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The Effects of Stress on Racing Pigeons...
Author: Old HandTitle: The Effects of Stress on Racing Pigeons
Date: 2004-08-13 21:21:31Uploaded by: webmaster
Many years ago, when I was still a young man in my 50s, I spent a great deal of my time in visiting pigeon lofts. My ubiquity derives as much from my insatiably inquisitiveness as from my eternal love of racing pigeons.

Some fanciers are incapable of working up even a mild interest in other people’s pigeons but are content to stay at home and gloat over their own but I belong to that breed of fancier who feels frustrated and deprived if he cannot poke his nose into somebody else’s loft once in a while and run an appraising eye over the other bloke’s stock. There are more of the latter breed than t’ither which is not a bad thing. See how many coach loads of fanciers go loft visiting in the off-season! In some parts of the country they have a perfect mania for setting out early on Sunday morning and trying to fit in as many loft visits as time allows before midnight.

However, when I trotted like a rubberneck round lofts both far and near I did not go only to gape. I had certain objects of research in mind so that when I returned home it was my practice to sit down and enter my notes into a book and from the record book into what I termed a ‘book of statistics’. And keeping pigeon statistics can be more fun and far more instructive than perhaps the average fancier imagines.

I coined a number of headings for my statistics, such as: How many pigeons were kept and the size of the loft in cubic feet; type of diet fed; predominant plumage colours; number of birds flown 500 miles; number of birds 2ys old and over; type of floor dressing; number of perches available per bird and so on. One has only to look at the collated indexes of some 300 pigeon lofts In order to note trends and methods and the reasons why some kept on winning, some won only occasionally and some won nothing at all.

I do not intend to devote this chapter to ‘statistics’ (much though I am tempted to do so) but I am compelled to make one very important statement based on my statistics and this is that I have yet to visit a pigeon loft that is not over-crowded and in the summer months (June, July and August) the lofts are abominably over-crowded.

It is not difficult for us to find a reason for this over-crowding. Most fanciers are worried to distraction about the possibility of losses of youngsters. Any fancier who has suffered a fly-away of youngsters survives a nightmare he’ll never forget. He tends to ‘breed off a few more, just in case I need them’. Then there is the fancier who when surveying the teaming mass of his young birds, says, ‘I ought to stop breeding but I must have another pair off them, and another pair off them, and so on.

On the face of it, one might be excused for believing that the ideal loft is that in which the widowhood system is practised. You know the ritual. Breed one round of youngsters then segregate the sexes, racing the cocks as celibates. No possibility of over-crowding in this sort of loft. But wait! The most over-crowded lofts I’ve ever visited are those where the widowhood system is practised! This applies not only to the British exponents of the system but especially to those on the Continent. I’ll mention no names but I have never visited a continental loft which was not grossly overcrowded with pigeons.

Where is the evil in over-crowding a loft? Those who have studied scientific treatise on the subject and carried out some experiments of their own soon find out that over-crowding leads to ‘stress’ and that ‘stress’ creates products known as ‘corticosteroids’, which appear in the urine in increasing quantities.

United with ‘stress’ and largely the result of it are increases in infection and parasites. Animals (including birds) evolved in a ‘free range’, which is to say that they enjoyed unrestricted freedom to move about over the vast areas of terrain. Men once lived a similar sort of life, following the herds of animals on which they preyed for meat. All primitive animals followed a comparatively healthy existence in the wide open spaces.

It was about 8,000 years ago that someone discovered the framework of a new kind of existence, the agricultural life. This consisted of two main factors: 1) Fencing in domestic animals such as sheep, cattle, pigs, etc., and breeding as many as were needed for the larder and their by-products, such as milk, leather, etc. Secondly, and this was the basis of the agricultural life, growing corn for food and animal foodstuffs.

No sooner had man started to sow than he had to hang about and wait to crop. His freedom of movement became restricted and so did that of his animals who were now penned. Men were also penned in villages and the like, inflicting on themselves the restrictions they designed for their domesticated animals.

The trouble began. Populations of animals introduced in small numbers to a new area breed very quickly. The females are fecund (meaning receptive to males) and fertile (producing many young). But when numbers increase in a confined area fecundity and fertility are reduced. Instead of all members of the community being free and equal in status, as in the wild life, struggles begin for domination. In short, stresses are set up which may be traumatic or just psychological. But the effect of them is to cause the females to abort, as with foetal resorption, so that the birth-rate declines.

A very good example of what I am trying to explain is presented by the history of the English people in the last 200 years. If we search back so far we find that the population was mostly agricultural, spread all over the country, with only a small part of the population compressed in towns.

The Industrial Revolution sparked off about 1750 but did not gather serious momentum until the early 1800s but it had the effect of drawing people from the land into the cities to work in factories and offices. The growth in London between the 1820s and the 1890s is fantastic when similar fantasies can be seen occurring in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol, Glasgow and so on, where population explosions were of the nuclear fusion order. What was the first effect of the rush from the country to the city? Human breeding rose to heights it had never attained before, proving over again that animals and humans breed quickly when introduced to a new area. Families of eight to 12 children were common. But most of them lived in rows of little boxes, which were overcrowded. The first factories were also overcrowded, in 80 years the population of London leaped from one million to eight million while other cities did their best to compete with the capital. Then ‘stress’ made its presence felt.

