot be made as tight as hinged ones. Inside partitions are of good unbleached muslin for the lower 36 to 40 inches, and two-inch mesh poultry netting the rest of the way to the roof. The partition between breeding pen and nursery starts on top of the combination feed box, not at the floor. The inner doors, 2-1/2 x 6-1/2 feet, are also of muslin and netting, swing out into the passage, and are hung each on one spring and one plain hinge with hooks or buttons to fasten them shut. The small exit from each pen, 6 x 12 inches, is high and close to the centre partition, and is closed by a sliding door operated by means of a cord run through eyelets and pulleys and carried out to the passage where it can be easily reached. The tiers of nests should start a foot from the floor, the space below being covered with slats so the birds cannot nest in it. That it may be frequently cleaned out, the slats should be attached to one or two removable frames. The nests are built up like book shelves; each shelf, 12 inches wide and the length of the pen, is of tongued and grooved boards held together by pairs of cleats nailed on the top and bottom of each shelf (except the top one which is cleated on the bottom only and the bottom one, cleated only on top). Each pair of cleats is separated just enough to admit a partition 12 x 12 inches, and so spaced that the partitions stand 2-1/2 feet apart. Thus 5 shelves and 25 partitions make 25 double nests each 20 x 12 x 12 inches, which can be put together without hammer or nails, except in boarding up the end next to the passage. The advantage of this unit system is that as many or as few nests as desired may be put up and added to at any time with the least possible hammering and disturbance of the birds and injury to the eggs. A beginner with 6 pairs will need one row of nests; later he can add another to take care of 6 more, etc., never providing more nests than there are pairs. It seems part of the pigeon’s nature to appropriate as many nests as possible, but if allowed to have more than 1 a pair is more liable to neglect its family and cause the breeder considerable trouble when he tries to move it to make room for more.
The nursery pen contains no nests, only perches (the breeding pen has no perches) which are 1 x 3 x 6 inches, fastened end on against the wall, 8 inches apart each way; use 3 nails for each perch, 1 driven from either side and 1 from the top.
The combination feeding box placed between and supplying both pens, is 16 inches wide and 12 high, the hinged cover overhanging about 2 inches. A 2-inch strip around the bottom prevents feed and grit from being thrown out on the floor. Upright slats to keep the birds out are spaced according to the size of the breed; for average pigeons nail 2 laths close together; then leave a space the width of 1, then nail 2 more, etc. Use about 14 inches next to the passage for drinking water, sliding a shallow enamel pan in from the passage; use 16 inches at the other end for grit, charcoal, and salt. Divide the space between down the centre with a 1/2 x 4 inch board to keep the feed for one pen separate from that for the other. The hinged cover is best made in 2 sections and need only extend over the feed part of the box, the grit being put in from the side. Cleaning is easier if the hinges are placed under the top.
The flying pen or aviary is 15 x 15 x 8 feet, with a frame of 2 x 4’s, the corner joists being set on tarred posts set 8 inches deep. Enclose with tightly stretched 1-inch double galvanized wire, and make door and partition between pens of 2-inch wire. Place 1 x 6 inch running and alighting boards all around the inside about 4 feet from the ground and 2 inches from the wire so the birds will not muss their tail and wing feathers. A strip of strong sheeting or canvas may be tacked across the netting next to the house to keep out driving rain, snow, or extreme heat. To give good drainage make the floor of the aviary of 3 or 4 inches of clean sand, underlaid with 6 inches of coarse cinders. A “ladder” or heavy board 6 or 8 inches by 5 feet with cleats every 2 inches should run from the ground to the window ledge where it is securely nailed. Climbing this is a great strengthening and lung and chest developing exercise for the birds.
Makeshift quarters. If a special building cannot be provided, a part of a barn or other outbuilding may be used as shown in Fig. 281. It must be dry and rat and draught proof, and the flying pen must extend to the ground.
Feeding. Feed pigeons twice a day, as early as possible in the morning and at 3 or 4 o’clock pm. Give only as much as they will clean up in half an hour, and if any is left over give less at the next feeding. Never feed on the floor or out in the fly. Some breeders use open trays on the floor or on tables 2 feet high, which must be scraped clean of all droppings before each feeding if they are to be any better than the floor. The best plan is the covered feeding box above.
