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Some Further Nutritional Considerations in Pigeon

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Some Further Nutritional Considerations in Pigeon

I thought it might be useful and perhaps clearer for fanciers if I were to expand on some of the points raised in an earlier article entitled "Pigeon Racing: Breast Muscles and the Fuels for Flight", published recently in this journal. At the outset, I would like to say how well understand that traditional and time-honoured practices in pigeon racing, including long-held views on the use of peas and beans for racing, die hard. Like many others, I tend to subscribe to the ideas that "if it’s not broken don’t fix it!" and that "nothing succeeds like success!" I understand that for good and time honoured reasons, quite a number of Australian fanciers continue to believe in and adhere to the idea of using high levels of legumes such as peas and beans in preparing their birds for racing events -- in fact, as I mentioned in a much earlier article, given current knowledge of the known fuel requirements of the breast muscles, I was very surprised indeed to see a photograph of birds awaiting liberation from a transport vehicle in Australia, and the feed troughs were filled with maple peas!! If it were my responsibility to choose grains for this and other transport vehicles, I would definitely choose and fill the feeders with maize!

At least two major points about the use of maple (or other) peas stand out here. Firstly, maple peas (and by extension, other types of peas and beans) are definitely not an energy food. They are relatively high in protein, a nutrient that is very important in the building, repair and maintenance of tissues, and it is in these areas, i.e., building, repair and maintenance, that peas and beans have a major role to play -- hence their great application in breeding, rearing and moulting rations. They are the building blocks of the body. In a rough, comparable sense, proteins make up the foundation, framework and sheeting of a building - that is, the actual structure itself.

By contrast, the cereal grains - wheat, barley, oats, rice, maize - are the major energy-producing grains because of their high content of carbohydrates, and since racing consumes a great deal of energy, it is logical that these grains, and perhaps some others such as peanuts and sunflower seeds, etc., which have a good supply of fat, should make up the bulk of racing rations. To continue with the analogy of a building, the cereal grains would represent the fuel that is used to heat or cool (as both heating and cooling require energy) the building mentioned in the last paragraph.

The tradition of using high levels of peas and beans in racing rations seems to have originated among British fanciers, who are well known for the outstanding, remarkable and often memorable performances of their birds, especially in distance races, including those across the sometimes treacherous English Channel. I find it difficult to simply dismiss the views of these special fanciers and the superb performances of their birds -- and truly I don’t, but rather, I accept and honour them and their birds.

It occurs to me though that if almost everyone in the racing game in Britain adhered to a particular racing system, or as in this case, the use of high levels of peas and beans for racing, obviously the vast majority of winners -- and certainly, the vast majority of the losing pigeons, and all other in between, would come out of that same system. In that respect, there seemed to be great uniformity of opinion on the use of peas and beans for racing, to the point that it was almost dogma. Almost everyone used that particular feeding regime, so naturally enough, the great majority of winning AND losing pigeons were fed similarly. Only when some enlightened individual, or one with a different idea came along, did the benefits of feeding pigeons for racing according to the energy needs of racing muscle, rather than according to the beliefs of the fancier, begin to be noted more widely.

As I mentioned in a much earlier article, such an individual in the person of Dr Rigg, a physician in Britain, used high levels of maize (at times up to 80% of the ration) in particular to prepare pigeons for racing, and his results were outstanding, to say the least. His birds sizzled on race day, so full of energy were they. Since that time, especially with the massive imports of European strains - short, middle and long distance birds - into Britain, there seems to be trend toward greater use of the cereal grains, including high percentages of maize, for racing. Incidentally, European fanciers have long held the view that high levels of peas and beans in a racing ration are responsible for the appearance of "blue flesh" in pigeons - hence their belief in light feeds after the birds return home from a race.

Despite the wealth of modern information detailing the fuel requirements of the breast muscles, there continue to be traditionalists who believe firmly in the use peas and beans in high amount for racing. A case in point was a likeable Scottish fancier I met in September 1999 while he was visiting in Canada. He stated that his birds had won many important races in his area, and that he used large amounts of peas and beans. He would not hear of using large amounts of the cereal grains, including maize for racing -- it was horse feed. All I could do was to give him some printed information on the fuels that pigeons require for rapid cruising flight over long distances, in the hope that he might find time over the winter to peruse and consider the subject more carefully.

