Feeding & Nutrition

While good loft management and, of course, oxygen are both important contributing factors towards a pigeon's form and condition, the role that nutrition plays should not be underestimated either. 

It doesn’t matter if your pigeons have the explosive power of Usain Bolt, the stamina of Michael Phelps or the brains of Pelé all rolled into one. If your feeding is incorrect, you simply can not expect your pigeons to come correct and fulfill their potential. 

Before we dive into this there are a few points to keep in mind. 

First, while there are a number of guidelines that should be adhered to, i.e. increased carbohydrates for racing and protein for breeding, there are many different ways to go about feeding and most champion flyers will take a different approach to it. 

As Ad Schaerlakens aptly puts it, “if you would compare the feeding methods of 10 champions you would find that they all differ; so 'the perfect feeding method' does not exist”.

Second, depending on the climate that you and your pigeons live in, hot, humid, cold etc., the way you feed will also be different.

With that in mind, this article aims to be somewhat of a primer into pigeon nutrition, natural supplements and some general tips that you may take and apply to your own feeding plans.

Feeding is an artform, it will take time, dedication and consistency to find what works for you and your pigeons.

Nutrition basics

Whether you’re new to the sport or looking to tweak your existing feeding plan, a general understanding of nutrition and how you should go about fuelling your pigeons for the trials and tribulations of racing is sure to be of help.

As you may know, carbohydrates and fats are the primary fuel sources for a pigeon when it comes to food.

With that in mind, the first part of this article, inspired by the writings of Gordon Chalmers, will briefly explain how the process of converting food into energy actually works.

Carbohydrate

Grains and seeds containing starch are consumed, ground down in the gizzard, passed to the intestine and metabolised into individual units of glucose which are then absorbed into the bloodstream and sent to the liver where it is stored as glycogen.

As well as being stored in the liver, some of this glycogen is also stored in the muscles for immediate access such as the white muscle in the breast responsible for explosive actions, i.e. the launch phase of flight (among other things).

The white muscle fibers in the breast use only the local glycogen reserves they have stored as a source of energy to power movement. Consequently, these local stores are depleted very quickly calling for more glycogen in the liver to be broken back down into glucose and transported via the bloodstream to the breast muscles where it is again converted into glycogen and stored there for later use. [1]

Carbohydrates don't just provide energy in the form of glucose to be stored as glycogen though, the liver also converts a portion of the glucose into fat for use during prolonged flight.

Fats

While glucose is important for explosive movement and brain function (to name a few), fat is without a doubt the most important fuel a pigeon has for prolonged flight. As briefly explained above, it is acquired from the conversion of glucose in the pigeon's body into fat by the liver but also comes directly from the diet via high fat grain, oils and the like.

Fats consumed in the diet are split into glycerol and free fatty acids which are carried to the liver via the bloodstream and stored as solid fats, also known as lipids or triglycerides. A portion of the fatty acids are also transported to various fat “storage depots” around the body.

As well as being stored in the liver and storage depots, fatty acid is also transported to working muscles such as in the breast, stored as triglycerides and made readily-available as a source of energy for prolonged or cruising flight. [2]

Fibre

While fibre may not be as important to the pigeon compared with carbohydrate, fat or protein as far as flight is concerned, it does certainly play a role in protecting the body from harmful intestinal components as well as aiding in digestion up to a point. [3][1]

That said, at high levels it can interfere with digestion of other nutritional components, therefore it is often recommended that no more than 5% be provided in a ration.

Protein

As an important component of the central nervous system, protein is essential for the healthy growth and development of muscles, organs, skin, feathers, as well as elasticity and suppleness in the skeleton.

During the breeding season it provides increased fertility, hatchability, improved growth and development of youngsters.

The rapid growth we witness young pigeons undertake as they double their weight in as little as two days is only possible on a diet rich in protein from the crop milk provided by its parents.

Protein is also critical for the recovery of muscles and while it is clear that carbohydrates and fat supply the majority of fuel for a pigeons flight, protein is also an important source of energy.

Amino acids

Amino acids are compounds which, in various combinations, form protein. Once digested and absorbed they are used as the building blocks of structural proteins (muscle, skin and ligaments), metabolic proteins, enzymes, and precursors of several body components.

Essential and non-essential

Traditionally, amino acids have been classified as nutritionally essential or non-essential.

Simply put, nutritionally essential amino acids are those which can not be synthesized in animal cells, or those that cannot be synthesized to a sufficient quantity to meet the needs for maintenance, growth, development and overall health and therefore must be provided in the diet. [4]

Nutritionally non-essential amino acids are defined as being “synthesized in adequate supply to meet the requirements for maintenance, growth, development, and health and, therefore, need not be provided in the diet”. [4]

However, new research shows that this classification system may be flawed.