All grains fed must be thoroughly seasoned, hard, and dry and are best bought in late spring. Musty, moldy, mousey feed will surely cause heavy losses of both old and young birds. Cracked maize and kafir corn should not be stored in quantity as they have a tendency to heat and become moldy. Hard wheat and sifted cracked corn form the basis of all pigeon rations. Kafir corn, Canada peas, hulled oats, buckwheat, vetch, millet, hempseed and rape are also used. Where only a few pigeons are kept a ready mixed pigeon feed may be purchased, but for more than 5 or 10 pairs it is expensive. Good home mixed feeds are:
FOR WINTER FOR SUMMER 1 bu. wheat 2 bu. wheat 100 lb. cracked corn 50 lb. cracked corn 25 lb. kafir corn 25 lb. kafir corn 20 lb. Canada peas 20 lb. Canada peas 10 lb. buckwheat 10 lb. hulled oats 5 lb. millet 5 lb. millet 5 lb. hempseed 5 lb. hempseed
In very cold weather add whole corn to the afternoon feeding. Grains that should not be fed are rye, unhulled oats, barley, broom corn, pop corn and green peas. Hopper feeding is not advisable unless the keeper must be absent over feeding time, in which case only the one day’s supply should be left on hand.
Grit and charcoal. A generous, unfailing supply of sharp grit and charcoal is as necessary as feed. The “health grits” on the market are not by themselves sufficient. The following mixture is inexpensive and meets every need: 100 pounds mica or crystal grit (sharp); 100 pounds oyster shell (pigeon size); 25 pounds good commercial health grit; 25 pounds charcoal (pigeon size).
Salt. Pigeons require salt but too much is more harmful than too little. A lump of rock salt placed in the centre of the grit box draws moisture from the air and gives the grit the slightly salty flavor that pigeons crave and no more. Never sprinkle it with water. Loose table and crushed rock salts are unsafe and the old time “salt cat” is troublesome to make and unnecessary.
Water. Give a fresh supply of water with each feeding in a vessel that can be kept thoroughly clean. A good plan that makes scalding unnecessary is to hang a clean paint brush near the drinking pan and each night wipe the sides and bottom of the pan with it, then rinse the vessel and leave it upside down to dry. If the combination feed, grit, and water box is not used, a special, slatted box should be made to cover the drinking pan.
The bath. Pigeons are very fond of bathing and a large shallow pan should be kept in the flying pen. A galvanized iron vessel 2 feet square and 5 inches deep will generally serve. Empty it after the bath and turn it over so the dirty water will not be used for drinking.
Cleaning and vermin. Clean the loft well once a week, scraping all exposed places with a three-cornered loft scraper or sharp hoe. After removing the manure dust slaked lime around; occasionally give the pens a good coat of whitewash. Body and feather lice and mites prey upon pigeons kept in filthy quarters and denied a frequent bath. Squabs are sometimes actually “eaten alive” and old birds so worried they are unable to sit on eggs or young. To prevent this dust the birds with a good insect powder twice a year, either by hand or in a special lice killing machine, and keep the pans clean and the nest disinfected with kerosene, turpentine, diluted crude carbolic acid, or a few moth balls.
Distinguishing sex. The male may be distinguished from the female by its larger, coarser appearance, thicker neck, and coarser head; it does the most and loudest cooing and all the “driving.” It is said that if a bird is held with its feet in one hand and the beak in the other and raises its tail, when suddenly stretched it is a female, but this test is not always infallible. The only way to be sure is to wait until the hen has laid.
Mating. Pigeons breed in pairs and any unmated birds of either sex in the breeding pen will greatly disturb the workers and cause considerable loss of eggs and squabs. The cock and hen selected for mating should be confined together in a small pen or in the double nest they are to occupy in the breeding pen, for several days until thoroughly mated.
Nesting. When a pair is mated the cock bird drives the hen about the pen almost constantly, hardly allowing her to eat and drink. He is not satisfied until she returns to the nest, and keeps up the driving until the first egg is laid. Fine tobacco stems, straw, or hay may be placed within reach though many breeders discourage this nest building because of the bulk of litter to be removed at cleaning time. Nest bowls with a handful of shaving in each are often used, or the breeder may make a good permanent nest 8 inches square out of a frame of two-inch strips covered with burlap that is easily renewed after a season’s use.