Secondly, maple peas are fairly high in anti-nutritive substances, i.e., substances that interfere with the digestion of nutrients in the ration, protein in particular. For that reason, maple peas are really not all they are cracked up to be. In fact, according to a friend who is an expert in peas, beans, lentils, etc., all peas and beans contain some level of these interfering substances, and that maple peas contain some of the highest levels.

Historically, it has been known that raw soy beans are completely unsuitable for use in livestock feeds, because of the presence of these anti-nutritive substances. To make soy beans useful in diets for livestock, feed companies have resorted to cooking these beans, a process that destroys the interfering substances, and allows these high-protein grains to be utilised well by livestock. My colleague recommends perhaps not more than 5-10% maple peas in a breeding/rearing/moulting ration, with the balance of protein-containing grains made up of other kinds of peas. Wrinkled or smooth green, white or yellow peas are preferable to a high percentage of maple peas in a ration to get around the major problems with maple peas. It is true that pigeons seem to relish maple peas and eat them avidly - at least mine do, and I have heard similar reports from other fanciers. However, if they contain high levels of these interfering substances, we should consider reducing their level in any ration to perhaps 10-15% of the total ration, and of course, we should find other peas to substitute for maple peas.

Having stated the foregoing, I will be asked, "Is there a place for high-protein grains in the preparation of birds for racing?" The answer is: yes, definitely! In my view, the place for high levels of peas and beans in the diet of the athletic pigeon is in the early part of the week, following the race of the previous weekend. Why so? On the assumption that there may have been some level of damage - mild to severe -to the breast muscles, particularly if the birds have worked hard, repairs to any such damage should logically occur early in the process of getting the birds ready for an upcoming race. This idea is based on findings by Dr George of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, of damaged and degenerated breast muscles in Canada geese after Spring migration .

Like you, 1 realize that pigeons are not geese, but based on this example of degenerative changes in another working species, I feel it is entirely possible, if not probable, that similar changes could occur in racing pigeons after any race, but perhaps more likely after a moderate to very tough race. It seems to me that, until there are definitive studies on this point in racing pigeons, we should not hesitate to draw helpful information from experiences with other avian species, and try to apply the same principles to our racing pigeons. This means that, in my opinion, the repair processes should begin as early as possible following the last race, so the use of high-protein grains would seem to be the logical answer.

If birds are being raced every week or every other week, for example in a widowhood program, it seems to me that the best time for repairs to begin is very soon after the last race, which means in the first few days of the week prior to the next race. Once repairs have been completed through the use of high levels of peas and beans, the muscle can then be refueled through the use of high amounts of cereal grains, and even some high-fat grains such as peanuts or sunflower seeds, etc.. It is logical to me that repairs should come first followed by re-fuelling for the upcoming race. This suggestion doesn’t mean that fanciers shouldn’t use a light to heavy feeding curve in preparing birds for the next race, but that at some point very early in the week, there should be a day or two in which high percentages of highprotein grains should be fed in order to bring about any necessary repairs.

Another point - feeding birds on a light to heavy curve each week doesn’t mean that peas and beans should be completely eliminated from the ration once they have been fed in relatively high amounts earlier in the week. Rather, it means that much less emphasis is placed on the use of peas and beans - but they are not eliminated from the diet - and much more emphasis placed on the use of cereal grains, including high amounts of maize and even high-fat grains such as peanuts and sunflower seeds, etc.. Recall that in the previous article I mentioned that it has been found in birds in general that high levels of protein in a ration will decrease the amount of fat that the liver is capable of producing - another reason to avoid feeding high levels of peas and beans toward shipping day.