Up until fairly recently, it had been assumed that non-essential amino acids were synthesized to a sufficient degree in animals (and humans) relative to the needs of maximal growth and optimal health, seemingly without fail. And therefore did not need to be included in the diet.

Firstly, it is important to understand that the synthesis of non-essential amino acids critically depends not only on energy but also on the availability of essential amino acids that are provided from dietary protein. [4]

Secondly, the synthesizability of non-essential amino acids is affected by a plethora of factors ranging from nutritional, physiological, pathological, and environmental. [4]

Therefore, providing the diet consists of excessive amounts of essential amino acids to minimise/offset production costs of non-essential amino acids and there are no concerns pertaining to environmental, pathological or physiological factors, one could argue that there is indeed sufficient capacity for synthesis of non-essential amino acids without the need for direct dietary input.

However, in the pigeon sport it is quite apparent that many fanciers assume that it is better to assign focus (and money) into ensuring pigeons get food containing an abundant supply of essential amino acids with little to no regard for non-essential amino acids.

While it is true that we should ensure food rations contain adequate supply of these “essential” amino acids – essential in that the pigeon has no way to synthesize these amino acids without dietary input, at least not to a sufficient degree.

At the same time we should be aware that the essentiality of any particular amino acids when it comes to feeding and nutrition as a whole is not black and white, and it is certainly not true that we can completely forgo awareness of any amino acids deemed to be “non-essential” as far as dietary input is concerned.

For example, a pigeon has come back from a hard race so we feed a “quality” ration containing an adequate supply of "essential" amino acids to help them recover and trust that they can just synthesize any “non-essential”, albeit vital, amino acids by themselves.

But have we considered their weakened state, their energy reserves, potential pathological factors as a result of increased stress levels and being in the basket, etc., all of which play a role in the birds ability to adequately synthesize such amino acids.

Protein during flight

As we’ve already discussed, glucose synthesized from starch contained in the digested carbohydrates fuels much of the pigeon's core functions during flight, whether it is used to power explosive movement or is converted to additional fat for prolonged flight.

The brain, the retina of the eye and the central areas of the adrenal glands also require glucose to work properly. Like muscle functionality, some of this glucose comes from stored glycogen which is converted as and when needed following the process we have already covered.

However, another very important source of glucose for the brain etc., though is the conversion of specific amino acids known as glucogenic amino acids into glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis.

One such amino acid is alanine, a “non-essential” amino acid. This amino acid to glucose conversion is especially important in between feedings and during racing when much of the glucose acquired from starch is being used to power flight.

Vitamins and minerals

Now we’re going to briefly look at the vitamins and minerals essential for good health as well as how pigeons acquire them in their diet and whether or not they should be supplemented.

Fat soluble vitamins

These are the vitamins A, D, E and K. Being fat soluble means they dissolve in fat and are stored in tissue for later use, as and when needed.

Vitamin A is one of the most important, without which pigeons are more susceptible to disease and growth retardation. It’s completely absent from all cereal grains except yellow maize but can be found in maple peas and tic beans.

Green leaves of cabbage and lettuce present vitamin A in considerable quantities as does cod liver oil. If pigeons are not fed any green in the loft you will often witness them picking at blades of grass to get it.

Vitamin D as we all know is obtained naturally though direct sunlight and helps with bone formation, formation of egg shells, bone structure of embryos. Under usual circumstances a pigeon is able to produce sufficient amounts of vitamin D but it can be supplemented with cod liver oil.

Vitamin E is important for fertilization and is contained in abundance in maize and all other cereals as well as small seeds but is not found in legumes such as peas or beans.

It would be considered unusual to have a lack of vitamin E as feeding of any cereal will normally provide adequate amounts, but if necessary it can be given in a concentrated form using wheatgerm oil.

Finally, vitamin K is important for clotting of the blood. Sufficient quantities are found in peas and beans.

Water soluble vitamins

Unlike fat soluble vitamins which the body stores away, water soluble vitamins can not be stored. They are easily absorbed into the tissues of the body and metabolized more quickly.

Vitamin C is necessary for the formation of elastic fibres and connective tissues and is an excellent antioxidant. Deficiency may lead to poor wound healing, bone weakness and increased bleeding.

Generally speaking, pigeons, like most birds, do not require vitamin C in their diets as it is produced from glucose in the liver.

