How to breed good pigeons?
By Ad Schaerlaeckens
With the publisher of this paper I was discussing the contents of a pigeon magazine. I write in many of them and I can assure you that that is far from easy as far as foreign countries are concerned. In my own country it is not such a problem as I know what fanciers like to read about. But writing for countries on the other side of the world where the sport is so much different is another story. 'David', I said, 'you must help me.
Tell me what people in the Far East want to read about. If I would know that would make it a lot easier for me to write.' 'Could you write how to breed good pigeons' was his reaction. My mouth fell open. For a moment I thought 'what a stupid question' but that was just for a moment. When I was a student my teacher used to say: 'There are no stupid questions, there are only stupid answers'. 'How to breed good pigeons?' The more I thought about this question the more sense it made. It proved that he realised how important quality is. Many fanciers (not the champions though) seek successes where they should not seek them. They believe too much in medicine, secrets or 'the magic bottle'.
And I think it is the same everywhere in the world, my country included. Whereas many of my fellow sportsmen have been searching for better medicine, better vitamins and better vets throughout the years I have always been after better birds. Of course you need luck now and then. But how important luck may be, there must be more than that. Because 'why ', one might wonder, 'is it so often the same people that breed good pigeons again and again whereas others do not even breed one decent bird in a lifetime?'
That good luck is a factor though I will show you by something that happened recently. Co Verbree, one of the best fanciers in Europe, was at my place to buy two grandchildren of my 'Sissi'. 'That was a legendary breeding hen was not she?' he said, 'maybe the best in history'. I thought it a bit exaggerated and too flattery. 'Yes it was a good one' I agreed 'but you still need a lot of luck'. 'Many of her descendants were sensational winners indeed but certainly not all. With the birds you are buying you have a good chance to be successful but no more than that. I cannot guarantee the birds are any good and if I would know for sure that there was a super among them you would not get it. It is as simple as that. 'To whom do you tell' Mr Verbree's reaction was and added: 'You know I had that best All Round bird from Holland for the Olympiad in South Africa.' Of course I knew. Mr Verbree: 'In the year that I bred that Ace I bred 5 more babies off of the same parents. They were all good, I daresay supers. So you can imagine I mated the pair again in the year that followed. I bred 10 babies off of them and I had great expectations. You know what the result was? Not one of these 10 birds was any good. On the contrary, they were ten pieces of shit. Can you imagine that?' I could. Because things like that happen more often. But Mr Verbree had more interesting things to say: 'An American importer bought my Olympiad bird for a crazy price. But shall I tell you the truth? Despite his sensational results this bird never gave a good baby. Honestly speaking that was the reason to sell him. One of his brothers however, a bird which was not a good racer is one of my best breeders. So I think I did a good thing: Sell the racer who was a poor breeder and keep his brother which was a good breeder.'
I know some Japanese pigeon men who only know two words in English. You cannot blame them for that, they may have other great qualities than speak English. Those two words are: 'Golden Couple'. But couples that only give super pigeons? They only exist in the mind of not-realistic day dreamers. Why do you think champions in Europe nowadays breed far more babies than they did in the past? Because they began to realise how much luck you need indeed to get that super bird. But as I said it is not all luck. To show this I will tell you the story of that Belgian champion. Normally I like to mention names to make statements less vague and for the credibility of the articles. In this case I prefer not to do it as it might hurt his reputation. And the Lord did not create humans to hurt each other.
Every serious fancier occasionally wants to improve his family by importing other birds to cross with his. To optimise chances to a successful crossing it is very important that you are aware of the shortcomings and faults of your own birds. So there was this Belgian guy, a short distance champion and a great one who was bothered by questions such as the following: - Why are my results no good when I enter birds at longer distances? - Is this a matter of physical faults and if so which? - Would there be a possibility to find a solution, for example a successful crossing? Though I myself cannot see if a pigeon is good (nobody can) I mean I can see if a pigeon is no good or what shortcomings it has. I saw his birds. Fantastic models and good muscles but much to my surprise the same thing was wrong with all of them: The last flights of the wings lacked suppleness, they were not flexible. He did not quite understand so I pointed at two pigeons who had broken their last flights. He shrugged his shoulders as if he wanted to say: 'So what? That is just an accident which may happen to any bird.' 'It may' I said, 'but not easily to good birds'. You must be able to bow the last flights between your thumb and forefinger without breaking them. That refers to flexibility which is an absolute must for birds that have to handle the longer distances. You should pay attention to the wings of a bird after it has flown for many hours in a hard race. You will see a light bow in the last flights. But what if these are so stiff that they cannot bow? Then they are handicapped, flying will be more difficult because of those stiff flights and the bird will be fatigued sooner than birds with supple and flexible flights in the wing. The Belgian champ got the message and what he did was import birds with supple and flexible flights, he crossed them with his own and only two years later he got pigeons that could handle the longer distances too. So it cannot be repeated enough how important it is to realise the shortcomings of your own birds, only then you can do something about it, improve the quality.