The expression "light feed" used earlier means feeding high amounts of light, easily digested (whatever that means) grains such as barley, wheat, safflower, etc., and avoiding the "heavy" grains such as peas, beans, maize, etc.. Light feeds are supposed to nourish the bird while it recovers from the stresses and strains of the previous race, and to decrease the chances of the "blue flesh" problem that can occur when birds have flown hard, and when heavy feeds are used too soon after the birds arrive home. It is in this very early period that I am suggesting that higher levels of peas and beans could be used for a day or two to bring about any needed repair to the breast muscles.

To provide two examples, I note firstly that Mike Genus, a prominent American fancier who also now races very successfully in Holland, recommends that on the day birds return from a race, the returning birds should be fed 25% safflower, 25% kaffir corn, 15% hemp, 15% wheat, and 20% raw peanuts. It seems to me that this diet has a fair component of protein in the use of safflower, hemp and peanuts, and perhaps a diet such as this could be an example of the "repair" diet we have discussed, as well as supplying carbohydrates and fats for energy. However, for the second day he recommends a diet of 100'% barley (light feed).

The expression "heavy feed" means a change from the light diet to one of higher amounts of peas, beans, maize, wheat, rice, oats, etc., with greatest emphasis on all the cereal grains, particularly maize, and even peanuts and sunflower seeds which are high in fat. Continuing with the example provided by Mike Genus, for the third, fourth, fifth and sixth days (shipping day), he recommends 15% safflower, 15% kaffir corn, 15% hemp, 15% wheat, 35°/ conditioning feed (he doesn’t explain what this means), and 5% peanuts. For races of 300 miles (500 km) and beyond, he recommends 20% maize, 15% kaffir corn, 15% hemp, 15% safflower, 20% conditioning feed, and 15% peanuts (heavy feed).

Secondly, in his book, "The Widowhood Year", prominent British fancier Dave Allen has a different light to heavy feeding curve. His basic racing mix consists of 45% maize, 25% peas, 10% white dari, 10% wheat, 5% pellets and 5% safflower. The birds receive only barley when they return from the race on Saturday, 50/50 barley and race mix for the next four days, and then racing mix only, for the next two days, which brings the birds to shipping day. As you can appreciate, the Genus and Allen feeding methods are merely examples that come readily to mind. There are many others, probably as many as there are fanciers who use them! The point is that these diets are energy-rich to prepare the birds for racing.

To me, one of the main points to arise from the Ganus or Allen rations is that they are geared toward the production of energy for the upcoming race. In truth, the point of any ration for racing lies, not in the specific identity of the grains involved, but rather in the known energy they are capable of generating for flight. For example, if I could not obtain kaffir corn or hemp, I wouldn’t give it another thought, but would substitute standard maize for kaffir, and sunflower seeds or peanuts for hemp, and so on. To help further with any necessary substitution, I would obtain a set of nutritional tables that would spell out the average amounts of protein, fat, fibre, carbohydrate, etc., in each grain, to allow me to buy in my local area, the important grains that I would need for breeding, rearing and racing. Staff of feed companies and animal or poultry nutritionists could also be helpful in providing guidance for the fancier in selecting high protein or high energy grains for use in rations, and in interpreting nutritional tables for the uncertain fancier. There is nothing written in stone to say that a fancier must follow exactly, the rations proposed by Genus or Allen, neither would these top fanciers insist that you do so. Just keep in mind the idea of substituting one comparable grain for another should the need arise.

Some time ago, I read a very interesting article by Dr Pawloski, an American dentist who is also a biochemist. He made the point that feeding high amounts of high-protein grains toward the end of the week could work against the pigeon by causing unwanted thirst in the bird. His idea was based on the fact that the end product of protein digestion in birds is called uric acid which is excreted from the body through the kidneys, and is recognisable as the pasty, white tip on droppings. The higher amounts of protein that are fed, the higher is the amount of uric acid excreted. As an example, many wild song birds feed insect larvae and worms to their youngsters (for the high levels of protein needed for rapid growth), and the droppings of these young birds are passed in a clear sac that the parents pick out of the nest and carry away from the immediate area. Because of the high-protein diet, these droppings contain a high amount of uric acid. When North American birds known as boat-tailed grackles nest in my evergreen trees, the black asphalt pavement on the street in front of my house is often heavily stained white as the parents use this flight path when they leave the nest carrying these sacs of droppings which they release over the pavement - all because of the amount of protein fed and the amount of uric acid subsequently excreted from the kidneys of these growing youngsters.