Infectious disease, multiplied by lack of adequate sanitary arrangements and the astronomical multiplication of parasites and parasite carrying animals, such as rats, produced the highest death rate figures ever known. Families were fortunate if they raised one in eight children to an adult age. It was not until this century with its improved sanitary engineering and medical advances that the mortality rate was lowered to a mere percentage. But by that time the size of families had dropped very near to zero. Evidence can be seen in the vast number of families with only one or two children. Whether people like it or not, the drop in the birth-rate (compared to the 19th century) was the immediate effect of overcrowded communities.

The farmer who crowds his sheep into pens which are too small knows that they will begin to die of parasitic infestation. He knows that their fertility rate will drop, as does that of any animal in close captivity. That epidemics will be unavoidable and deaths far from being natural.

Racing pigeons are subject to the same laws of ‘stress’. And fanciers are given plenty of signs and portents pointing to what is likely to happen if they overcrowd their lofts.

The dreaded ‘flyaway’ is first and a direct symptom of overcrowding. If you investigate reports of ‘flyaways’ you will find they always occurred at a time when the fanciers loft was housing its biggest numbers of birds, swollen by the youngsters he had bred.

There are other signs too numerous to mention but I’ll sketch in a few of them. It is the cortices of the adrenal glands, situated near the kidneys that are responsible for stress mechanisms in animals. Changes in these glands can always be found during post mortem examinations, usually by massive haemorrhage on the adrenal gland. Such lethal haemorrhages are the result of shock or stress. It will be found that the fertility rate of eggs laid in an overcrowded loft decreases alarmingly. That the size of the bird also diminishes. Fighting between cocks increases and even hens are seen to take part on rare occasions. Ailments and diseases increase in frequency and there is a higher rate of sickness among nestlings and squeakers.

I consider that loft overcrowding is one of the major reasons for a team’s decline and the reason why some fanciers who enjoy a good season this year come a cropper next year because one of the natural results of a good season is usually an increase in the breeding. When losses are light greater numbers of pigeons occupy the available loft space. The late Vic Robinson of National fame once gave convincing evidence of his exceptional intelligence when he wrote in his book ‘My Methods’ that in the weeks when he was preparing his birds for a national race he took out of the loft (and popped into baskets) all those birds that were not candidates for the Classic race. He provided maximum ‘living room’ with not a sign of overcrowding.

A symptom of ‘stress’ in men and women is the gastric ulcer which is not commonly the product of disease or parasite but in pigeon racing we are not so concerned with the effect of ulcers on pigeons as with the effect of ‘stress’ or the general adaptation syndrome.

I suppose that the average fancier (after reading the above) will be wondering at what stage plenty of living space suddenly becomes ‘overcrowded’. Well, the problem cannot be solved by prescribing a certain number of cubic feet of air per pigeon. When the first Factory Acts were compiled a clause donated 400 cubic feet per factory operator as the mean. It was then discovered that this amount of cubic air could be provided if the operator sat in a vertical funnel 1ft square and 400ft high! Factory space divided up in this way would still have meant gross overcrowding.

Overcrowding is bound up with several things in a pigeon loft, apart from the amount of breathable air per pigeon. The first requisite is for a very large nestbox provided with facilities for housing two nestbowls, not one. It is natural for a nesting pair to look round and find a new nesting site when the youngsters are fully feathered. If the nestboxes are small, and every one in the section is occupied by a breeding pair, fights between cocks, with a consequent bigger percentage of unfilled eggs is inevitable.

An experiment in overcrowding was made with mice. If a colony is established with plenty of room their numbers increase rapidly. When the space was reduced to a point of overcrowding the rate of reproduction reduced. Fighting developed. Litters became smaller and a number of females stopped breeding. In some instances, mothers ate their young. Numbers died from ‘stress’ but not from any disease or injury. This occurred even though the supply of food was ample. Thus, a phenomenon, very similar to the medical adaptation syndrome, can occur in animals in response to overcrowding without a shortage of food and without the incidence of disease or parasitation.

As I have said before, too many fanciers who want to be ‘small fanciers’ either for economic or other reasons try to implement their ambition by erecting tiny lofts. This is false economy. A loft costs comparatively little to keep regardless of its size. The fancier’s expenses are heaviest in the direction of food, training and club and race fees, etc. Therefore, all those new starters who are contemplating the erection of a loft should discard any idea they might have for a ‘small’ structure. Keep a small number of birds by all means, but give them as much room as possible.

If you can afford to keep only a dozen pigeons put up a loft not less than 15ft long by 7-8ft wide. Put a corridor through the front of it (end to end) and partition off the remainder into small sections formed by wire mesh on frames. Let each breeding pair have two very large nestboxes and see that every bird in the loft has the choice of three perches. Flyaways in such conditions are almost impossible. Infectious diseases in such a loft, containing only six pairs of birds, will be a rarity; so will fighting, while the fertility rate of eggs should be near 90% / l00%, always supposing that the loft is given four-wall ventilation.

If every fancier went to his loft now and reduced his numbers by 30% at least, the remainder of his birds would immediately betray better form and fitness. They would be happier, satisfied in their environment, livelier, longer lived.

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