Feeding your Pigeons
By Staci Newsom
It seems that nothing in the pigeon world brings about more controversy than feeding your birds. Pigeons are a very adaptable species and will do quite well on commercial mixes of feed.
However, to get the most out of your birds, and you may want to, you can optimize and taylor their feed to provide benefits beyond general purpose mixes. Their flying and show performance can be enhanced with some common knowledge about the subject of nutrition.
It is generally accepted, for example, that pigeons who are raising young require more protein than pigeons who are working. Working birds such as flyers (of all types) will require a diet that is higher in carbohydrates and fat to provide the energy required to maintain flight over long distances or flying for long periods of time. Nutrition can get even more complicated. Our goal here is to give you the information necessary to understand the basic nutritional needs of your birds.
The reason for these differences in diet, as it was explained to me, is the way that pigeons synthesize fat in their liver.
"It is known that the liver of pigeons produces almost 50% of the fat for use in the body, and that it regulates fat production in the body. (Of course, fat for use in the body is also derived directly from the diet.) One study in the US several years ago showed that when glucose was injected intravenously into hungry young pigeons, there was rapid conversion of this glucose into fatty acids in the liver - within three minutes - a fact that indicates an amazingly rapid ability of the liver to produce fat from glucose!
We can infer from these statments why a balanced diet that is proportionally correct for the type of activity your birds are performing is extremely important.
Now for some more physiology. The pancreas, located in the first loop of intestine after the gizzard, secretes into the intestine, a digestive enzyme know as trypsin, which is important in that it splits proteins into their amino acid components. There are some legumes such as maple peas that contain substances which can interfere with this proper digestive process. 1
Now you have a little background on why the right diet for your birds is extremely important.
How do you get a diet that meets these special requirements? My answer is, it depends. Let's begin with some definitions. Foods of all types are rated by their nutritional contents. That nutrition content is broken down into categories such as protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and fat.
Humans often will generalize these categories by saying meat provides predominantly protein and fat. Vegetables will provide nutritonal items such as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Breads and all products made from wheat flour we classify as carbohydrates. These generalizations are useful to us so that we can make the best choices for what we, as humans, should eat.
As a pigeon fancier these same choices and decisions will be up to you. It is important to have a foundation in these topics and by starting with these generalized statements we can expand on that information. This knowledge will help you make the best choices for your bird's needs.
Above is the generic definition that we all take for granted. Let's get started defining our topic with these scientific descriptions.
Levi states;2 "The name, ‘carbohydrate’ is applied by the chemist to the substances containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the hydrogen and oxygen being in a ratio of 2 to 1 (to 1). Starches, sugars, pectins, and gums fall into this category."
Continuing with Levi;2 "Starch is the ingredient of most specific interest to the pigeon breeder. It is one of the best nutrients (901)for Pigeons." Having a balanced diet for your birds is critical to maintaining good health just like it is for you. If we are taking a scientific approach then understanding these components is critical. Starches are easy for pigeons to digest. Through the process of digestion various necessary enzymes are processed and finally turned into the "ultimate" form of glucose which is then utilized by the cells.
Fats, also know as lipids, are made of the same substances as carbohydrates, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The hydrogen and oxygen are not in the same ratio of 2 to 1 as in carbohydrates. Seeds and legumes with a high fat contact are often loved by pigeons. Many of these types of seeds should not be feed regularly because your pigeons do not need a high fat diet. The feed that you provide will not need a fat content at more than about 5% max.
Protein is the most critical component for your pigeons. We concentrate on it because of that importance. Chemically it is made up of the same components as carbohydrates but also include nitrogen, sulpher, and sometimes phosphorus.
