Life in the North East of England (52)

Rod Adams

Pigeons like Peanuts, no doubt about that, in fact “like” is the wrong word, once they are used to them they would sell their soul for a Peanut. Why, I asked my friend, should this be if they can’t chew them and they’re hardly in their mouths long enough to taste them? If, that is, they can taste them at all, so I decided to do a bit of “research” into the sense of taste in pigeons. Once a flock is used to Peanuts the younger pigeons might just be copying the others, rather like those well-known Monkeys who wash their sweet potatoes in the sea to get the sand off them do, and also the Chimpanzees who actively worm themselves with the leaves of a particular tree. But why did the first one do it? Was it just by chance or did they “know?” Did the first pigeon like the taste, or did it “know” what oil rich feed it was? I checked, and this is what I found.

In man there are about 9000 taste buds. Domestic pigeons have a maximum of 59 and an average of 37 most of which are at the base of the tongue, so their sense of taste would seem to be pretty rudimentary. Pigeons can however detect distilled water, salt, glycerine and dilute acetic acid solutions, but don’t detect quinine very well. Most can detect sucrose and saccharine, so it would appear that they have a better sense of taste than would seem possible at first sight. Pigeons do display a surprising sensitivity to certain substances and will reject solutions tasteless to man, but it is still believed that shape plays a bigger part in food selection than taste. Where that leaves me now I’m not sure. I have a few more facts to continue the debate with my friend but still no conclusive evidence as to why pigeons like Peanuts. Can they really taste them and thus adore them, or do they just “know” they’re good to eat and as they never get many of them stuff them down when they see them? Or is it the shape and feel of them?

We were talking in the club about the way new clocking systems and technology in general is affecting everyone’s lives these days, and how fast things are changing. And so it is. I can remember when immersion heaters were state of the art devices and how the older generation then could no more grasp the concept than we can with space technology these days. At that time Gordon was the stand-by electrician at the University and got called out one Friday night to a “grace and favour” house of a retired employee who had reported a total failure of everything electric in her house. He found the main fuses blown and replaced them. A week later, same day, same time, same lady, same fault. Again the main fuse was gone so he asked a few questions and told her that if it happened once more he would have to come back during the day and do a more comprehensive check. Needless to say, the next week, right on the dot bang went the fuses once again. The old lady was highly annoyed, “young man” she said angrily holding up a three bar electric fire, “you’re going to have to do something more  than just putting a fuse in, you’re going to have to fix this immersion heater. Every time I drop it in the bath the lights go out!” Friday night was obviously bath night!!! Gordon did his best to explain things and confiscated the fire. The University quickly fitted immersion heaters in all similar properties. Electrocuting old ladies is bad for business!

In the North East of England we call them “prisoners.” Non- flying Stock birds of course. The object of the discussion was about the best way to keep them in good condition. I try to keep the fat off my own prisoners by regulating their corn or by missing the odd feed as the only exercise they get is flying in and out of the aviary and whilst I have seen plenty of fat hens lay without any problems at all, long term I think it shortens their life. Stock hens that have never flown out tend to develop problems much earlier in their lives than hens of the same age which have always had their liberty. At say seven or eight years old instead of maybe ten years, or more. The males in turn seem to lose their fertility earlier than would otherwise be the case. Another problem is over-breeding from them. It does the old birds no good and they get fed up and produce poorly reared youngsters later in the season.

I try to give mine everything that my racers get from me plus what my racers seek out for themselves in the garden. When my racers eat Chickweed (before it flowers) I feed it to my prisoners, when my racers eat Dandelions (prior to the buds opening), into the stock loft go Dandelions. I give them coal dust, old mortar, dried clay, red soil from garden fires, eggshells and even fine Dolomite, besides cabbage, lettuce, watercress and grated carrots. Crushed Iodine blocks, Oyster-shell grit and Pick-Stones are always available and once a month I put two calcium tablets and four Brewers Yeast tablets in the drinker then simply top-up the water up for two or three days before changing it. Just in case!

