Loft Flying Behaviour, Health & Racing Success
By Dr Rob Marshall
The behaviour of pigeons as they fly outside the loft tells us a lot about their fitness, health and happiness.
These three essentials for racing success - fitness, health and happiness - depend upon an energetic flying routine outside the loft and restfulness inside the loft. An energetic loft flying routine is best achieved from an early age and maintained into the serious training period, then continued throughout the racing season. This task, of course, is difficult and just one of the many challenges facing pigeon fanciers.
Ideally, we want our pigeons to loft fly with an intensity and duration that maintains and improves their fitness.
Loft-flying Intensity and Duration
Loft-flying intensity refers to the speed at which healthy pigeons fly outside the loft. Pigeons that fly with high intensity are energetic and keen to leave the loft for their daily fly. They quickly form a kit, circle the loft and then head off to explore their local area in a straight line flying formation: an activity referred to as ranging. They fly at high speed, with fast wing beats and change direction quickly together as a flock. Their legs are held up tight to their body and their tail remains straight and level. Tumbling behaviour of individual birds outside the flock formation is also a feature of high intensity flying. The greatest benefit from a high intensity flying routine is achieved when it is combined with ranging behaviour. Ranging and high intensity loft-flying behaviour is a reliable sign of health, happiness and fitness in racing pigeons.
Loft-flying duration describes the time the birds are loft flying. The time healthy pigeons spend flying varies according to the amount and type of food they are provided, their family background, age, health, happiness and fitness, weather conditions and time of day they are exercised. Although pigeons that fly for more than an hour are truly healthy, happy and fit, shorter flying times do not necessarily mean a lack of health or fitness as perfectly healthy and fit flocks - fed very lightly - may only fly for a few minutes.
Old Australian Families of pigeons have been bred for their endurance qualities and naturally want to fly for longer periods of time around the loft, however they are unable to fly with the intensity of the European speedsters. Longer duration and less intense loft flying are used to train these middle to long distant pigeons as this type of training method produces endurance rather than speed. Ranging behaviour with this type of training is more relaxed and random in nature.
For racing success nowadays, because of the dominance of the European bloodlines at distances between 100-500 kilometres, high intensity loft-flying behaviour must be established in these families before loft-flying time.
Training for High Intensity Loft-flying Behaviour
Training to establish high intensity loft-flying behaviour should start when the youngsters first join the flock, as this behaviour is largely determined at an early age and it is difficult to change from a low to high intensity flying pattern at a later age. In a healthy flock the quantity and type of food determines the intensity and duration of loft flying.
Up until the moult, young pigeons need to fly with purpose and intensity around the loft for between 20-60 minutes each day. It is important to create a high level of flying intensity before attempting to lengthen the time the young birds are flying. This is achieved by ensuring the birds are healthy (see Young Bird Health Programme) and receive enough food.
The duration of energetic loft flying will naturally increase when the flock needs and eats more food as it becomes fitter but extended flying time is not a priority until after the moult. Until this time the main focus should be on loft flying intensity as the flying time of healthy pigeons will fluctuate according to many environmental factors and the stage of their moult.
Loft flying time will dramatically decrease during the heaviest part of the moult and heat of February, but intensity should not be affected. For those many Federations that start racing in May, a high intensity loft flying routine must be established before the moult as there is too little time to establish this routine at the end of the moult in March when a serious training schedule begins.
Establishing a Disciplined Loft-flying Routine
Time must be set aside in March - following the moult and before "tosses" start - to train the flock to quickly return to the loft when called. This discipline routine is necessary for a quick "trap" on race day. Quick trapping is best achieved by creating a strict flying time routine rather than by hunger.
Excessive hunger at this stage of the pre-race fitness preparations will retard loft flying intensity and loft flying time, which will impair fitness. It will also affect the happiness of the flock and predispose it to illness from stress related diseases such as wet canker, coccidiosis, thrush and E. coli. March is a critical time when young birds must remain happy and healthy whilst they firmly establish their loft flying routine.
