Considerations for pigeon loft design, types of pigeons, and reasons why keeping birds is beneficial when training a bird dog
Congratulations! You just brought home a new bird dog puppy and among the many preparations you made in anticipation of this new family member was building a pigeon loft, stocking it with birds, and training the birds to rehome to their loft. Wait, you didn’t get around to that yet and you are just now searching the internet for training pigeons? You’ve come to the right place: here is a crash course in pigeon-keeping. It’s not nearly as tough as you might think.
During your research into training a bird dog, you have undoubtedly heard this simple cliché ad nauseum, “It takes birds to make a bird dog.” Nothing could be more true. Ideally, we would all train on wild birds and our dogs would be perfect, but that isn’t the case for the vast majority of us. Thankfully we have pigeons–the most reliable training partner a dog owner could ask for–and with the help from a well-timed remote bird launcher, we can make our pigeons flush wild just like any late season ruffed grouse. If you keep homing pigeons, they become a renewable and recyclable training resource; you can even sell your extra young birds to recoup some of the initial start-up and feed expenses.
“Hold on,” I can hear you saying, “I just committed my life to keeping a crazy bird dog puppy, and now this guy wants me to become a pigeon farmer. Are you out of your mind?” Maybe, but hear me out.
Reasons to keep pigeons for bird dog training
Many people feel that keeping a team of homing pigeons is a bit too much. They believe that the idea of getting their birds from poultry auctions, Craigslist, or trapping them is far less intimidating. All three are viable solutions to the problem of getting birds for training, but none of these solutions are on your terms. You are at the mercy of other people; poultry auctions are hit-or-miss when it comes to pigeon availability and another desperate bird dog owner may come along and outbid you. I was once that desperate bird dog owner who paid $25 for the only pigeon at the auction so that I wouldn’t go home empty-handed. Since the pigeon wasn’t homed to my loft, I watched my $25 “investment” fly off after a training session. Getting birds this way is not only unreliable, it can also be very expensive.
Catching feral birds is a nice D.I.Y. aspiration, but in reality, it is time consuming and perhaps a dangerous proposition if you choose to capture them by climbing ladders with a net in the dark. If you use traps, you will find yourself devoting a lot of time learning how to build traps and how to trap birds. You can burn a lot of time and gas checking your traps. I don’t have that kind of time to mess around and I would rather burn gasoline while traveling to my training destinations. You should also be wary of various bird diseases that can be transmitted to humans, as feral pigeons are little more than rats with wings and the areas they inhabit in barns and under bridges are beyond filthy from the droppings of generations of disease-ridden feral birds.
You can buy feral birds that someone else trapped, but then you get into the reliability factor. Your supplier could be out of birds when you need them, or perhaps they command top dollar in your area. Five dollars is the average per bird in my area, but I have seen them go for much, much more. Remember, too, that you aren’t reusing these birds again and again like you would with your own personal team of homing pigeons; you are literally throwing that $5+ bird away… and yet its diseases stay behind. You might consider building a holding cage to stock up on trapped birds and save them for your training sessions, but by then, my friend, you should definitely just build a loft and keep homers yourself.
What is a pigeon loft?
A pigeon loft is essentially a pigeon-friendly chicken coop. It is usually raised a few feet off the ground and offers shelter where the birds feel safe. Theoretically a loft could simply be built from a cardboard refrigerator box as long as it is weather- and predator-proofed. I’ve seen lofts in all shapes and sizes, from a five-gallon bucket mounted on the side of a garage housing a breeding pair of birds to an elaborate, multi-roomed mobile home converted into a pigeon racer’s dream breeding facility.
Pigeons aren’t hard to keep and they aren’t particular. But what if you don’t have a yard to keep your pigeon loft? Years ago I was an apartment dweller with a bird dog. I kept three homers in a rabbit cage on my balcony.
Over the years, I have made pigeon lofts out of greenhouses, modified shipping containers from moving companies, transformed old school bus stops from neighbors whose children have grown, and built one with scrap wood. A pigeon loft only needs a few things to make it a home for the birds. Pigeons will live in anything. The standardized loft design is mainly for your convenience in working with them.
Pigeon loft building considerations
The most important thing to keep the birds healthy is to achieve maximum ventilation with no draft. Pigeons create a lot of dander which is unhealthy for you and them. Poorly-ventilated lofts promote coccidiosis or pigeon lung disease, so there needs to be some air flow. However, the birds also need a way to get out of drafts which can kill them under the wrong circumstances. Some of the healthiest lofts I have ever seen are just three solid walls with the floor, roof, and one open face covered by hardware cloth. The birds had cubbies in which to shelter from any winds through the front of the building. A loft like this will also withstand some moderate overcrowding. Overcrowding happens. Maybe you are saving birds to sell to some chump who just got a bird dog puppy or maybe you are anticipating training with friends. The better the birds can breathe, the healthier they will be in crowded conditions.
The floor must be dry. Whether you build a simple wire floor which allows droppings and spilled food to fall through or a wooden floor that you must scrape every day, it needs to be dry. Dirt floors work, but it is difficult to manage diseases when they come to visit your birds. My favorite floor is a raised plywood floor covered with firewood pellets. The absorbent nature of the firewood pellets keeps everything dry until I can get around to cleaning it.
Entrance and security
The birds need a way to get in and out. This is usually a pigeon-sized entrance with a landing board. It is essential that the opening is able to be securely closed so that the birds stay in and the predators stay out. Flapping pigeon wings are a dinner bell to avian predators and they will soon have your loft marked on their daily patrol.