The protein chain starts for the pigeon as a newly hatched baby bird. Pigeons produce milk for their young which is extremely rich in protein for that critical first week of a young pigeons life. It allows them to grow quickly. After the first week the parents start giving the young a mix of seed and pigeon milk thus lowering the protein level, however, the fancier will need to provide a diet with enough protein content so the parents can help their young squabs continue that growth rate. Levi suggests a protein level for breeding pigeons could be as high as 18-20%. Though, for active birds the protein level may need not be that high and the typical feed has a protein percent, as stated above, in the 12% to 13% range.
When we discuss nutrition we need to also discuss the ratio of these main components, protein, fat, carbohydrates and fiber. If the protein is too high relative to carbs and fats the bird burns the excess proteins putting a nitrogen load on the kidneys. Pushed a little too far and the bird will also start to make acetone as a by product of protein metabolism. So could you feed a 20% protein diet and have a healthy pigeon? Only if you have very high carbs and fats also and it would be tough to get them high enough. Ever hear of the Adkin's diet for humans to help in weight loss? You push protein and fats high and eat very low carbs. The acetone from protein metabolism accumulates to the point you can some times smell it on the persons breath. Mild acetone toxicity depresses appetite so the diet works well.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can't digest. From Levi (888)2; "Cellulose, is included in the carbohydrates. It is not, by reason of its structure, as easily digested as is starch. While it is chemically composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, it's structural formation makes splitting up difficult for the enzymes of the birds body." Essentially, pigeons do not need fiber so choosing seeds and grain that are high in fiber is not necessary, however, such grains are few. From Levi 2 "It is an interesting commentary that pigeons do not like, and usually obviously dislike, most grains whose fiber content is high."
In the mid twentieth century there were only a few known amino acids. The first amino acid was discovered in 1806 by the French chemist Louis-Nicolas Vauquelin and Pierre Jean Robiquet when they isolated a compound in asparagus that proved to be asparagine, the first amino acid to be discovered. Since that time, more and more amino acids have been discovered. Science has since expanded its knowledge of the various amino acids and how they function. In pigeons raising we do not often think about this but it is important to our discussion that we be as complete as possible. Essential amino acids are "essential" not because they are more important to life than the others, but because the body does not synthesize them, making it essential to include them in one's diet in order to obtain them. A quote from Dr.Richard Cryberg, PhD.,
"(The) % protein is far less important than having a protein that has balanced amino acids. There are some 22 amino acids that are called essential. This means that the pigeon can not make these amino acids from other amino acids so they must be in the diet. They must be in the diet in about the right ratio to the other essential amino acids. Any essential amino acid that is totally missing will eventually lead to a dead bird. Any essential amino acid that is there in too high a ratio relative to the other essential amino acids is wasted. The bird will metabolize it for energy but it makes a lot of nitrogen waste and puts a load on the kidneys. So the balance of amino acids is important."
After the four main components, protein, fat, carbs, and fiber we have to consider that our birds will not get all the vitamins and minerals that they will need. To compensate for this we can provide them with vitamin supplements, usually in their water, and grit. Grit, especially with crushed oyster shells, will provide most all the missing trace minerals in a pigeons diet.
Commercial Mixes and Pellets
Grains, seeds, and legumes, which our pigeons eat, can also be rated on their protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrate content. They also have a certain level of vitamins and other nutrients that manufacurers of pigeon feed often call ash. Ash is defined as, according to Levi, " The mineral salts in a grain are sometimes also known as the 'mineral content' or 'ash'" 2. If you are the average fancier, then purchasing a commercial mix for your birds can often be the best choice. A commercial mix often will average 13% or 14% protein. Crude fat is not less than 2.5% and crude fiber 4%. It often will list the crude ash content as not less than 4%.
Keep in mind that these numbers are averages of the nutritional content in the particular mix you are purchasing. In the mix I quoted above it's ingredients are only five different seeds or grains. It contains a sorgum called milo, a couple of differnt types of peas, canadian and field, wheat and popcorn along with added vitamins and minerals, listed as ash.
