By Dr Colin Walker BSc, BVSc, MRCVS, MACVSc (Avian health)
Pigeons have been actively raced now for in excess of 150 years. Given a steady rate of improvement pigeons raced today, compared with those of 25 years ago, should be approximately 20% better. I would suspect however, that the best birds, 25 years ago, would still be capable of winning today. Why is this so? Part of the answer may be our method of selection.
Through most areas of Australia, and (apart from a few specialist clubs on the Continent) the rest of the world, the best fancier is deemed to be the one who wins the aggregate. Flyers commence a season with a kit of birds with which they aim to complete the entire season. With this type of selection we are selecting for an ‘all rounder’ type of pigeon rather than one which would excel at a particular distance or velocity. This makes the selection for genetic characteristics that enable certain birds to excel under particular conditions difficult and has probably contributed to slow progress in our genetic advancement.
Basically there are two groups of characteristics that we are selecting for, namely mental characteristics and physical characteristics. Physical characteristics refer to all visible traits such as wing shape, eye colour etc and also some non-visible characteristics such as stamina. While mental characteristics refer to those unseen characteristics such as determination and orientation ability.
Classified on this basis, pigeons can be divided into four groups. These groups can be schematically represented as follows:
Is there a physical type that is optimal in pigeons for all distances and velocities? When one extrapolates from the differences found in human sprint and marathon competitors and also in race horses (where distance race horses are more angular and leggy than sprint horses), the answer is probably not.
It is probable that the correct characteristics are likely to be determined by the type of race we want the birds to do well in. We still have much to learn here but as an example it does seem that distance birds need to be longer in the body and leaner, with longer wings and longer primaries, with the outer primaries tapering to a finer point. Sprint birds; on the other hand are often very full chested and muscular with shorter wings and shorter flights. Perhaps the mental characteristics required for a good sprint bird should be a manic desire to get home, while for a long distance bird to be successful, it may be calmness under adverse conditions and a reasoning intelligence that are required. What many fanciers regard as the ideal is probably the body of the “all-rounder”, i.e no extremes in body shape or flight length. Identifying both the physical and mental characteristics required to perform under certain conditions and then being prepared to just send these birds to the races that they have been selected for, may be the way to create this century’s superbirds.
Birds that are mentally capable but have physical faults – most are eventually lost. Many pigeons fall into this category. The temptation is to breed from these birds.
Often a fancier’s favorite. The good-looking bird that fanciers regret to lose that is just not mentally capable. They are lost as soon as they face a significant test.
Lacking both characteristics. Are lost very early.
Birds with both good physical and mental characteristics. The type we should aim for. Very few birds fall into this category. Ideally all birds retained for breeding should be in this group.