The aim of a disciplined loft flying routine is to achieve high intensity loft flying behaviour, a precise loft flying time and short trapping time. Young birds must be healthy, happy and receive enough food if they are to fall into this routine. Above all, maintaining high intensity loft flying behaviour must remain the highest priority whilst establishing a loft-flying routine. Long distance pigeons do not need trapping discipline, as they are hopper fed to encourage long hours of flying time.
Food cleanliness is a critical part of racing success and every effort must be made to obtain good food before a disciplined loft-flying routine is established. March is the last opportunity to access or obtain clean food. Enough should be secured to last the entire racing season.
Loft-flying time varies according to individual preferences. Some fanciers like to let their birds out for short flies twice a day. Others like to see their birds fly for more than an hour once a day. Others prefer far shorter times. I like to see my birds fly 30 minutes of high intensity loft flying once a day as this routine is more suited to sprint racing up to 500 kilometres. They are let out each morning at 7 am, usually disappear from view and range for about 20 minutes, then fly closer to the loft for a further 10 minutes.
Loft flying intensity is determined by the quantity and type of food provided. Because health and happiness are also closely linked to loft flying intensity - as they promote restfulness inside the loft - a reduction in loft-flying intensity is also a reliable measure of a loss of health, happiness and fitness. I find by monitoring for changes in loft flying intensity I can identify the subtle early changes in health, happiness and fitness and implement appropriate measures to prevent any setbacks in the young birds.
Training to Trap
Training the birds to a strict feeding routine controls loft flying time and trapping speed.
I train my birds to trap quickly by calling them in at precisely 7.30am when they have completed exactly 30 minutes flying time. They are fed a precise amount of a custom-made food mix once daily. At first I allow 5 minutes for any latecomers to enter the loft then shut the door. Those failing to enter after this time are locked out and allowed in that evening without being fed. Within a week the entire flock is accustomed to this routine with most birds trapping within a minute. It may be necessary to cull those birds that misbehave after this time. Young birds remain happy and healthy with this training technique that relies on habituation and the precise ability of pigeons to measure time.
Monitoring Health via Loft Flying Intensity
By the end of two weeks my birds are usually into a solid loft flying routine of 30 minutes high intensity loft flying. At this time, I closely monitor loft-flying intensity by observing the flock for 5 minutes after letting them out and before scraping the loft clean. When loft-flying intensity drops my focus shifts immediately to what the birds looked like before they were let out and to conditions inside the loft. I look carefully for any changes inside the loft - its smell, colour and consistency of droppings, presence of down or scale and so on - before deciding upon a contingency plan to rejuvenate the flock.
By the third week of March my flock is enjoying a high intensity loft flying routine for 30 minutes and ready to toss. By this time, the culling process, which started at the beginning of February, is complete. The system of culling involves repeat 3 weekly treatments with Prazole tablets following the "Cleansing Programme". Levamisole in this treatment stimulates the immunity of healthy birds so that they thrive, but reveals inherent problems in weaker birds. The administration of Prazole tablets is a chore but requires that each bird is handled and assessed properly. Birds that are repeatedly weak in the hand are culled. This culling system ensures that every member of the young bird flock is healthy and fit by the time serious training begins.
Follow Natural Programme until 3 weeks before the first race. This programme is designed to enhance immunity via the stimulatory effects of Prazole, Carloxlow dose (1ml/2L) and S76. These products are administered each 3 weeks in a staggered fashion i.e. Prazole on week S76 the next Carlox the next.
Culling Prior to Training Tosses
This culling system helps train the young birds to leave the toss point quickly and also prevent tossing losses from hawk attack as it eliminates birds that would hold back the fit healthy flock from leaving the toss point quickly. The first toss is from 30 kilometres then to 45 kilometres within 2 weeks. This tossing system, which requires perfectly healthy and fit birds, establishes a 45 km training routine with minimal stress and within a short period of time. Training tosses and races provide racing pigeons with the incentive to race home and also improve their sprinting and endurance capabilities.
