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This week's Book of the Week feature is Beyond the Chicken by Kelly Klober

From Chapter 4: The Pigeon

Many pigeon lofts now are refitted garden sheds or even store-bought units of fancily painted woods and metal. They are elevated on legs three to four feet in length and are often sold knocked down or in kit form. They typically have solid wooden floors. Such solid floors are then covered with a layer of sand or ground corn cobs. Straw, even chopped straw, is a poor choice as it can become matted down and hold in moisture.

The sand or cobs can be raked to remove wastes, wet spots can be lifted up and out with a shovel, and the floor covering should be removed and replaced twice a year. Spring and floor poultry house and loft cleaning are traditional practices throughout much of the country.

Many spins have been placed on loft floor management over the years. Some would even keep a couple of the calmer “floor” bantams, in the loft to keep the floor litter stirred and to clean up any spilt feed. They have to be selected for a gentle nature to not pursue any birds that light in their area or any youngsters that settle to the loft floor.

Heavy-gauge wire flooring, aviary wire, is deemed by many to be the near ideal flooring material choice. Nearly ideal and very, very expensive. Such mesh can withstand human foot traffic if laid down on floor joists on sixteen-inch centers. Wastes fall through onto the next level, which is fully enclosed to prevent drafts from coming up through the floor and vermin access. Into this space some will introduce a few chickens to clean up any spilt feedstuffs.

An eight-foot-by-twelve-foot building will accommodate up to twenty-five pairs of birds. Larger units can be segmented to hold breeders and birds of different ages in smaller groups. Those propagating a breed for exhibition and some sales of seedstock seem to find a level of comfort and satisfaction with the keeping of eight to twelve pairs of superior-bred birds.

A Modena Pigeon, a "Fancy" breed of pigeon.

Pigeon loft furnishings will differ a bit from those used in the hen house. A holdover from their Rock dove ancestry, pigeons like to roost high and will seek recesses and darker corners in which to nest. Simple, inverted V roosts made from short pieces of wood can be screwed into loft walls for pigeon roost points.

Monitor all roosting points often for potential sources of drafts. One-eyed colds and simple respiratory problems can often be corrected simply by finding and eliminating sources of drafts around the roosting points.

Nest boxes are generally twelve inches by twelve inches by twelve inches to twelve by fourteen by sixteen inches depending on the size of the breed being kept. Two such boxes, side by side, should be provided for each pair where production is being pushed. Not long ago a metal nest unit made with the smaller segments intended for Leghorn hens showed up at one of our bird markets. The small sections were a real deterrent to our producers with the larger brown egg–laying heritage chicken breeds. It did light up our pigeon-keeping members and quickly went home with one of them. The pigeon supply houses offer many different types of pigeon nests, and many of them come with fronts made from doweling. They are double-nest units, and the sliding fronts can be latched closed.

King Pigeons, usually bred for their size and suitability for squab production.

Sliding door fronts can even be bought separately to attach to existing nest boxes. The closing fronts can then make of nest boxes breeding units for forced matings. The selected male and female, cock and hen, can be held there until the pair bond is formed. Then the door can be opened and/or the front removed. They may have to be so contained for some time and fed and watered in the contained area. These units should be cleaned and scraped often and monitored closely for the presence of vermin.

Nest bowls should be placed into the nest. These are bowl-like structures into which the two eggs are laid, incubated, and the squabs brooded and tended by their parents. Once upon a time they were actually made of a clay material and could be cleaned and used repeatedly. Most often used now are paper pulp bowls that can be used once and then disposed of in a natural way.

Pigeon feeding and watering equipment often has a metal, cone-shaped top to discourage the birds from alighting atop them. This is done to prevent contamination of the contents with fecal material. They often have a shrouded opening that requires the birds to reach in to get feed or water to help prevent them from slinging about any feed or water.

The pigeon bath can be a simple, low-sided pan. The three-gallon black rubber models available from most farm supply stores are a good choice for this. They are durable, easy to clean, will suffer no freeze damage, and are quite inexpensive. I have even used some of the smallest of these containers as nest bowls.

A Rakovnik Roller Red Pigeon. The only heritage Czech breed of light acrobatic pigeon, they are kept and bred for their acrobatic flight abilities and used for competition and sport.