That said, research done on the effects of vitamin C in chickens suggests that it may have some merit as an “anti-stress” substance when extra doses were added into the ration. [2]

Except for B12, it’s hard for a racing pigeon to be lacking in any of the B vitamins as they are contained in all legumes, cereals and many seeds which make up a substantial portion of the pigeon's diet, however, they can be supplemented with brewer’s yeast if need be.

A lack of B vitamins can mean growth retardation, an increase in the number of youngsters that fail to hatch, poor feather quality, etc.

The most important function of B12 pertains to the metabolism of nucleic acids and proteins, additionally it also plays a role in carbohydrate and fat metabolism. [1]

Vitamin B12 is usually acquired by birds through a process of biosynthesis in which it is synthesized by bacteria that live symbiotically in their gut. However, antibiotics and stress or strain from racing may affect this process meaning that some supplementation in the diet is often necessary for racing pigeons. A B12 supplement such as the Force 12 Boost from Aviform is a popular choice.

Minerals

As you may know minerals can be categorised into two main groups; macro and micro (trace elements).

Macro-minerals, such as calcium and sodium are present in large amounts in the body.

Micro-minerals, such as manganese, iron and zinc are all necessary for normal bodily function, but are needed in far lower quantities.

Minerals are notoriously lacking in most grains. For example, all grains are low in calcium and sodium. Phosphorus, copper, zinc, manganese, and selenium are also low in some grains.

Therefore, grit, pickstones and powdered minerals must be given regularly, preferably on a daily basis and fresh. If you leave grit etc., in the loft dust can settle on it or it can get damp which will put the pigeons off eating it. A little everyday is better than giving a huge amount in one go and leaving it.

Grit is so important that you’ll likely find pigeons will go for it when they come back from a race before even drinking water. They’ve lost salts and electrolytes (i.e. sodium, calcium, potassium) so they will take the grit or powdered minerals immediately to recover these.

Additionally, granite or flint grit is also necessary to help grind food in the gizzard.

Feeding “heavy” or “light”

You will often come across the terms “heavy” or “light” feeding. A heavy feed or mix generally consists of more protein than a light feed.

It’s perhaps important to clarify that just because a particular mix may be classified as “light” does not mean it should not contain any protein whatsoever. Merely that, when feeding heavy, you are tipping the scales in favour of extra proteins.

When changing from light to heavy or vice versa it’s important that you do not do so too quickly as this can lead to intestinal problems such as E. Coli. (Ad Schaerlaeckens)

Breeding

When it comes to breeding the consensus is that protein is important, where people tend to disagree however is at what stage to increase the protein content in the breeding pigeon's diet.

Should it be prior to pairing, after breeders are mated and the hatching of eggs draws closer, or once the eggs have already hatched?

According to Frank Tasker, it’s better to keep the breeders on a lighter feed until the youngsters hatch. Remember that just because you are feeding lighter does not mean you are feeding a 0% protein ration.

Prior to pairing

The weight of the pigeons, especially the hens is very important. The hen should not be overweight and as such should be fed a leaner food such as barley or depurative for 2 or 3 weeks prior to pairing up. (Ron Williamson)

A 50:50 mix of depurative/barley or 50:50 barley/breeding mix is recommended. Do not overfeed and perhaps even skip a day in the week. (Frank Tasker)

This goal here is to recreate what happens in nature where birds consume their internal fat reserves during the winter months. Ultimately, you are aiming to trim them down in terms of weight before building up their condition (not weight) in the 2 weeks running up to pairing.

One important aspect of building up the condition involves ensuring an adequate supply of protein exists in the diet. In terms of quantity (%), different sources claim different amounts though the sweet spot seems to be anywhere between 13 to 15%.

An article by Gordon Chalmers references an experiment in which pigeons were given free choice and ended up selecting and consuming mixtures consisting of 12.5% to 13% protein suggesting that 13% or so may indeed “do the trick”.

However, Gordon then goes on to state that when 18% protein was provided the outcome was better “hatchability, growth and development of youngsters”. [2]

Youngsters in nest

After youngsters hatch, increase the protein content in the diet quite rapidly until the youngsters are weaned (Frank Tasker). However, if you are already feeding high amounts of protein this may not be necessary.

Also once/twice a week give some greens such as cabbage and lettuce leaves, watercress etc.

Peas are good for babies in the nest that have yet to mature, but are like “poison” for birds that are being raced. (Ad Schaerlaeckens)

At this stage, because of the high demands put upon them by the youngsters, the breeding pairs should have access to as much food as they need throughout daylight hours.