A mistake many fanciers make is import birds that have the same faults as their own. Such a thing inevitably leads to destruction of a colony.
MOST ACES ARE CROSSINGS
Many pigeon people from the East and America like birds of a family, so inbreds. This idea is not that bad provided such birds are used for breeding and not for racing. Nearly all super birds both in Holland and Belgium are products of crossings. In the eighties I had my 'Good Yearling' and birds related to him. I wanted to keep this line kind of pure, I also bred real good birds now and then but much to my surprise some people who bought pigeons from this 'Good Yearling bloodline' bred better birds then I did myself. And they got my birds. Just in time I realised why. They crossed my inbred birds with theirs. So what I did from then on was the same: I did not care about having a family any longer and crossed my inbreds. One of them was my 'Sister Good Yearling'. Unlike her brother she was a poor racer. And also a poor breeder, at least that was what I thought. Till I gave her a partner of quite different blood and the first baby of the new mating won National Orleans 1st prize (1985). Unfortunately she was pretty old already when I realised her breeding value. Such a thing often happens to many people. When they find they have a real good bird one of the parents is killed, sold or too old.
When people want to buy birds it is very often the same story. They want, say six pigeons for arguments' sake, and those should be three hens and three cocks. In this way they can form 3 couples. I have learnt this is not the right way to act. If I import (buy) birds I will mate them with the best I have myself, so birds which already had proven they have the potency to give good children. It is a much faster and more direct way to be successful than mating imports with imports. If you mate an import with an import you mate a question with a question. If you mate an import with one of your own proven breeders only the import is a question.
And what about the appearance of birds? They must have soft feathers in the first place. And they should not be too big. Beware of big birds. The modern racers are of a smaller type than some decades ago. They must have a good balance, 'lie well in the hand' as people say and they must slope a bit forward when handling them. Of great importance is also a strong skeleton. You can judge this by putting some pressure on the breastbone (the lower part of the body). If the bird makes a noise like it is snoring that is a bad sign. These qualities I mentioned are an absolute must. But here we have a problem: The fact alone that they have these qualities does not make them good pigeons. Also bad pigeons may have soft feathers, a good balance, a strong skeleton. However if they do NOT have these qualities they are bad pigeons for sure. So it is not maths, you cannot turn things around. A philosopher once said: All cows are animals but all animals are not cows.
Most champions have two, three or four good bloodlines. Their Ace birds are mostly products of crossings of them. As they are champions already they do not import or buy many birds but just a few in some cases no more than one or two yearly. Mostly they do not even pay for them but just trade. Remember Houben and Verbruggen. They traded just one bird, crossed the bird that they got from each other with their own and this resulted in an explosion of super birds in both lofts. The same happened to Engels and van Hove Uytterhoeven. Both already got good birds they got better ones after they had traded birds and crossed the imports with the best they had in their own loft.
What most champions in Holland and Belgium also do is change the matings every year. Some (even the Janssen Brothers) even during the year. For some mysterious reason the quality of the babies of good couples gets down when such a couple has been mated for a long time. I myself give my best cocks also two or three different hens every year. It stands to reason that birds are only fit to be paired when they are in the best condition possible. Fanciers often wonder why they breed several good pigeons in one year and that there are years in which they do not even breed one decent one. The explanation is probably the condition of the parents. A study has shown that many good birds are bred from yearlings. This does not mean that old pigeons do not give good babies though. The problem with old birds is the poorer quality of the crop milk. This year I made the mistake to have a 1992 cock feed his own babies. Some did not grow into nice birds and it was me who was to blame. What I should have done is undersit his eggs under other (younger) birds so that these would have fed the babies after the eggs had hatched. But making mistakes is nothing to be ashamed about. You only have a problem if you are not aware of it for the simple reason that in such case you cannot correct yourself. What distinguishes the losers from the winners is that the latter know what mistakes they made and will learn from it. If you do not know your own shortcomings and if you are not aware of the mistakes you make you won't get one step further.
© Ad Schaerlaeckens