To continue with Dr Pawloski's idea, because the uric acid which is derived from the digestion of protein, is excreted from the body through the kidneys, the excretion process requires water to flush this pasty material through the kidneys. To do this, the bird has to draw water from its own tissues and pass

it through the kidneys. As a result, this process produces a certain level of dehydration that results in thirst. If the bird is in the loft, all it has to do is to go to the drinker to quench its thirst. If the bird is in the transport truck or is flying on its way home, water may not be so readily available. Many birds are not taught to drink in the basket, and some may not know how to find the drinker in the transport truck. If a bird is released thirsty from the transporter, obviously it can become very thirsty on the way home, and may search for water and thus delay its return home. Thus, another practical reason to avoid high levels of peas and beans in the ration toward shipping day, and in the feed given in the transporter.

Together with the use of the cereal grains and the high-fat grains in the preparation of birds for racing, there is the matter of using available sugars to

advantage. In a previous article, I mentioned the use of glucose in the drinking water for a day or perhaps two days in the week prior to shipping day.

Glucose is a key sugar in the lives of many creatures, including humans, for the production of energy. It can be built up by cells of the liver into its storage form known as glycogen, or it can be incorporated into fat production, the main fuel for racing. Recall that when investigators in the USA injected glucose intravenously into hungry young pigeons, there was rapid conversion of the glucose into fatty acids within three minutes of the injection! This is amazingly rapid production of fat, and is a fact that we can use to advantage when we are preparing birds for the upcoming race each week.

Another important sugar that was mentioned in the previous article is fructose. Like glucose, fructose is well absorbed from the intestines into nearby blood vessels that carry it to the liver where it is metabolised (utilised). The importance of fructose to pigeon racing lies in several facts. In birds in general, fat production from the metabolism of fructose exceeds that of all other carbohydrates collectively! Another highly significant point for us as pigeon flyers is that in birds, the metabolism of fructose and its conversion to fat receive very high metabolic priority, - a key fact that we can use to our advantage as we prepare birds each week for racing! Note that honey contains almost 40% fructose and about 30% glucose, two important sugars in the production of fat. This information offers another practical clue to the process of building fat reserves for all races, including the tougher distance events! Of course, the use of these sugars is in addition to the use of high levels of cereal grains in the days leading up to shipping.

In using glucose, fructose, or say honey, it is important that they NOT be used day after day after day. The reason is that many yeasts and moulds, as well as innocent and dangerous strains of bacteria, also use these sugars for their own life processes, including reproduction. In the case of yeasts or moulds, in the presence of these sugars for too many days, they can multiply extensively and begin to invade the wall of the crop and other organs where they can cause serious illness and death. For these reasons, at most it is best to use sugars for only one or two days at a time, say Wednesday and Thursday if shipping is on Friday, and Tuesday/Wednesday if shipping is on Thursday. I use 1-2 heaping teaspoons of sugar for 2 litres of water.

This information raises a point of interest. A few of my veterinary colleagues who race pigeons take the view that only fresh water – no additives at all - should be given to the birds in the one or two days prior to shipping, the idea being to try to avoid giving them anything that could induce excessive thirst during transportation to the race point and after liberation. Something to think about.

Remember the main points of feeding high energy rations for racing. Firstly, the white muscle fibres in the breast muscles of racing pigeons make up only 5-15% of the total mass of the breast muscles. Their chief and perhaps only fuel is glycogen - which, you may recall is comprised of many units of glucose linked together – for the explosive launch phase of flight. It has been shown that in the first 10-15 minutes of flight, all of the glycogen reserves in the white muscle are completely utilised, and for all practical purposes, white muscle stops working because its fuel reserves have been used up in the powerful launch. Incidentally chemical analysis of the white muscle alone has shown that it contains approximately 10% glycogen. When a section of breast muscle containing both red and white muscle was analysed, fat content was found to range from 10-14%, and glycogen content 3.5%.