When the youngsters reach about 20 days old or so it can be a good idea to place a pot of breeding mix in the nest box to alleviate pressure on the breeders and to get the youngsters used to the idea of feeding themselves prior to being weaned.

Natural Supplements

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the (successful) modern pigeon fancier is moving away from chemical “drugs” in favour of more natural ways to supplement health which aid and build upon the pigeon's own immunity, rather than stripping it away.

This trend has really started to pick up over the last decade or so, almost in correlation with what we are witnessing in mainstream human health.

Honey

Honey has been used since ancient times for its medicinal and healing properties. Traces of it have even been found in medicinal substances dating back over 5000 years. In Ancient Egypt, for example, it was rubbed onto the skin to treat wounds. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine it was seen as a way to treat indigestion and address imbalances in the body.

In recent times an increasing number of fanciers swear by the benefits it offers in preparation for races as well as it's restorative properties post-race.

Honey provides pigeons with an abundance of natural, slow working sugars that are fast absorbed and assimilated into glycogen.

Furthermore, research suggests that honey offers marked improvements to the intestinal bacterial levels and can strengthen the immune system.

All that said, it’s important to note that these beneficial properties do not universally apply to all honey.

One paper states that the “difference in antimicrobial potency among the different honeys can be more than 100-fold, depending on its geographical, seasonal and botanical source”, among other factors. [5]

Additionally, there is a big difference between store-bought or commercial honey and raw, local honey.

To increase its shelf life, commercial honey is filtered and heat treated to create pasteurized honey which no longer contains pollen. Unfortunately this process also removes or negates most, if not all, of the honey's nutritional benefits.

Another point to keep in mind is that while raw honey is definitely preferred, the more local you can source the honey the better. The fact that local honey contains local pollen seems to play a role in the efficacy of the honey as a nutritional supplement (in both humans and pigeons).

This is inline with what successful fanciers that regularly use honey claim.

While you can buy raw honey online, if you want local honey you may need to do some research.

The map below shows data from the British Beekeepers Association, click any of the icons to see more information on the nearest association to you and their website. From there you will need to reach out and ask if it is possible to buy honey from their beekeepers.

If you’re in the US the American Beekeeping Federation is a good place to start your search for local honey.

A few things to remember

It’s recommended to provide honey for no more than 2 days at a time. If you continue to give honey or food with high sugar content, you create an environment within the pigeon's crop and intestine where chlamydia can survive.

This can be somewhat offset with pure lemon juice mixed with brewers yeast on the food, or cider vinegar in the water.

It’s best to provide honey fresh, especially in warm weather as it can ferment.

Garlic

Garlic was used by the “father of western medicine” himself, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, to treat a variety of medical conditions and has a wide range of beneficial properties that have been well researched and documented.

The medicinal properties of garlic (and it’s odour) actually come from allicin which is created when the garlic is crushed causing two compounds, alliin and the enzyme alliinase, to come into contact with one another. This is why a whole, intact, clove of garlic is odourless.

Some fanciers mistakenly put a clove of uncrushed garlic directly in the pigeons drinker, however, this is ineffective for the reasons explained above.

Benefits of garlic for pigeons

  • Antibacterial
  • Antifungal
  • Antiparasitic
  • Antiviral
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Strengthens blood vessels and lowers blood pressure
  • Great natural antibiotic-protects against & fights infections
  • Helps with digestion
  • Combats respiratory problems
  • Treats fungal/yeast infections
  • Alleviates sinus problems
  • Stimulates the immune system
  • Aids in circulatory problems
  • Purifies the blood
  • Detoxifies the body
References:
[1] Chalmers, G. A., DVM. Grains, Fuel and Pigeon Racing

[2] Chalmers, G. A., DVM. Pigeon Racing: Breast Muscles and the Fuels for Flight. Racing Pigeon Science Project. Retrieved from http://www.northcarolinacombine.com/piraceusa1.htm

[3] Randall, K. (2016, November 14). Why it’s vital to pick the right type of fibre for poultry diets. Farmers Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.fwi.co.uk/livestock/livestock-feed-nutrition/vital-pick-right-type-fibre-poultry-diets

[4] Hou, Y., Yin, Y., & Wu, G. (2015). Dietary essentiality of "nutritionally non-essential amino acids" for animals and humans. Experimental biology and medicine (Maywood, N.J.), 240(8), 997–1007. https://doi.org/10.1177/1535370215587913

[5] Mandal, M. D., & Mandal, S. (2011). Honey: its medicinal property and antibacterial activity. Asian Pacific journal of tropical biomedicine, 1(2), 154–160. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2221-1691(11)60016-6
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