How to tell if a bird is fit is one of the important skills that fanciers must develop if they are to achieve continued success. The selection of the race team each week is never easy for, apart from certain races when birds need to go for conditioning, experience or for which they have been nominated, the fancier aims to send the birds that are at their best that week, and to avoid sending birds that are not right and might be lost.
Simply flying teams as a whole rarely achieves the best results as birds that are really fit may be left at home simply because it is not their turn, while unfit birds may be sent and lost. The fancier must get to know his birds as individuals so that the correct decision for each of them can be made during a basketing session. If a fancier has 80 birds to select from, in effect he should try to make 80 individual decisions during each basketing. Essentially, these decisions are based on: • how the birds handle and look • their behaviour, and • their droppings. To help, here are some guidelines that can be followed.
Handling It is not possible to tell if a bird is fit just by handling it. Indeed, stock birds that are fed correctly will often handle the same as members of the race team and yet, if forced to fly, their exercise intolerance quickly becomes apparent. It is possible, however, to tell if a bird is well through handling it. Fitness can only be determined through observation of a bird’s behaviour around the loft and following exercise. And so, how do we tell through handling that a bird is healthy with the potential to be fit? Fortunately, there are signs in its muscles, keel, weight, feet, eye, mouth, wattle and feathers that give us the answer.
Muscles The feel and appearance of the bird’s flight (pectoral) muscles gives a good indication of its potential to be fit. Understanding what causes the changes we are assessing makes interpreting them easier. The size, feel and appearance of muscles depend on a variety of factors, including what work requirements are being made of them. As a muscle works, it adapts to its job, increasing in size and strength. A circulation develops to meet the muscle’s requirements.
As a muscle works, lactic acid forms within it. In a fit muscle, the circulation carries lactic acid away. If the muscle works beyond its fitness capability, the circulation cannot keep up and lactic acid accumulates in the muscle. This essentially bruises the muscle chemically, causing it to become inflamed. This makes the muscle swell, become hard, and develop a bluish hue. These muscles are sore and such birds often resent handling.
Size The muscles of different birds vary in size when that bird is fit. This means that different birds will handle differently when they are ready to race. Some fliers have the idea of a mould into which a pigeon is poured. One opens the mould and all the pigeons handle the same. When they handle like that, they are fit. I believe this not to be the case. Some feel fuller when right, (for example, Janssens tend to ‘blow out’ more readily) while in other birds their muscles tend to V away from the keel when right. In addition, there is variation of individuals within strains and families.
As a general rule, however, the flight muscles do tend to increase in size as fitness comes. Do, however, remember that the muscles of over-flown birds will increase in size through inflammation, sometimes giving them the appearance of being super fit. Also, as fat can be deposited within muscles, an increase in size can be associated with overfeeding.
Tone The muscles of a fit pigeon should be toned (that is, neither hard nor soft). Unfit muscles, such as those of a stock hen sitting on eggs, tend to have no substance, while the muscles of a bird that is likely to be fit have resilience within them. An experienced flier once told me that, when fit, a pigeon’s muscles should feel like a woman’s breast! Excessively hard muscles are associated with inflammation in birds that have been exercised beyond their fitness capability.
Colour The muscles of a fit pigeon vary in colour from a rosy pink through a variety of purple shades. However, most birds when well do have pink muscles. This indicates a muscle with a well-developed circulation and well perfused with blood. Such muscles usually have the potential for a lot of work.
However, some birds are fit when their muscles appear slightly purple. This is probably due to some melanin pigment (the same pigment that gives the ‘blue’ to feathers) either scattered through the muscles or the skin. This is why most reds, mealies and white birds almost always have pink muscles. Blue muscles occur in three situations: 1. Birds that have been overworked and have become chemically bruised through lactic acid accumulation 2. Unhealthy or unfit birds for a short period after exercise until they catch their breath and re-oxygenate their blood. This process will take longer in birds with any form of respiratory problem. 3. Birds in generally poor health.
Skin over flight muscles In fit birds, the skin over the flight muscles often appears thin and transparent with little flake. These changes usually relate to the increase in muscle size that can be associated with fitness. The skin is elastic and tends to stretch in a manner similar to a balloon filling with air, leading to the changes that we notice. In birds that have been fit for a long time, the skin can accommodate the increase and these changes are not so apparent.
Winner of the Victorian Statewide 1200km race for 2001, Dave Gray,
holding his champion in front of his racing loft.
Keel The keel should preferably be white, not pink. The muscle inflammation and bruising that occur with overwork generally tend to turn the keel pink. The clearly defined pink ‘blood spot’ that contrasts against a white keel indicates health and a stress-free environment, but not fitness. You can get this in stock birds as well.
As a general rule, if the muscles are full but toned, remain pink, and the keel is white, the birds are exercising within their fitness capability. If they are also spending a lot of time on the wing, then this, in turn, means that their stamina and fitness are developing.
