Thou must buy thee pigeons from thy ground
In these autumn days after a summer of unprecedented and frightening floods, a moment of reflection is in order.
The great solidarity within our nation, characterised by warmth and affection between citizens, contrasted sharply with the bitter rhetoric in the political arena at times. A lot remains that connects us Belgians unconditionally, especially in the face of adversity. The world of pigeon racing is no exception. Is there any future at all, after a season of losing so many pigeons without explanation?
Of course, but this will require us to maintain our membership numbers. This can be done with the rule of three:
- The older fanciers must give two of their best pigeons to young, novice candidates, thereby investing in their own interests, the future of the sport.
- Apprentice pigeon fanciers must be willing to observe an awful lot and be very willing to listen to the older (master) pigeon fanciers.
Renowned brothers Noel and Robert Descheemaecker, sons of a publisher, were passionate fanciers. They had the true spirit to reach the top, through analysis and insight. With their publications, they taught fanciers how to race with pigeons nearly 100 years ago. Noel (a former lawyer) remained active in the sport until his 92nd birthday. I once read, in one of the old editions of “duifje lacht”, then called "Het Duivensport", a green booklet from the 1930s:
“Thou must buy thee pigeons from thy ground”
I thought about that for a long time. Would the orientation ability from distant release sites to a fixed coordinate in one's own region be inherited along with it?
I discussed this with Luc Sioen from Moorslede, who is convinced that the pigeons undergo selection per region according to the average positioning in the wind.
The pigeon game is a wind game indeed, which means that e.g. pigeons from Limburg develop differently from those in West Flanders.
Pigeons that always have to fight the wind ("Flandriens" in cycling terms) or pigeons that are more likely to have tail winds are going to develop different kinds of muscles.
The former need flight muscles able to produce pure strength (long, smooth muscles) while the latter require more agility and control to deal with tail winds (striated muscles).
Dark red, smooth muscles function optimally with a high rate of fat metabolism, while white, striated muscles require an adequate reserve of carbohydrates (sugars, starch).
(See the snippet from the blog "Ketones 06/2019" below)
To be clear, both types of performance are different but equally taxing in the end.
Of course, the wondrous pigeon can easily switch between these typical calorie sources, but these processes do take a bit of time. Admittedly, this can mean the difference between a race won or lost.
So, the performance that is required of the pigeon partially determines the development of the pigeon variety “subject to the location relative to the release site and consequently the wind”.
Headwind pigeons are built differently than tailwind pigeons.
An experienced fancier is able to guess what region a pigeon is from with relative ease, just by taking the pigeon into their hand.
This is how pigeon varieties came to be in concert with the one-loft races, selected by this type of flight and delivering during this competition as a result.
Still, the statement “Thou must buy thee pigeons from thy ground” could also apply to the scent of the region...
Each region has its typical scent, which is determined by the soil and everything that stands or grows on it. Scientific research has long taught us that pigeons possess a geographical map (visible elements), a magnetic map (a real compass), a sound map (long sound waves) as well as an "olfactory map" (scent map). They recognise the scent of a region via sensors at the back of the nose, in contact with the brain via the olfactory nerve, based on the forests, fields, rivers, including the fish they contain, the sea air, the mountain air, etc. They smell the loft, figuratively and most likely literally as well....
Link with experiments in 1985
"Thus, pigeons can be prevented from orienting their way home by removing certain substances from the inhaled air. In addition, they can be systematically misled by false information sent to their olfactory centre."
Back in the day, between and after the wars, pollution from emerging industry was more brutal, with large amounts of discernible, usually foul emissions.
On the face of it, industry has become cleaner these days.
However, it now produces thousands of different chemicals, which we cannot even see or smell (or even analyse in some cases).
The recently discovered PFOS pollution by 3M is a poignant example of this, contaminating an entire population day after day for years without anyone noticing...
We should not forget that pigeons can find each other from miles away with their sense of smell, using very small amounts of pheromones (scent hormones). A higher percentage loss than normal could possibly be due to surreptitious harmless-seeming chemicals interfering with the pheromones. Certain pigeons will suffer less, others more, but an effect is undoubtedly there.
This is an additional argument for not giving pigeons unnecessary chemical aids such as antibiotics, but only natural ones, based on substances secreted by common plants.
Based on this principle, Stopmite uses a specific selection of aromatic plant extracts to create a sense of home based on a typical home scent in the loft. According to fanciers, they get very much attached to the ambient scent due to regular use of Stopmite.
It is a pleasant, respiratory-relieving scent, both for pigeons and humans (a chest remedy with an expectorant effect). A pigeon flying above the loft or sitting on the roof perceives the recognisable scent and is inclined to enter.
Apprentice pigeon fanciers must ask themselves whether their love for pigeons is unconditional, otherwise failure is all that lies ahead.
Sometimes, I see laypeople jump up and listen, glued to an unlikely story like that of some pigeons born from an egg hatched by foster parent pigeons at a fancier many kilometres away and then flying back to the loft where that egg was laid as early as their first flight.
Participating in these near-supernatural phenomena that make pigeon racing so magical should fill us all with admiration, humility and gratitude. This attitude is partly the basis for our love of pigeons. It is well worth all our sacrifices.
In our polluted environment, we are also moving towards a more natural approach with our pigeons. Comed has been leading the way for nearly 50 years...
In the run-up to the new breeding season, Comed's trusted classics are once again ready to go
Below, we provide a brief scientific analysis for interested enthusiasts:
The birds are unique in the world because they have red muscles that generate energy from fats. They can perform enormous feats of flight incomparable to those of mammals that have only white muscles, which depend on sugar for their energy. Pigeons have a combination of these two types of muscle.
The white muscles lie on the surface and the red muscles are positioned deeper against the leg. Sugars, fats and proteins are all fuels that pigeons can use. They readily release ATP via metabolism (Krebbs cycle) that is stored (ATP battery) to enable muscle contraction. A pigeon’s chest muscle mostly consists of the red variety that generates large amounts of energy from lipids (fat). In this muscle, each unit of fat (mol) releases 130 units of ATP for the energy battery.
White muscle will generate enough energy from sugars, which is just 38 ATP.
There is also a process of conversion from sugars, providing just 2 units of ATP very quickly and for a short period of time (suitable for taking off and landing). In addition, everything is strongly influenced by the presence of much or little oxygen; (see depiction below)
This representation was first created by Comed for my visit to Taiwan more than 10 years ago. Presentation of different energy systems based on the type of muscle, type of fuel and the availability of much or little oxygen.
The second item in this slide shows the importance of oils and fats in the presence of plenty of oxygen as the fuel of choice with an efficiency of 130 units of AT versus just 34 units of ATP when burning sugars. At the bottom of item 3. Production of ammonia from burning protein, (flare-up of muscle mass in emergencies), which can be neutralised by using Roni.
It looks complicated but the bottom line is that a pigeon performs mainly on fat and much less on sugars. For that reason, they also like to eat grains as they contain relatively high amounts of fats.
Energy generation from sugars will play a role in the first phase of the flight, but returning home after a taxing flight (headwind) is purely fat-based.
Sugars are saved for steering (tailwind), landing and taking off using the white muscles.
It is also through the variation in the composition of this complex muscle system in individual pigeons that we assess their suitability for long-distance races or for speed races.