To some, it might seem that purpose-breeding pigeons is going a bit far for one whose primary goal is simply homing and/or surplus birds for dog training. Maybe so. But if you are going to spend the time setting up breeding facilities, might you also want to get the most effective return for your money and effort? Furthermore, although there are huge differences, learning something more about the basics of genetics is something that will benefit any dog breeder.
Writing a primer of pigeon genetics will take more space than allotted to this column, and there is no sense duplicating what has already been written elsewhere. I'll give you some links for further reading at the end of the article. The basic pigeon colors are blue (black), brown, and ash red. The wild form of pigeon is blue, and many crosses will revert back to the blue form.
Color and pattern modifiers have so much effect on the base color that they can, at times, mask the base color. These modifiers may work independently of each other and the base color, while throwing a lot of confusion into the mix.
What possible attributes could a dog trainer want in a pigeon? A reasonable size for starters. Some birds are just too small to hold up well with repeated retrieves. For the same cause rugged feathers are a plus. Strength and a willingness to flush are important. Finally, color is important if you do not want the pup learning to hunt by sight - doubly important since pigeons are frequently "rolled in" to open areas so they do not get caught in the grass when flushed.
We also need to understand the make up of birds on the market. If you purchase "culls" from a pigeon fancier, your birds have already been preselected. Therefore, it is important to save birds (for breeding) from that crate that reasonably have a chance of enhancing your loft. That means the small (in structure, not necessarily in absolute size which may have more to do with age) birds immediately are passed by.
I like "rollers", a type of homer, and there is a good chance that the roller culls that I buy do not like to roll (big loops in the air). That's fine, as the propensity to roll does nothing for your dog training program. That's an example of cull selection which does not hurt the dog training bird breeder.
One of the downsides of the domestication of pigeons is breeders have selected for tame and docile birds. Part of that is just what happens with domestication, the other part involves selection - as the breeder does not want birds that smack their wings at you when you inspect the nest. A wing smack is quite intense, and if you are not careful, will kill the embryos within the eggs, resulting in a failed clutch. This is why, when you inspect a nest, you should reach under and palm the bird, protecting the eggs.
Pigeon breeders will frequently cull the really intense birds. This works to our advantage; a tame docile bird is less likely to flush in front of a spaniel while an intense bird is more likely to flush. This is one reason why some dog trainers really do not like to train with homers. However, with a little care in selection, you can have a loft full of wild and crazy birds.
Overall strength and conformation can best be recognized in birds that have been flown. Unless you fly the birds, the wing muscles will never fully develop. Flying the birds helps build up strength for repeated non-lethal dog training session and will help you to identify good breeding prospects.
Unless you frequently train in snow, you will want to go for the darker colors. Just to amuse myself, I have been breeding for birds which have the brown feathers typical of a cock pheasant. This coloration is called Modena Bronze and is a modifier of blue, not red or brown, as one might think. The genetics behind this are very complicated. You will only start to understand these genetics by: (1) leg banding and keeping records and (2) experimenting with different combinations.
Old time dog breeders (think Talbot Radcliffe) utilized the process of selection more than we think. If you breed a large enough group of animals, saving only the best for the next generation of breeders, and continue that on for many generations, you eventually will end up with a "type". This can be done without any real understanding of the actual genetics behind the process, although a rudimentary understanding will speed up the process. Selection is still done today by breeders who sell culls without breeding rights or with spay/neuter contracts.
For the dog trainer, who is ALWAYS in need of training fodder, selection is ideal. Don't take the strongest or best out of the loft, leaving the weak and ill-colored for breeding, but use the culls for something useful (lethal training). Just understand that as the qualities of the loft improve, so will the qualities of your culls improve. I had one prolific hen, the best mother I have seen, that would crank out the birds. Unfortunately she was also small, as were many of the offspring. It took a while to get past the greed (the prospect of lots of new birds) and cull her and her small offspring; now I am starting to see a remarkable improvement in the new birds. Interestingly, it was this hen, along with a mostly white cock bird, that brought the bronze modifier into the loft. The white bird (#1m in my album) shows some bronze in his barring on his wings. Never overlook the hidden genes - there may be something good (or bad) lurking beneath dominant masking genes.
My process builds on culling with one enhancement. I find a pair of birds that look likely to give me bronze offspring. Some don't. That pair is broken up and used with other birds known to create bronze offspring. When I finally identify the bird that will not create a bronze it goes into the training pen. I use a photo-pedigree process, which you can peruse here. Each pair has an album showing the offspring. As you can see from the photo taken of my breeding loft, I am well on the way to naturally camouflaged training pigeons.
If you would like to learn more about pigeon genetics I would recommend Ron Huntley's website. Ron really knows his birds and has given me some advice; you can see some of his comments in my photo-pedigree album. Also you may wish to read through a very simple pamphlet prepared by the National Pigeon Association in 1950.
Perhaps someday, we will have a super-race of pheasant-colored wild-and-crazy training pigeons. In the meantime, I'm learning about genetics and I have plenty of training fodder at the same time. I'd love to hear from any other dog trainers who are purpose-breeding their birds.
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