Pigeons used to be a common part of every homestead. Considering adding a dovecote to your farmyard.
Once upon a time, few were the farmyards without a dovecote set atop a pole in the farmyard or attached high on the side of an outbuilding. There doves and pigeons lived a near-wild existence, gleaning food from nearby fields and the feed spilled by other residents of the farmyard. The surplus squabs would be harvested shortly before leaving their parents’ care and were a staple enjoyed by country folk that later became true gourmet fare.
Pigeon Meat Breeds
The meat breeds will be our prime focus here and include the King, Texan Pioneer, Carneau, Mondaine, and their crosses. The super large breeds, the Runts and Rumblers, are not good choices for squabbing due to their poor breeding and brooding performance.
The best pigeon for eating is a young bird called a squab. It is harvested from the next at the time feathers begin to form beneath the wings. They are generally hatched in pairs following an eighteen-day incubation.
Pigeons breed in pairs only. Both parents will incubate the eggs, and both will assist with reading the young. Pigeons are different from most birds in that they feed their young a regurgitated food termed pigeon’s milk. This milky secretion is produced from the lining of the crop and is high in fat, protein, antibodies, and immunity builders. The youngsters take it from their parents’ beaks.
They make a free-form nest in a bowl-type container (two should be provided for each pair). Many breeders use a paper nesting bowl that can be discarded after each use for sanitary reasons. Into the next they will lay two white-shelled eggs about thirty hours apart. The pair of squabs is quite often a male and a female, and the larger, more demonstrative squab is usually the male.
Sexing pigeons is never going to be an easy task. There is generally a bit of a size difference between the two sexes, but I have seen veteran producers stand for many long minutes before a coop of youngsters, sorting and resorting them, and then turn and say they will make no guarantees.
The males tend to be more vocal, their heads and necks may appear to be larger and thicker, they may swell their breasts when courting, and they will push and prod a female (a practice called “driving”)/ The pelvic bones at the aft of the body can be helpful in sexing as the birds mature. In females there should be a larger gap between the tip ends of these two bones to allow for egg laying. The Texan Pioneer was developed to be an auto- or self-sexing bird. The males and females develop in different colors. This breed was also developed for larger size and growth to be used as a squabbing breed.
Sometimes the pair will build another nest and produce another clutch of eggs while still tending young in the first next. Young may even flutter from the nest to the floor of the loft where the parents will still tend to them until they are able to care for themselves. Other adults in the pen may savage these youngsters, however, resulting in death or injury. Head damage thus inflicted to young pigeons is sometimes referred to as “scalping.” Young pigeons are called “squeakers” due to the nature of their vocalizations. Some breeds are far more aggressive with each other than others. The Modena is one that comes quickly to mind, and they can be especially territorial around the nest.
It is best to remove young birds to a separate loft when they are eating on their own. Some will leave them there until they form pairs on their own. Others will select the birds they wish to have mated and place them in a small coopage to form what is called a “forced mating.” Pairs bond tightly, and forced matings will be a must with older birds that have lost a mate or to re-pair birds that are not producing to the desired performance.
Squab is a dark meat; essentially, a serving of squab is just the breast meat of the young bird. A well-bred squab will produce a dressed weight of several ounces, and one such bird typically forms a single serving.
Squab is one of those meat items everyone has heard of, that most associate with the good life, and with which very few people have had any actual experience. I know of many pigeon hobbyists that do not even eat squab. On the other hand, back in those days when there was a dovecote in every farmyard, pigeon was nearly a diet staple, eaten in many forms, including pigeon pie. Those birds lived a largely catch-as-catch-can existence, foraging for nearly every bite of their food. Grain blends and mixes still form a large component of pigeon feeds. There are commercially available rations that are elaborate blends of grains and legumes, including feedstuffs such as maple peas.
As a writer, the letters and calls from readers that I remember the most are the ones that took me to task. Fortunately, there haven’t been a great many of those, but one that sticks in my memory came many years ago after I had written a short article about pigeon keeping as a possible small venture. That writer had at me for holding out a bit of hope, what he felt was false hope, that something more could be made from a modest flock of pigeons. I didn’t promise riches with them, but there are some practical roots to pigeon keeping, and few are our local poultry markets at which a few pairs of pigeons change hands. Good pairs sell locally for ten to thirty dollars depending upon their breed.
Over the years I have kept many breeds, from Turbits to Croppers to Rollers and Homers to Texan Pioneers and Kings. I like a bird that feels solid in the hand and have a particular fondness for white-feathered birds. We have just added a small set of White Homers.
For meat production the birds need to be large, but not so large as to have problems with reproduction, brooding, and squab care. Some birds bred for exhibition are simply too large and have not been selectively bred for the traits essential to efficient and economic levels of squab production.
The bird that most now associate with squab production is the White King. To be exact, it should be termed the Utility King. It is a hardy bird, matures quickly, and, as a white-feathered bird, will have cleaner dressing qualities. Crossbreeding can be done with some squabbing stock, but with such a niche market product as the squab pure breeding will be just one more step to establishing any sort of a “brand” presence.
The challenge with squab production will be to find a consistent market, one that will take birds in any sort of number, and one that will pay a good price for what has to be marketed as a truly premium nature food item. The literature gives many accounts of squabbing pairs with the ability to produce ten squabs per year, five clutches of two squabs each.
This is an excerpt from Beyond the Chicken: A Guide to Alternative Poultry Species for the Small Farm (2014) by Kelly Klober with permission of Acres USA publishing.