It is normal for loft flying time to automatically decrease a little for most European families as soon as serious training and racing start. However, it is important at this time to maintain loft-flying intensity for at least 25 minutes a day.
Responses to a Reduction in Loft-flying Behaviour
Although there are many reasons why pigeons are less eager to fly and often it is confusing to know the exact cause of their poor loft flying behaviour, an unwillingness to fly is all about tiredness (both physical and mental) and lack of energy.
Loft flying intensity and duration is controlled by several factors all of which must be considered when loft flying time or intensity drops. It is possible to control the intensity and duration of loft flying by altering the feeding system and/or time of day the pigeons a released from the loft. Fluctuations in flying duration and intensity may also occur as a result of weather conditions and the health status of the flock.
Drop in Loft-flying Intensity
Monitoring your flock on a daily basis for a reduction in loft-flying intensity is the best way to manage the fitness and flying routine of your birds as a drop in loft flying intensity is the first change that is noticed when energy levels are affected. Under this circumstance a drop in flying time usually follows a day or so later. Sometimes, the birds will fly with intensity but for no apparent reason land early. This finding occurs when the physical process of flying is difficult such as during extremely humid weather or during the heavy part of the moult. It may also occur as a result of fear from a recent hawk attack.
Fitness and therefore racing performance can be improved and sustained by understanding the reasons behind a drop in flying intensity. Consequently, the early detection of a drop in loft-flying intensity is essential as it provides a 24 hour buffer period for action to be taken before there is a loss of fitness.
It is much easier to identify the cause of a drop in flying intensity in lofts that have already established a strict flying and feeding routine because the cause of tiredness is unlikely to be food or exercise related. Health issues, hawk worry, environmental conditions may then be considered as more likely cause of tiredness.
The following measures may be taken when there is an unexplained reduction in flying intensity:
- If birds land early do not chase them up but call them in at their regular feed time.
- Mix Turbobooster and E-powder into the food mix for 2 days - because a drop in loft-flying intensity is always related to a lack of energy.
- Feed same amount of food each morning. Hand feed flock in the afternoon with a light mix to assess hunger of birds. If hungry hand feed normal mix until the barley is left uneaten.
- Add KD to the drinking water - to counteract stress related environmental problems - then give Dufoplus/Ioford/Megamix for one day followed by Ioford/Megamix the next day.
- Analyse the droppings microscopically when loft-flying intensity does not improve on second day and treat according to findings.
Drop in Flying Time
There may be a health problem when a drop in loft-flying time is associated with a drop of flying intensity. Action must be quickly taken to reverse this finding because poor flying habits are quickly established and difficult to reverse. Drop in flying time indicates severe tiredness of one or more members of the flock. Individual birds that land early will attract others to land with them. These tired birds are usually easily identified, as they are reluctant to leave the loft. It is important to leave these in the loft so they can rest. They may be tired from an injury, short flights, sickness, hawk attack, strenuous toss or race. Over-feeding or disease will also create laziness and an unwillingness to fly. Hawk shyness, disease or fatigue must be considered as possible causes when the entire flock is reluctant to leave the loft.
A drop in flying time but not in flying intensty may be the result of high humidity, a heavy moult or hawk worry
The following measures may be taken when there is an unexplained reduction in flying time.
- Call birds in at regular time although they have landed early.
- Feed them their normal quantity of food and add Mininboost and E-powder into the food mix.
- Do not let birds out the following day. Keep them inside the loft until there are signs of wing flapping in the morning.
- Whilst locked inside the loft, hand feed the normal mix but monitor hunger using barley to avoid overfeeding. Hand feed flock again in the afternoon with a light mix to assess hunger of birds. If too hungry hand feed normal mix until the barley is left uneaten.
- Provide a bath to the birds for relaxation.
- Analyse the droppings microscopically and treat according to findings.
- Add KD to the drinking water until the cause of the problem is identified.
- Note: Do not chase the birds up immediately when they land early but flying
intensity is high. Chase then up after 10 minutes and they may resume flying fortheir allotted time if the cause of this problem is hawk worry.