While a seed mix as described above is popular another option is pigeon pellets. Pigeon pellets are a mix of various grains and green material and are often also vitamin enriched. I have seen pellets used by pigeon fanciers as the only food for their breeding loft. I, too, have used pigeon pellets. Pellets can also be obtained in different ratios of the listed nutrional items for different uses. Levi says about pellets
"The advantage in feeding pellets is that any food, such as cotton-seed meal, yeast, cod-liver oil, etc. regardles of palatability may be used , because it is ground and shaped into pellet form." 2One of the things that Levi discusses is the palatibility of various grains and seeds. Pigeons, like people, have very wide preferences. My birds, for example, do not eat many peas or popcorn in their mix so I mix my own using the pigeon feed I purchase as a base.
This is where we are going next. I am not going to tell you what to do here, I am going to list some of the available options. This list will not be all inclusive, but should give you enough to get started in further researching this topic. I personally recomend "The Pigeon" by Wendel M Levi for further research on Nutrition.
The next class of feed is home brewed. Not literally brewed but mixed by the fancier to meet his or her needs. In this section I am going to discuss the individual seed possibilities and their individual nutritional content. At the end I will explain how to get the nutritional numbers for your particular mix. Whenever possible I will list all the components of a particular food item. Not all of the seeds and grains I show will have those numbers or I was unable to find them.
Let us start by explaining that there are three classes of food used for pigeons. There are grains, legumes and seeds. I will try to point out the differences as we go.
More important than high protein peas supply amino acids that other grains lack. Thus they help give a balanced amino acid mix that the birds can use. Were it not for the need for the right balance of amino acids pigeons could do just fine on plain corn. But corn and most non legumes lack lysine which pigeons can not manufacture for themselves. Vetch serves the same purpose. It is another legume.
This list is not comprehensive but are the most common seeds, legumes and grains that you will find fairly easily. What do you do with this information? For most pigeon fanciers a commercial mix will be all that they ever feed their birds. They are happy and do not want to worry about and be concerned with all this scientific information. They may choose to supplement with pellets during the breeding season only or not.
For those of us that want to experiement or try to obtain the most optimal feed for our birds the idea of trying to mix our own is intriguing. We want to know what we are feeding our birds in greater detail than the average pigeon fancier.
How do we do this? Each individual grain has it own charachteristics and we need to average this out so that we know what our mix contains. To do this we have to average out this information.
This formula was given to me by Ray Rosalia. I will try to explain the steps
30% of your mix is a 10% protein grain (30 x 10 = 300),
20% of your mix is a 5% protein grain (20 x 5 =100),
10% of your mix is a 20% protein grain (10 x 20 = 200)
& 20% of your mix is a 18% protein grain (20 x 18 = 360),
then, add 300 + 300 + 100 + 200 + 360. This totals 1260.
Divide it by 100 (% of your feed) and the answer is 12.6% protein in your mixture.
This particular breakdown is for a five item mix but you shouldn't have any problems figuring this out for fewer or more items. The only thing you have to calcualte first is the weights of each. One way to simplify this is to use an even number as a starting point, such as 100 lbs. Then it can make the math that much simpler. In your calculation, you need to know what 100% is. while an even number simplifies the math you can use any amount as your 100% starting point.
It is possible to set this up in an excel spreadsheet so that you can calculate this automatically by plugging in numbers. I might put the seed in a lookup table then create cells for the math.
Besides the contents of the proteins, fats, carbs and fiber you must also take into account the vitamin and mineral content. Some seeds contain one vitamin but not other vitamins. Balancing this is important also. We have not covered the vitamin content in article but keep this in mind if deciding to take this to task. In a future article we can actually expand on the vitamin and mineral angle that your birds will need. Suffice it to say that if you provide supplements and a good quality grit mixture, you should have no problems.
1. From Grains, Fuel and Pigeon Racing; Protein, Carbs & Fats By Gordon Chalmers, DVM at PigeonsRacingPigeons.com Used under fair use doctrine of the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. Â§ 107.
2. From "The Pigeon", by Wendel M Levi.