Secondly, red muscle makes up 85-95% of the total muscle in the breast of the racing pigeon. Although red muscle operates rapidly, it operates much more slowly than white muscle, and as a result, it tires out much more slowly, a fact that is of immense importance to the pigeon. Because it tires slowly, red muscle is the muscle that is capable of rapid, sustained cruising flight over the few to many miles of the race course. As an aside, it is believed that the wing beat of the pigeon is a reflex that is controlled by a section of spinal cord in the neck region, and that in flight, the beat occurs automatically with no conscious will or effort on the part of the bird.

Very important to this process is the fact that the chief fuel of red muscle is fat which flows from the fat storage depots in the body cavity, into the blood stream, and then into the muscle in the form of fatty acids. Within the muscle, these fatty acids are transported to the area of special structures called mitochondria, which are the biological furnaces of the breast muscle. As it is required for flight, fat flows into the mitochondria where it is metabolised (means utilised). An important by-product of the utilisation of fat is a high-energy compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP for short) which provides the energy to allow the muscle to operate efficiently and rapidly for the few to many hours of the race.

Recall that as a fuel, fat has definite advantages over carbohydrates and proteins. One gram (about 1/30th of an ounce) of fat liberates about 9000 calories of energy, compared with only 4200 calories for carbohydrates, and about 4100 calories for protein. Note in this example that the amount of energy liberated by the utilisation of fats is over twice as much as that liberated by similar weights of carbohydrates and proteins combined!

Red muscle also contains a supply of glycogen, the compound that is the chief fuel of white muscle. The role of glycogen in red muscle hasn't been made entirely clear. Dr George, the Canadian researcher who described the fuels of the breast of muscle of pigeons, suggests that the glycogen in the red muscle may be present to provide a spark, so to speak, to enable the energy cycle (called Kreb's citric acid cycle) to keep turning over for the production of ATP. He also suggests that glycogen in red muscle may also be transferred directly to the white muscle, which you will recall, is completely depleted of glycogen in the first 10-15 minutes of flight.

An idea of my own is that, since white muscle makes up only 5-15% of the total mass of breast muscle, and because the launch as well as the potential need for dodging bursts of speed during the race, are very powerful, explosive actions, perhaps white muscle alone can't handle all of the effort needed. As red muscle makes up 85-95% of the muscle mass of the breast and also contains a supply of glycogen, I am suggesting that perhaps both red and white muscle operating together in a co-operative manner, are able to provide the explosive power needed to deal with these flight emergencies, both types of muscle utilising available glycogen.

Now, white muscle has to be recharged with glycogen during a race. The reason is that the basic function of white muscle seems to be to provide explosive, rapid, dodging bursts of speed, not only in the launch phase of flight, but also during the course of the race. If falcons, accipiters and other aerial predators attack, the pigeon must be prepared for great high-energy bursts of speed. Similarly, if overhead cables and other obstacles loom, the bird must be able to dodge rapidly and escape injury.

How is white muscle recharged with glycogen? Well, because the liver has good supplies of glycogen, it is the source of glycogen for white muscle. Over the next few hours, within cells of the liver, glycogen is broken down to its main component - glucose - which is then absorbed into the blood stream and carried to white muscle, where once again, it is assembled into the complex chemical structure we recognise as glycogen, ready to provide the energy needed for any emergency that requires explosive or dodging bursts of speed. Hence, even at the extreme time of 18 hours of flight, white muscle seems to have abundant supplies of glycogen.

In considering diets in general, it is not a bad idea to feed as wide a variety of grains as your pocket book will allow, in order to provide as many quality nutrients as possible throughout the year. Some grains may be deficient in certain nutrients, deficiencies that may be compensated for through the use of a number of grains in the diet. As well, from time to time, it is also a good idea to obtain grains from different geographical areas in your state, or from different areas of the country. Soils in one area may become deficient in certain important nutrients such as trace minerals, for example. Buying grains from another different area or soil type may be helpful in reducing the chances of ongoing deficiencies in the area from which you usually buy your grains.

