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Training pigeons for war service


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I have often wondered given the losses we suffer every year in racing, how could the pigeons which we read about in the sticky 'messengers of war' thread continually fly through the most extreme & adverse conditions  - and over long distances  - while todays birds sometimes seem pushed to get themselves home from even the shortest training tosses? Was it in their training perhaps?


The following is an extract from Garry McCafferty's book "They Had No Choice - Racing Pigeons at War". ISBN 0 7524 2403 3



The majority of pigeons sent on service homed from Northern France, Belgium and southern Holland, but there were birds which brought messages from as far afield as the Bordeaux area in the west, the upper Rhone valley in the south, and northern Denmark to the east, a distance of just under 500 miles.




Royal Canadian Air Force -  Pigeon Manual  - 1943


1.     Training


In order to ensure the successful operation of this branch of the service, care should be exercised in choosing the personnel.


(a)     In addition to qualifications required for enlistment to the Force, pigeoneers should be fully qualified to :


(1)     Care for and feed pigeons properly

(2)     Train and condition birds for racing

(3)     Breed them successfully

(4)     Instruct others in (1) (2) & (3)



Knowledge: they should have a thorough knowledge of the capabilities, limitations and habits of homing pigeons.


Personal traits: a Pigeoneer who is boisterous and of a turbulent nature tends to frighten and upset the pigeons, thereby reducing their effectiveness.


The successful Pigeoneer should possess:


(1)     Dependability – Regular and prompt in carrying out all his duties.

(2)     Kindness – In order to gain the confidence of the pigeons.

(3)     Patience – Considerable time and repeated effort are necessary to properly train the birds.

(4)     Neatness – To provide a sanitary and attractive loft for pigeons and keep a legible set of records.

(5)     Thoroughness – Close attention to all details.

(6)     Firmness – To enforce discipline in the handling of the pigeons.

(7)     Power of accurate observation – Able to observe details readily and accurately in order to note and learn characteristics of individual pigeons in the loft.



2.     Pigeon Training


All pigeons, except those specifically reserved for breeding purposes, undergo training continuously from the time they are hatched until the ages of 7 to 10 years. Pigeons can be trained for both day and night flying, but for the time being the RCAF will concentrate on day flying and the data contained herein on night flying is purely informative.


(a)     The training of the pigeons begins in the nest compartment


(1)     The first step in training the youngster is to teach it to understand that the can rattle means food. This training is continued during its stay in the breeding loft and during the early stages of the second step.


(2)     Youngsters should be taken out of the nest boxes when they are from 3 to 4 weeks old and placed in the young bird loft. They should be placed in an open-ended basket on the floor and fed and watered there. It is quite probable that this basket will be their home for their first 7 to 10 days in the young bird loft. This procedure removes all fear of baskets from their mind and they will always regard a training basket as their second home.


(B)     The second step is the training of the youngster to trap. It is essential that pigeons trap immediately from any flight, in order that messages carried by them can be delivered with the least possible delay.



When new birds are received which do not know how to trap, place a settling cage over the landing board and proceed with the new birds as with the youngsters above.


Begin the first trapping exercises in the morning after the loft has been cleaned, the next about 2pm and the third one hour before sunset. At the beginning of the 3rd day, teach the youngster to fly from the hand to the landing board and require them to trap as before. First hold the pigeons only a few feet away from the landing board; as they become stronger on the wing, gradually increase this distance until the point of launching is at the maximum distance from which the loft is still visible, not to exceed one mile.


Continue these trapping exercises three times daily for the first week. At the end of this period all the pigeons should have been trained to trap readily. In case there are one or more obstinate or unruly pigeons that do not trap quickly, place them in a nest compartment for a period of two feedings, allow them water but no food, and permit them to observe the other pigeons as they are being fed, then repeat the trapping exercises. This method will usually cure them.


Adjust the trap to allow entry but not exit from the loft. Always have a few grains for each pigeon returning from a liberation, as a reward.



(c ) On completion of training in (B) above, pigeons should be ready to receive intermediate training.