Weight The fit bird’s body needs to feel full and toned, yet at the same time not be heavy. It should be light but have strength. It should be buoyant. It is here that the skills of fanciers come into play. They must be able not to only detect changes in the bird’s weight and condition but also know how to alter their management and feeding to get the birds right. Birds that are fat become heavy in the hand, while birds that are not working properly tend to become ‘leady’.
Anything that makes the birds feel unwell (the most common culprit being wet canker) will mean that they will still fly around the loft if forced, but simply do their laps. They will spend time on the wing but will not push beyond their own comfort zone and actually improve their fitness. These birds tend to float rather than really exercise, in the process becoming ‘leady’. Birds that are fat need to have the energy and calorie content of their seed mix decreased (fewer oil and starchy seeds). I believe this is a much better approach than simply reducing the volume of grain fed. Conversely, birds that are light need a richer ration, perhaps supplemented with a conditioning agent such as wheat germ, canola or hempseed oil.
Feet Birds are no different from us. When unwell, we get a low peripheral blood pressure, making us pale and sensitive to cold. Pigeons are the same. In birds with a poor peripheral circulation, the feet appear pale and cold, and in birds that are dehydrated, the feet can actually become a bit shrivelled. In well birds, the feet appear full and pink and are usually clean and warm, even in cold or damp conditions.
Eye The eye itself should appear wet, glistening and bright. However, there should be no excess moisture. Some fanciers use the term ‘glass eye’ to describe this appearance. The iris should be full of colour and the pupil should have a rapid response to light. The third eyelid should be tucked right back and will sometimes quiver the beat of the heart in well birds. Increased prominence of the third eyelid is usually associated with respiratory infection. This makes the membrane covering the third eyelid become inflamed and thickened, making it harder to fit under the main upper and lower lids.
The blink in a fit bird should be virtually undetectable. However, it is interesting to note that pigeons only blink regularly with their third eyelid, as it is the only eyelid with developed muscles. The main eyelids should be well retracted but covering the eye to the edge of the iris, making the eyes appear round and prominent. Some birds do, however, have an oversized eyelid opening, which is heritable.
Victorian Homing Association champion for 2012, Alf Vella, oversees a
returning race bird.
Mouth The lining of the mouth should be rosy pink, not pale (associated with anaemia or general ill health), red (inflammation) or dirty grey (due to long-term inflammation, usually associated with respiratory infection or wet canker). The mouth should be moist but free of excess mucus. Any mucus present should preferably be clear. The tonsils (above the ‘fringe’ and at the entrance to the windpipe) should lie flat and match the surrounding tissue in colour. The windpipe should be still and elliptical.
The ‘slot’ (choana or palatine slit) should have no discharge and preferably be open. Respiratory infection can cause the edges here to swell, narrowing its opening. The tongue should lie flat on the floor of the mouth and should, in most birds, be a pale pink colour to its tip, although some birds do naturally have pigmented tongue tips. The beak should be closed when the bird is being handled. Remember not to examine the mouth soon after feeding or exercise as there will be more mucus present and the mouth will appear redder.
Wattle The cere at the base of the beak should be white, chalky and free of associated discharge. However, sometimes, in health, it can be pale pink due to the birds having flown in rain, billing, or genetic factors. With respiratory infection, mucus forms in the sinuses, and then drains under the cere and on through the ‘slot’ into the mouth.
The cere acts like a sponge, absorbing this discharge and becoming stained a yellow to brown colour. With mild respiratory infection, a small amount of clear mucus may appear at the nostrils, making the beak here look a bit darker and shiny. The eye cere should be white and covered in bloom, except in birds that have genetically pink eye ceres.
Feathers The feathers should be covered in bloom, tight, and held close to the body. They should appear shiny and feel silky. The tail should be the width of a single feather. Sometimes, the marking and colours will appear just that bit more distinct. The white feathers of a pied might contrast more. The main or contour feathers are all lost and replaced just once a year in the annual moult. Conversely, powder down feathers can be lost all year round. However, they are only lost when the birds are feeling well. The disintegrating powder down feathers are one of the main components of a bird’s bloom. Bloom production and powder down feather drop are therefore a good indication of general health.
Bloom gives a silky feel and a lustrous shine to the feathers. When being produced in good quantities, it will accumulate on the outer edges of the flight feathers as a white covering. This, in turn, leads to white marks, called friction rubs, on the vane of the flights being produced when the bird flies. When handling fit birds, bloom will accumulate on the hands and clothes of the fancier. Graham Davison (‘Davo’), a very successful Australian flyer, states that when his birds are well, his loft actually turns white. More bloom will, however, be produced on hot days and it quickly accumulates in healthy birds if they are not flown or bathed. In some fit birds, the feathers become puffed over their ears, in others not. Behaviour As stated earlier, I believe it is very difficult to pick a race team simply by handling the birds during a basketing session. I think it is vital to make an assessment of the birds’ fitness by observation of their behaviour in and around the loft during the week, the way they exercise around the loft and, in particular, how they look when they land, both from loft exercise and from a toss. It is only through observation of these behaviours that one gets an idea of how a bird feels in itself, and its exercise tolerance.