In addition to the foregoing, I also find it useful to buy a bag of non-medicated high-protein poultry or livestock pellets that I can add to breeding, rearing and racing rations. These pellets contain a broad range of vitamins and minerals as well as the standard nutrients - protein, fat, fibre, carbohydrates, etc... Depending on the level of protein in the pellets, I will add up to 20% pellets to a breeding/rearing/moulting ration, 5-10% to a racing ration, and 5% to the winter ration.

At all times of the year, racing pigeons need a good supply of calcium that is usually provided in oyster shells or calcium carbonate rock chips. As well, they need a wide range of minerals, including the trace minerals, and salt. The best source of wide-ranging supply of minerals is a granular (loose) livestock mineral that the birds can pick up readily. Solid mineral blocks are no good unless they are a type that crumbles easily. The best mineral mix in the world is of no value at all if the birds or other livestock won't eat it. Some mineral mixes may be so bland that they are simply unpalatable. To get around the problem of palatability, feed suppliers will often add a good level of salt to the mix. The addition of salt which the birds definitely need encourages them to eat the mineral mix and thereby, to obtain a wide range of important minerals. Supplying only oyster shell and an insoluble granite grit for grinding grains in the gizzard is simply not enough.

Without question, salt and minerals also need to be provided year round. If you haven't been giving salt to your birds, you should introduce it slowly by giving a small amount that most birds will clean up in a short time. Each day give a small amount until birds begin to lose interest in the salt, an indication that they have had sufficient. If you suddenly introduce a large amount of salt or a salt/mineral mix to salt-starved birds, they may eat too much and become poisoned. Instead, give small amounts daily until they have had enough. After this, provide salt/mineral free choice throughout the year - without fail. At this time, they will eat only the amount they need daily and won't become poisoned.

A multivitamin powder or solution is useful throughout the year, and can be given in drinking water once or twice a week. Be sure that the multi-vitamin mix that you buy contains vitamin D in the form of vitamin D3, the most biologically active form of the vitamin. When you add vitamins to the drinking water, don't leave the mixture in a sunny location in the loft, otherwise the sunlight will destroy a number of the vitamins. Like the sugars, vitamin mixtures should not be given day after day after day, for the same reasons - bacteria use the vitamins for their own life processes, and if you have introduced a pathogenic (ie, disease-producing) species of bacteria to the water, they may well be helped along in their life processes if there are vitamins and other nutrients in the water for prolonged periods of time.

Incidentally, if you have treated your birds against coccidiosis with a product containing the drug amprolium, be sure to give these birds a day or two of a multi- vitamin mix in the drinking water, but only after the treatment period is over. The reason - coccidia need vitamin B1 (also called thiamine). The chemical structure of amprolium is very similar to the structure of vitamin B1. The coccidia are fooled by this similarity, so when amprolium is given as a treatment, they mistakenly utilise amprolium instead of this vitamin in their life processes. However, prior to the use of amprolium as a treatment, the coccidia have been using vitamin B1 found in the diet, and as a result, the level of vitamin B1 available to the bird may be very low – hence the need to replace the vitamin B1 by giving a day or two of a multi-vitamin mix in the drinking water after the treatment is finished.

I hope that the foregoing information has been sufficiently expanded to answer a number of questions that may have arisen from perusal of the previous article. If not, perhaps questions could be directed to the editor who can then decide whether there are enough of them to warrant some more information in the form of another article.

Finally, I hope that, in providing as much information as I have available to me on the fuel requirements of the racing muscles of pigeons, including the use of high levels of the cereal grains for racing, I haven't offended anyone, particularly those fanciers who are ardent proponents of high levels of peas and beans in the preparation of pigeons for racing. No offence is intended. Instead my hope has been to create light rather than heat on the whole subject of diets for racing. Good racing everyone!


Gordon Chalmers

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