Most of the major livestock feed companies now offer at least a short line of pigeon feed products. They may be special order items in some parts of the country, but a great many feed suppliers are now expanding their feed lines to supply the growing number of artisanal livestock producers. Most often seen will be a pelleted ration, generally what is termed a mini-pellet, much smaller than the pellets meant for feeding hoofed stock. These rations are complete feeds providing all of the nutrients needed for breeding and developing birds. Some offer complex grain and legume mixes that are favored by some veteran producers, a few of which have tried to form their own mixes based on locally grown grains. The addition of certain legumes such as maple peas is critical to developing fully balanced, all-grain rations.

A lot of grain sorghum (milo) is fed to pigeons here in the Midwest. With grains in the ration pigeons have to be supplied with appropriate-sized grit to facilitate digestion. I like to offer cherry or red granite grit, and a small bag will last quite a while. With modest numbers of pigeons, the costs in most regions should favor the feeding of pelleted, complete rations. There is generally much less waste with feeding pelleted products to poultry. The heat and pressure of the pelleting process also tends to free up more of the nutrients in the feedstuffs.

Poultry folks, regardless of their species of choice, are always tweaking their rations and trying new things. I enjoy sitting back and listening to the old hands talk, and I have learned much from them. I had often heard of the practice of feeding a certain brand of baby chick starter/grower to pigeons with good results. It is not a cheap product, but it’s much less costly than many special feeds for pigeons. I have been trying it for a short time with quite good results. It keeps the eggs full and the hens on the nest. I will be trialing it for a good while longer, but the youngsters grow well on it, too.

A Fantail Pigeon. Part of the "Fancy" breed, used for show.

The birds clearly enjoy having water to bathe in, and one old hen bird here seems resolved to endure Missouri summers by remaining in a constant wet state. I recommend adding two milliliters of injectable Ivermectin to each gallon of bath water. It will help control external parasites such as mites, and some birds may even drink enough of the water to help with the control of internal parasites.

An insect pest arrived in our area a few years ago when the Mississippi was in spring flood stage: the buffalo or turkey gnat. It is a nasty little creature that swarms and bites, and on some people its bites can raise quite large welts. Its behavior can be especially stressful to poultry, and it always arrives here at that time of the spring when many birds are closely penned in breeding groups. They swarm the face and head, enter nostrils, and are compounded by early rounds of humid spring heat. They have caused substantial death losses on some farms and young stock and females on the nest are most vulnerable to these pests. They have a tendency not to enter too deeply into darkened buildings, but birds in shaded coops and on sundecks can be quite vulnerable. Producers in our area lost many squabs still in the nest this spring, perhaps because many were lulled into a false sense of security because there was little or no gnat presence the previous year due to hot and dry conditions.

The gnat’s life cycle is brief, but there have been two-hatch years here. Depending on the weather, they can make for a rather trying two weeks to a month in the poultry yard. There are a few ways to minimize the effects of these pests. Vanilla extract can be mixed into a heavy solution with water and misted onto the birds. During heavy onslaughts many raisers will wet a soft cloth with the vanilla extract and water solution and wipe down the birds, paying special attention to the head and face area. The mixture should also be sprayed on the exterior surfaces in the poultry yard and should be applied three or four times each day. The vanilla extract varieties available in Mexican food specialty stores seem to be the best for this use. Stable sprays containing pyrethrins and citronella can also be applied to coop surfaces several times each day to help repel the pests. A strong smell seems to be one of the essentials to a successful repellent for them. Some springs of late have found our poultry yard smelling like a bakery or a citrus grove.

Drinking water should be kept clean and available to the birds at all times. The water should be changed at least once each day and two or more times a day during periods of hot weather or in the winter when it will freeze after only a short time in an unheated situation. It is crucial that birds feeding young have a steady supply of quality drinking water.

About the Author: 

Kelly Klober was raised on a small farm in Middletown, Missouri, where he began a lifetime of experience with various livestock species, including heritage poultry. Klober has been active in poultry and livestock breed preservation for more than 35 years. He holds a State Farmer Degree from the Missouri FFA. Klober has written on agriculture, especially the small farm field, for over 20 years. He and his wife continue to farm with much love and attention to his heritage poultry flock.

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