You want your stock birds to be robust, with a good immune system and producing their like, so apart from vaccinating them for Paramyxovirus (why risk not doing it, after all they are your future) I do little else to them unless I have to, and nothing gets into my stock loft without being quarantined first. I keep my prisoners at home and my racers on another site. For security reasons. It’s risky having them all on one site, unless you have no choice in the matter. This way you get security for your most valuable birds and the peace of mind that having the racers and stock pigeons geographically separated gives you. Besides if disease strikes it’s unlikely to strike in two places at once!

Why, I wonder, do some pigeons go “walkabouts” in the winter? Is it because after having their freedom restricted since the end of the racing season, when they do start to get out on a regular basis they become fitter and much more highly strung. Given a fine day with plenty of pigeons in the sky you can see what’s going to happen. The odd one will leave its loft mates, start to range more widely, get faster and faster, not even looking at the loft at all as it belts about and you can tell you are in for trouble. Then it’s gone, missing until such time as hunger or some other factor brings it back.  It could take days, weeks or even months.              I know of some really good pigeons that have done this every winter of their lives and it hasn’t affected their racing ability afterwards one little bit! I have a cock out now, which I saw only the once streaking off into the distance after everything else had landed, and I haven’t seen it since. Last year he did the same thing and was out for four or five days and wherever he was he certainly wasn’t in the area. He just disappeared and re-appeared right out of the blue. My friends good dark hen that won at least four times from Beauvais, twice spent time away in the winter, presumably living in the fields, as she was away for quite a while and always came back looking a bit rough but as if nothing had happened. Hunger might bring missing birds back after a few days but what brings the ones back that have been away for longer and obviously fending well for themselves? Pigeon racing still has its mysteries!

All I am hearing about these days are viruses. Those which may or may not be affecting pigeons. Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and are widely known as disease agents in bacteria themselves, plants, animals and man. Tiny doses of a virus can spread an infection and can get into the host cell in many ways, by insect bites, via the mouth and nose from dust, aerosol-type droplets, or contaminated food. Once into the cell they replicate, increase rapidly, then burst out causing infection. They are a real and ever present problem which only vaccination and the immune response can deal with. The immune response is the body’s ability to deal with toxins, bacteria, viruses, protozoa and other parasites. It is dependent largely upon genetic factors, nutrition, the environment and the state of development of the host and can be damaged by certain antibiotics. When you consider that we (pigeons included) live in an environment abounding with minute living organisms (and normally carry them around in and about us in countless billions without usually becoming ill), the immune response is some defence system. Is it not!

How it breaks down on occasion is another story. An animal’s liability to become ill and die as a result of exposure to a particular pathogen (read disease producer) depends largely on it’s own immunity. The risk of being exposed however depends largely on the level of immunity of the individuals around it, which in turn depends on their experience of the particular pathogen and of artificial immunisation. In an unvaccinated population each new generation is exposed to all the normal pathogen’s surrounding it, with fatal results in some cases, but always, and there is an always, the survivors will be immune. Epidemics occur when the rate of exposure to the organism in question has fallen low enough (perhaps through better hygiene) for there to be a large proportion of non-immune animals in the population. Simple isn’t it!

Doctor in the House!

Many years ago I was reading the book “Doctor In The House” on the train going to work and couldn’t help laughing out loud. It got me some strange looks from the others in the carriage I can tell you! Picture this scene. A final year Medical Student turns up for his Gynaecology exam. In the delivery suite on the operating table is a model of half a female torso, legs fixed firmly wide apart in the stirrups and a model baby in place ready to be “delivered” by the student. It is to be, he is told by the examiners, a forceps delivery.

The student is suffering from the effects of too much drink the night before, has a headache, and is as nervous as hell and sweating badly. Clamping the forceps on the “baby’s” head, with clammy hands he pulls gently. Nothing happens. Conscious of the surgeons watching he pulls harder. Still the “baby” refuses to emerge. Really desperate by now he gives an almighty heave. The combination of his sweaty hands, the crepe-soled shoes he is wearing which are still wet from that mornings rain, the tiled floor of the operating theatre, his hangover and his embarrassment all come together as he loses his footing and slides clean under the table resulting in the “baby” shooting out of it’s “mother” and flying over his head to hit the wall behind him.

In total silence the chief examiner walks across, picks up the forceps off the floor and hands them to student lying there. “Now hit the father with those” he says, “and you’ll have killed the whole bloody family!”