You should also install a set of pigeon trap bobs over the entrance to allow the birds to enter but not leave. Pigeon trap bobs are readily available online in a variety of sizes. Once your birds have entered the loft through the bobs for the day, you will want a door you can close behind them to keep predators from entering or ambitious pigeons from exiting through the bobs.
You must be able to access your birds for feeding, cleaning, and collection for training, etc. This is usually a standard door on the back or side of the loft but again, be creative with lifting hatches and sliding panels to save space and material!
Consider your strategy for preventing birds from escaping while you are netting some to take out for training. In a very large loft, perhaps the door can close behind you while you work in the loft. For smaller lofts, plan to be able to block the opening with your body while you are reaching in for access.
Perches and roosts
Pigeons need multiple perches. They will fight for their own territory within the loft, so it is important that each bird gets its own perch. This is the individually-claimed space that they are homing to when they fly great distances back to your loft.
A best practice is to build 1.5 perches per expected bird so that when temporary overcrowding inevitably occurs, the birds will each have their own spot to roost.
Food and water
Clean food and water are essential for healthy birds. A pigeon will perch on anything that it can perch on; when they perch, they poop. Buy pigeon-specific feeders and waterers which can readily be found online or build your own pigeon-proof system. This may take a few design iterations as their ability to poop in their own water will continually amaze you.
Pigeons need a special protein diet different from chickens, so specialized pigeon feed is a must for long-term health. Like most birds, pigeons need grit to aid in proper digestion.
Loft placement location
The loft should be placed away from other buildings and trees. An ideal loft location would be on a rooftop, making the loft itself the highest point around. Many birds are successfully kept on rooftops in cities. If there is something taller than the loft nearby, the birds will naturally want to perch on it instead of entering the loft. This puts your pigeons at risk of being picked off by predators. If it isn’t possible to place your loft away from buildings or trees don’t let that stop you, just be sure to never let the birds out on a full stomach or else returning home will be at the bottom of their priority list for the day.
The above considerations will get your loft started for relatively little time or financial investment. Once you’ve established a loft there are long-term bird-keeping nuances to learn, but that is for another article.
Choosing pigeons for dog training
Not all pigeons are created equal and not all are suitable for dog training. You need homing or racing pigeons. These birds are athletes in their own right and have been selectively bred over hundreds of years for speed, endurance, and an incredibly strong desire to make it back to their home perch.
My pigeon mentor had one bird fly over 600 miles in a single day to win a race where it competed against thousands of other birds. Pigeon racing is a huge rabbit hole that I invite you to go down once you start keeping birds; it is a lot of fun with a rich tradition and history.
Because this homing instinct is so strong, avoid buying mature birds over four months old unless you are willing to have a breeding loft where you can keep these birds contained for the rest of their lives and only use their offspring to keep as training birds
. It is possible, but time consuming, to “rehome” mature pigeons to your loft. Once the birds have had a few hatches of chicks, they have about a fifty/fifty chance at returning to your home loft if you let them out.
Where do you get racing pigeons? Find a local racing pigeon club; these are some of the friendliest and most helpful groups around and if you take an interest in their sport, they will open the door to a whole network of pigeon people in your area with birds and the right knowledge to help you keep them healthy. If there are no clubs within reasonable driving distance, then Craigslist, auctions, and feed stores are all good places to look for homing pigeon breeders.
Focus your pigeon search on one-month-old pigeons called “squeakers” (they are called this because they squeak instead of grunt or coo like older birds). Squeakers are visually identifiable by yellow strands of fuzz poking through their feathers and pink flesh around their beak. The fuzz goes away quickly and the flesh around the beak (called a wattle) will turn white as they mature. Generally, birds under three or four months of age will readily rehome to a new loft within a few weeks of being locked down. The lockdown helps the birds familiarize themselves with the loft surroundings.
Spring and summer are usually the best time to find squeakers as pigeon fanciers and racers will often have a surplus of birds. Locating squeakers during the winter and fall is a daunting task because the birds are usually separated at this time or not breeding.
Note: I do not recommend trying to rehome feral pigeons. As I mentioned above, there is limited chance that the bird will “rehome” after hatching babies, but the possibility of disease infecting the loft isn’t worth the risk.
A word on fancy and show pigeons: these birds are bred for their looks and not their flying abilities. I would avoid them at all costs. Even if you are just planning on shooting them, they will often only flutter a few yards away, allowing the dog an opportunity to catch them. I have even seen them land on the dog handler’s head before. It is best to stick with homing or racing birds, which are always strong flyers.
How many birds should I keep for training?
If you are training one dog, three to five pairs of homing pigeons will be more than adequate. This allows a buffer in case a bird is lost to a hawk or to disease. When the training season is over, you can add nest boxes to the loft and raise a new generation of training birds.
The number of birds you keep is highly dependent on the size of your loft. Many people suggest two to three cubic feet per bird. This is not an exact science, but I feel it is a good rule of thumb if you have adequate ventilation and an appropriate number of perches. Overcrowding leads to stress and stress leads to disease that can wipe out an entire flock. It’s always safest to go with fewer birds until you know what you are doing.
So there you have it: the basics to get your foot in the door and wrap your mind around keeping pigeons. It isn’t hard and once you have a team of birds trained (which I will get into in a later post) you can pay yourself $5 every time you release one to fly home. There is definitely a lot more to keeping a healthy team of training homers, but just getting a loft together is the hardest part. If you have been with me this far, you have found it really isn’t that hard at all.
Michael R Thompson is an independent artist and custom knife maker living in the Bitterroot valley of Montana with his setters and labs.