Handling, in addition to ruling out certain things that would prevent a bird from being sent (for example, a hen that has become ‘eggy’, a minor injury or flights at an awkward stage), usually simply reinforces the impression one has already gained of the bird and confirms that there are no indicators of ill health. Jo Herbots of Belgium informed me that his father’s main job, and a very important one around the loft, is observation of the birds to ensure that the correct birds are sent to the races and the correct ones pooled.
Loft signs Fit pigeons should be bright and active and keen to exercise. When well, some birds will fly by themeselves. Others can exhibit a variety of behavioural changes (for example, a cock may parade along the top of a door or take over a second nest box, or a hen may be reluctant to come into the loft when called). An observant fancier can correlate such behavioural changes in individual birds with their corresponding performance. For a bird to become truly fit, it must be mentally happy. This is why it is not possible to force fitness, no matter what tossing or feeding regime is used. How many times does one see a young cock take over a vacant box, or a young hen become flirty and start to really glow?
For true fitness to come, the birds must be happy and content in their loft. The late Keith Saggers used the term ‘loft happy’ and it is very apt. Fit birds are confident of their position within the loft. This shows itself in a number of ways. They rest and sleep well, sometimes to the point of letting a wing hang from the perch. They are tame and confident with the fancier but are alert and interested in his actions, watching him when in the loft. Fit birds are keen to protect their perch and are prepared to squabble over food. Lofts that house fit birds are therefore noisy and active.
Loft-flying signs Fit birds are usually keen to leave the loft at their usual exercise time. They fly high and with purpose, are prepared to range, will become strung out in single lines and duck and weave. As mentioned earlier, they do not float when flying, in the way that tired pigeons or pigeons that are scared of their loft will, but fly with purpose. Fit teams will usually exercise for ½–1½ hours. Do, however, remember that some birds (such as mated birds, particularly cocks) get anxious if away from their perch or box too long and will come back to the loft to make sure that no other bird is there.
It is rare for birds that are properly bonded to their loft to fly for more than 1½ hours. I hear of fliers saying that their birds fly for two to four hours, but I feel that a bird that is truly bonded to its loft would become anxious being away from it for this long. Similarly, I would start to wonder if there was actually something scaring the birds from the loft. It is always nice to see the birds exercise, but it is important that they do not overfly, in the process losing condition that would be better used up in the next race.
Tossing signs Fit birds look bright in the basket and, when released, group up and exit the toss point quickly. Upon arrival at the loft, they recover quickly. I always use this sign with my own birds and take particular note of the way particular candidates for that weekend’s race look when they land. I believe that if a bird lands from an approximately 1-hour headwind toss, still looking good and keen to re-establish itself on its perch, then it must be well.
I also take note of the way the birds come at the loft, and like to see them coming hard and pushing. I take an aerobic toss, where the birds arrive panting but recover quickly, as a good sign. Here they are not panting from fatigue but because they feel fit and well enough in themselves to try as hard as they can to reach the loft. Birds from an unfit team arrive at their loft in a strung-out fashion, appear initially confused, and take a long time to recover.
Droppings The appearance of the droppings on the perch gives an indication of the birds’ health. The droppings should preferably be brown, although sometimes greenish droppings (if the birds are fed greens or seed containing chlorophyll, such as dun peas) are fine. Always, however, the droppings should be well formed and tight. An undisturbed dropping on the perch in the morning indicates a restful night, which is conducive to fitness. Down feathers stuck to the droppings indicate an ongoing down feather drop, and this is a good indication of health.
The droppings should be uniform throughout the loft, indicating that flock health is good. Problems such as wet canker, which affect different birds within the loft to different extents, result in a variety of droppings throughout the loft. Some fliers mention that the uric acid (white) should be on the top or bottom of the dropping and that the droppings should be at a distance from the bird, indicating that they are dry, nut-like and have been spat out.
In summary All of these signs may appear somewhat disjointed but, with experience, it becomes almost second nature to monitor them. As stated above, there are no fixed rules when selecting a fit bird and fanciers must use their eyes, hands and commonsense. With experience, one can detect that extra glow that a truly fit bird will have and, indeed, finding that a lot of one’s birds have become like this by the time of basketing, is a truly satisfying experience for the conscientious fancier.
Often, good distance birds appear always to be in
good health, as shown here. This is 1st VHA
Federation, 850km, 3000 birds competing,
released at 6:00am and clocked at 6:30pm, for B.
Bloom accumulated on the outer edges of the flight feathers as a
white covering, indicating good health.