Hatching. Pigeons lay 2 eggs before sitting, 2 days apart. The period of incubation is 18 days during which the cock sits on the eggs from the middle of the forenoon until midafternoon, and the hen the rest of the time. For the first 4 or 5 days the tiny squabs live on “pigeon milk,” a cream-like substance that forms in the crops of both parents at the end of the hatch. The old bird takes the baby’s beak gently into its own and pumps the soft feed slowly into the little mouth. After this milk is fed off, half digested grain is pumped into the squab and later whole grain with water and grit.
Banding. Each squab that is to be reared for breeding should be banded when about 2 weeks old with a seamless metal ring bearing a number and the year it is hatched. To do this hold the 3 front toes together and slip the band over them, holding the back toe up close to the leg until the band is slipped over it.
Keeping records. A Nursery Record and a Loft Register each kept in an ordinary stenographer’s book are necessary, though large cards tacked up in each pen may be used in place of the Register. At the beginning of the breeding season each pair should be given a page in the Register headed thus:
Pen 1………………… Nest 1………………….1917 111 cock 29 108 hen 62 78 84
which reads that nest 1, pen 1 contains for the year 1917, cock 29 from parents 111 and 78, mated to hen 62 whose parents are 108 and 84. The page gives ample space for recording dates eggs are laid, number of squabs reared and their band numbers if they are banded. The Nursery Record contains all needed information about each bird. Begin with the stock birds, then record all youngsters as soon as they are transferred to the nursery, and their sex at mating time. When a bird dies or is sold draw a line through its record. The value of the Nursery Record is apparent at mating time for mated pairs must be unrelated in order to produce hardy stock.
Care of young birds. Feed the same as old birds omitting peas and hemp. Most troubles in young stock arise in the digestive system, gorging and lack of exercise causing usually fatal intestinal diseases. Feed twice a day but never all they will eat, of clean, sound grain, and keep mixed grit always in reach. Allow very young birds to bathe only on warm, sunny days and then for but a short time while the sun is warmest. Let no young birds spend the night on the floor; put them on perches after dark if necessary.
Molting. Pigeons begin to cast their old feathers in July and August and if properly cared for should be in good feather again by November. This period should be one of complete rest from all family cares. Stop all nesting and squab raising by removing all newly laid eggs and nesting material. Feed as much mixed grain as the birds will eat, with the addition twice daily of a pint of millet and hemp seed to each 100 birds.
By-products. Pigeon manure is much sought by florists and tanneries; investigate the local market and store it so as to suit the purchaser. In any case keep it dry and free from sticks, straw, etc. All feathers have a market value and should be saved and sorted, the quills and very coarse feathers being kept apart from the fine body feathers. Even very old or dead pigeons have a value, for taxidermists can always use white birds of any size, and colored ones that may be stuffed, dyed and used whole or of which parts may be used for millinery purposes. Blood collected from the weekly squab killing is mixed with double its bulk or more of cornmeal, dried thoroughly, powdered and sold as an egg producing poultry feed.
Squabs are ready for market at 4 weeks of age, just before they are ready to leave the nest. They have then attained their heaviest weight and if allowed to fly soon lose weight and develop dark flesh.
Killing. Collect the squabs from the nests in a coop the day before they are to be killed so their crops and bowels will be quite empty. A high shelf against the wall or a narrow table with a high, solid back is convenient for the work. Provide stools of the right height and receptacles for feathers.
At a convenient height above the shelf or table top drive 4 nails in the wall 4 inches apart and from each nail suspend a strong cord 6 inches long with a slip noose at the end. Place the feet, tail and wings of a squab in one loop and tighten the cord firmly. Hold the squab with its back to the wall and its mouth open with one hand, and with the other insert a thin, sharp bladed knife far back in the roof of the mouth, cutting toward you and deep into the brain, causing a free flow of blood and making the bird instantly unconscious. Have ready at hand 4 short wires sharp and hooked at one end and weighted at the other with a piece of lead about the size of an egg. Hook one into the bill of the squab and let the blood flow into a pan, while killing the next squab.