The birds should first receive a sufficient number of exercise flights, normally two per day until they can fly easily for periods from 40 to 60 minutes. If the birds are moulting, these training flights should not begin until the heaviest part of the moult is completed.


Birds should never be released through the trap for exercise,. Always release the birds through the window and see that they return through the trap.


Once training is started, it should be concentrated. Birds are given four or five training flights a week starting at three miles, with gradually increasing distances until at the end of one month they have flown 100 miles successfully. In each training flight, the first release at a new distance should be in a group and after that, single tosses.


Pigeons that have received this training are in proper physical condition and can now fly distances of from 150 to 200 miles.


After the pigeons are a year old they are mated for the first time. During this time, they are to be trained as in (c ) above and after working up to 100 mile flights they are ready for long distances up to 300 miles. Yearlings should not normally be flown over 300 miles. They are kept in condition by 40 to 60 mile flights twice a week.


The training of OBs is exactly the same as for yearlings, except that after the OBs have on (?) hundred mile flights they are ready for distances of five to six hundred miles. They  are also kept in condition by 40 to 60 mile flights twice a week.


While pigeons are moulting, the amount of work is reduced. When a new shipment of homing pigeons is received at a loft, it is necessary to confine them in the loft to acquaint them with their new surroundings. In addition, they should be allowed to spend their time in the aviary or cage where they can observe and familiarise themselves with the surrounding countryside. During confinement, spend a great deal of time taming the new birds. Allow them their own section and permit individual birds to select their own perch. See that they are not disturbed and talk to them constantly in order that they may soon feel at home. In general, youngsters strong enough to fly should be confined about three days. OBs may require confinement up to 6 days to settle.



At the end of this period, the traps should be opened and the pigeons allowed to go out [note – out the window] on their own initiative. The best time for this first liberation is late in the afternoon, before the pigeons have had their last feed of the day. Dark or overcast days are ideal. After 20 to 30 minutes of liberation, the pigeons are called by the can rattle and givwen their evening food. On this liberation, do not drive the pigeons out of the loft . If they are driven out they will fly wildly and, without knowledge of the country, may lose themselves and fail to return. The normal young pigeon, on being permitted to go through the window for the very first time of its own free will, will perch on the landing board or loft roof  and probably make a few short flights in the air, returning to the roof of the loft after each one, venturing farther and farther away in each succeeding flight.  


On the second day of liberation, the window is to be opened at about noon and the pigeons are allowed to go out of their own free will, to remain outside for perhaps 30 minutes; then they are called in by the can rattle and given a very slight amount of food. Give them another flight of 30 minutes, terminating just before the evening feeding time.


On the third day, open the window before the pigeons are fed in the morning and allow them to go out of their own free will and fly around the loft for perhaps 30 minutes; after which call them in by the can rattle and give them the regular amount of food. About 4pm or 5pm, depending upon weather conditions, allow them another flight.


Never feed a pigeon anywhere except inside the loft. Never allow a pigeon to alight upon the ground, a tree or building; only the landing board or loft roof. After pigeons have been thoroughly settled and trained to a loft, do not allow them to remain an indefinite time on the roof of the loft; always call them in by the can rattle and give them a few grains of food.


Never send a pigeon in poor condition out for a flight; in the case of healthy pigeons , when taken out always liberate them and allow a flight home, reducing the distance if necessary. Never carry back a pigeon that is able to fly to the loft.


After the first moult, the young pigeons may be expected to show their first desire to mate. If it is not desired to let them mate at this time, the cock and hen pigeons should be separated and placed in separate compartments or lofts. The nest boxes should be closed.


When pigeons are mated, they are continued in training, even after eggs are laid. If the eggs are to be destroyed, both cock and hen may be taken out on the same practice flight. If the eggs are to be hatched and the squeakers developed, only one of the mates is sent out on any one flight, the other remaining in the nest. Incidentally, the homing tendency of the pigeon is heightened during the breeding season by his domestic desires, and his reliability is increased thereby.




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