In the UK, as with most European countries, young bird racing usually takes place from the middle of July to the end of September, coincidentally this is around the same time that healthy pigeons start to go through a full moult.
There are few things in a pigeon's life that cause as much stress as moulting, throw in the strain of racing on top and you can forget about results.
Not only does moulting give the birds considerable stress but they lose vital primary flights in the process as well as undergo hormonal changes that contribute toward a severe drop in condition.
All of these factors combine to make one serious handicap for the not so lucky racing pigeon.
When to darken
Most fanciers darken their young birds in the UK from the 21st March till the 21st June.
While it’s not necessary to start darkening young birds before the 21st March which is the equinox, some people prefer to put them on the dark a week or so earlier depending on the weather outlook.
The maximum amount of daylight per day should be between 9.5 to 10 hours. The exact time of day in which these darkened hours occur does not matter and can be set to fit your own schedule or preference, i.e. 8am to 6pm or 9am to 7pm etc.
What is the darkness system?
Put simply, the darkness or ‘darkening’ system is a way to control the moult, or more accurately, which feathers moult and when.
It works by carefully controlling the amount of light the pigeons are exposed to on a daily basis to make the days artificially shorter in order to trick their biological clock into thinking winter is coming.
As the days are shortened, the pigeon's body starts to prepare itself for the harshness of winter, and in turn they only moult the small feathers on the body, head, neck and shield while leaving their primary flights intact.
Which pigeons need to be darkened?
While darkening old birds is a thing, so to speak, the darkness system is primarily used with young birds. Indeed, in this day and age it’s pretty much a requirement to be competitive in young bird racing.
That said, winter bred young birds born the previous year do not usually need to be darkened per se. In the UK throughout January and most of February there’s only an average of 9-10 hours of daylight per day anyway so they are darkened naturally.
It’s pigeons bred during the breeding season (January to March) the same year they are going to be raced where the darkness system usually comes into play. Steven Van Breemen writes, “Young birds born before the 20th of february are the best ones for the system”.
Aside from controlling the moult, an added benefit of the darkness system is that it fast-tracks the development of the young bird as they go through a rapid growth spurt.
When to darken
First and foremost it’s important to point out that the following guidelines to the darkening system are not universally applicable to every country. When you darken will depend largely on the natural daylight you get in relation to when you breed pigeons and when your racing season takes place.
In the UK, most fanciers darken their young birds from the 21st March (the spring equinox) until the 21st June.
During the darkening period, the maximum amount of daylight per day should be between 9.5 to 10 hours. The exact time of day in which these darkened hours occur does not matter and can be set to fit your own schedule or preference, i.e. 8 am to 6pm or 9 am to 7 pm etc.
How to darken
You may darken the loft using whatever you have to hand, be it a dust sheet, plywood, black out curtains, roller blinds etc., the most important thing is that you maintain ventilation and allow plenty of fresh air into the loft and stale air to be expelled out.
It doesn’t need to be pitch black for the system to work, likewise a few cracks of light here and there won’t hurt either. Furthermore, there still needs to be a certain degree of visibility for the pigeons to see when they go for a drink, with that in mind a ‘moonlit night' is a good level of darkness to aim for.
Additionally, some fanciers prefer to darken gradually to allow the birds to adjust more naturally, for example, if you are going to be darkening from 6 pm onward, at 5:30 pm you might close the ceiling blinds, at 5:45 pm close the window blinds half way, then fully close them at 6 pm.
Taking them off the dark
Pigeons should be taken off the dark around the 21st June. It can take a period of about 2 weeks until they get their bearings and a further 4 or so weeks until they come into good form.
Once you notice them flying around the loft properly (with vigour) and ranging from the loft with confidence that's when you can start road training.
As the days start getting shorter towards autumn it’s important to provide them with additional light. You might think of this as giving them back the light that was “stolen” earlier on in the year.
If you don’t extend the day lengths as the natural days get shorter the pigeons will start to panic as their bodies tell them that they have to get through all of their flights by the end of year.
So from the 1st August until the 21st September (autumn equinox) extra light must be provided.
During this time you should ensure they get 16 hours of light a day so set the lights to come on at around 7 to 8 pm in the evening (when it gets dark outside) until 10 pm, then again in the morning at 5:30/6 am.
By extending the daylight hours, you are effectively giving them reassurance that there is still plenty of time to get through the wing moult.
In September, when the artificial light is turned off and they go back to natural daylight (12-13 hours daylight) they will go into a heavy moult and by the end of November towards December time they should have gone through a full moult just the same as natural pigeons.
https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/ – a good website to check sunrise/sunset and hours of daylight according to date and geographical location