Dressing. When 4 squabs have been killed, begin at once to dry pick the first one. First remove the wings from the noose and tighten the cord again firmly. Then holding both wings back of the body with one hand, pick clean the front, legs, and neck up to within an inch of the head. Turn the bird over and pick the back clean; still holding the wings together in one hand, pull out the flights and large feathers; then finish picking the wings separately. Remove the weighted wire, take the squab from the noose and pull out the tail, and any remaining pin feathers. Fold the wings across the back and drop the squab at once into cold water to cool and plump. After picking 3 squabs kill 3 more so they may bleed while the fourth is being picked; continue alternately killing and picking until all are finished. When all are picked, cleanse the mouths and feet and dip the squabs into fresh cold water for a few minutes; spread them on drying racks or tie them in pairs by the feet and swing them over a line in a cool place, away from flies and direct sunlight.
Shipping. If to be marketed locally, the squabs need only to be sorted as to size and wrapped in white paper for delivery. For shipping place cracked ice in the bottom of barrel or box, then a layer of squabs, breasts up, then another layer, breasts down, a layer of cracked ice and another double layer of squabs, etc., always finishing with cracked ice.
Disease among pigeons is more easily prevented than cured. The general causes are dampness, draughts, unclean or crowded quarters, moldy or too new feed, slimy drinking vessels, inbreeding, unhealthy parent stock and over feeding. It is not good to be continually giving drugs, though a good tonic may be given all the birds occasionally in the drinking water with good results.
A sick pigeon is easily recognized; it has a general appearance of misery, standing around in a huddled position, feverish, glassy-eyed and without appetite, should immediately be removed from the pen and carefully examined for the following diseases:
Roup, an extremely contagious disease of the nose and throat, caused by insanitary quarters, dampness, bad ventilation. Symptoms – watery and swollen eyes, running at the nose. Treatment – remove to a warm dry place apart from the flock. Give a pinch of Epsom salts daily. Feed a light diet, with a few crystals of potassium permanganate in the drinking water.
Cholera, a dangerous disease that often destroys a whole flock in a short time, caused by filthy drinking vessels, moldy feed, new, unseasoned wheat, corn, etc. Symptoms – severe diarrhea; emaciation. Treatment – remove and give twice daily 3 drops of “hot drops” such as Jamaica Ginger on a piece of charcoal as big as a grain of corn; feed lightly.
Worms. Squabs or old birds that eat heartily but are very thin have intestinal worms. Feed lightly and give a pinch of worm seed twice daily for 2 days, then castor oil in a No. 2 capsule.
Going Light, a wasting away disease that resembles consumption, occurring mostly among young birds, and caused by overfeeding and lack of exercise or foul water or feed. Symptoms – high fever and severe chills; watery and mucous discharges; difficult breathing; emaciation. Treatment – this disease can be cured only in its earliest stages before inflammation of the lungs has set in. At its first indication give a No. 2 capsule filled with phosphate of soda each morning for 3 days; diet lightly.
Canker, an incurable hereditary disease much dreaded by pigeon fanciers. Cause – tainted stock transmits it through the egg. Symptoms – external and internal growths of solid yellow matter streaked with blood, appear commonly in the ear, throat, head, near the eye, etc. Treatment – birds may be cured to all outward appearance but sooner or later it appears again. The best plan is to kill all birds that are known to breed cankered young or that show canker and thus stamp out the disease once and for all.
Diphtheria, a diseases of the throat often mistaken for canker, attacking 2 or 3 weeks old squabs and caused by sudden changes of weather, cold, and dampness. Symptoms – throat and neck are red and much swollen, causing difficult breathing; thick, yellow discharge from mouth. Treatment – bad cases cannot be cured but light cases may be by swabbing out the throat several times daily with cotton dipped in witch hazel. Stubborn patches may be removed by dusting with baking soda and swabbing them off after a few minutes. Disinfect the drinking water by adding enough potassium permanganate to turn it a bright rose color.
Squab Tonic. A half ounce of copperas, 4 ounces of sulphate of soda, 1/2 ounce of powdered gentian root, 2 ounces of phosphate of soda, 1 drachm of pure creosote (beechwood). Thoroughly mix the creosote in a mortar with 40 grains of calcined magnesia, so that it will mix with water; pour into a gallon jug, add 2 quarts of warm water, then the other ingredients, and mix thoroughly by rocking the jug. This will keep for years in a cool place but not in a metal container. Add one tablespoonful to a gallon of drinking water once a week.