My small aviary, already at its limit but doing fine, went from eight birds to twelve within the span of two days. How? Oops babies. Two couples, two eggs each = four new beings. Being quite involved in Palomacy since rescuing my first pigeon, a racer, in 2011, it is one of my mantras when I speak to people about having pigeons as pets. It’s one of Palomacy’s mottos as well. Don’t breed, don’t buy, ADOPT! I tell people over and over again about the importance of pigeon birth control so how does one of Palomacy’s biggest advocates and fans have oops babies? Life gets busy. Busy is a word that I don’t like because it seems to be over-used these days. Of course people are busy. We have relationships, friendships, kids, pets, jobs, etc. etc. We must try to balance all of our responsibilities and sometimes we become complacent with those things we do every day. It becomes a motion without much thought, especially those tasks that we don’t enjoy and perhaps even dread. One of those jobs is checking for new pigeon eggs and replacing with dummy eggs. Every time I pull real eggs out from under a pigeon, it breaks my heart. They live to raise babies and are amazing parents. I’ve had four oops babies in the past and while (at first) exciting and joyful; they grow up so quickly that we barely have time to savor the sweetness. From hatch to fledging is give or take four weeks. Within the space of a month you have one more grown bird competing for space, attention, food, water, bath time, and perhaps even avian vet care (which isn’t cheap).
Let’s get back to my flock. I have what is called a ‘soft’ aviary. All are gentle birds, no big thugs, no trouble makers (mostly). Most of my pigeons are on the smaller size, even my two king pigeons! So there are eight sweet pigeons, all occupying a space of 4 feet by 8 feet, fine and dandy. Everyone knows the rules (and there are rules!). Everyone is compliant and respectful (mostly). Having 8 birds in that space is pushing the limit and on more than one occasion, our dearest Elizabeth has commented that it is unusual and even impressive that things were going as wonderfully as they were for so long – until life got even more crazy and we had a family crisis that took me unexpectedly away from home for a few days. Right about that time two of my couples laid eggs. When I returned, I went through the motions, my mind somewhere else, while tending to my sweet pigeons. My pigeons bring me so much joy, so after dealing with family sadness and grief, I basked in the lives and loves of this wonderful flock, mind still reeling from our recent tragedy.
We, who are pigeon keepers, know the egg cycle and most of us can keep track pretty easily. We know that they sit on the two eggs for 17 – 19 days and them they quit their eggs and the cycle continues. When I realized I hadn’t done an egg check in a couple of weeks, I found 2 pipping eggs. When I put my ear to the eggs, I could hear movement in all four. It was too late to pull them so I was resolved to watch nature play out and see four new lives come into the world. It really should be a wonderful time but all I could think of was how disappointed I was in myself to be doing what I ask people to be careful of over and over again, bringing more pigeons into the world when we have so many that need homes already. Four more lives in a space that is meant for half that is in my aviary. With babies that would increase to twelve. My aviary is really meant for six, max.
What happens when pigeons are stressed? They get sick. They become agitated and their immune systems become compromised. Viruses or illness that their immune system is doing a good job of suppressing may surface. This is what happened to my flock. I had an outbreak of PMV in the aviary which could have been prevented. I had to add another aviary in order to reduce the overcrowding. This takes time, energy and money, all of which are in short supply these days in my world.
It’s heartbreaking to see pigeons you know and love getting sick, knowing there is not much you can do but provide vet treatment, supportive care, reduce stress, wait and watch. All four parents of the new babies became sick. Watery poop, fluffed up, having a hard time coordinating beaks to seeds, crash landing, wobbly walking. This will likely last another month or so and so far so good, but I can’t stress this enough – this was preventable.
Although these new lives are much loved and will always be well taken care of, having more babies was irresponsible to the pigeons I already take care of. I take their lives seriously. I consider these little souls family – as much as I do my dogs. Those who know me know this. I would love to be able to foster more birds for Palomacy and now I am very limited with the help I can offer, space-wise.
I want to share my experience with everyone who has and loves pigeons, whether it is two or 20. We know that reproducing means so much to these lovely birds, so much so that they can often lay a third egg once we’ve switched out their pair (yes, that’s happened to me). It’s our responsibility to make sure we don’t bring more lives into what is already an unfair world to pigeons. While we are making great strides with pigeon diplomacy (yay!), we are inundated with so many that need our help and in some cases turning some away from being saved.
In my case, I was loaned an aviary on an emergency basis and moved four of my pigeons into it until I can figure out the logistics of building a bigger aviary for all of my birds. Had I brought this same loaner aviary home without having to move my own birds into it, I could have offered foster space to four in- need birds. In the meantime, I now have a strict regimented routine that I will follow to check every nest, every day. I will also make sure that even when routines are disrupted, I will be able to have a family member, neighbor or friend check and then double check my nests. I will set an alarm on my phone to make sure I am reminded to do my daily egg check. We all make mistakes. I have reconciled with myself and am writing this article in hope that I can help my fellow pigeon advocates be reminded of the solemn and important duty of practicing conscientious pigeon birth control.
Addendum – Two of my pigeons died after writing this. My beloved Bijou, a fun, friendly, inquisitive little being who was always the first to fly to me when I entered the aviary. She was the mother of two of the oops babies I recently had. I saw that she was losing weight and at the time I was only suspecting PMV. I took her to the vet thinking I wasn’t giving her the at home supportive care she needed. She passed away while they were taking blood samples. Her death surprised the vet and myself as she didn’t appear to be that frail. Her necropsy showed that she was full of roundworm – the cause of her death.
Pretzel, who resided in another aviary next to the bigger one also passed away. I found her dead on the aviary floor the morning I was to take her and Bijou to the doctors. She was Opal’s mate. A beautiful homing pigeon, not fond of people but she made my Opal a very happy pigeon. Her necropsy showed roundworm as the cause of her death as well.
I do worm my pigeons – religiously. I had just wormed everyone on April 15th and lost Pretzel and Bijou early June. According to the doctors, that’s not enough time for those large levels of roundworm to take hold. We are not entirely sure how the roundworm infestation in both birds could have gotten to such deadly levels. The speculations are:
- Stress levels bring about illness in birds that otherwise would be kept at low levels. As a matter of fact, low levels of any disease or parasite is beneficial as it keeps their immune systems healthy. When stress levels are high, parasites, virus and disease can take hold. It’s very stressful for any animal to be in reproductive mode.
- The wormer I was using may have been stored improperly or had expired. This, exacerbated by stress, is probably the most likely cause of the deaths.
- The worms were resistant to the particular wormer I was using. I am now using two different types of wormer on my flock. Moxidectin and Pyrantel. This scenario is probably not the cause but since both of those medications have a wide safety margin, I am going to use both and rotate them.
I do blame myself for their deaths. I could have prevented the stress that might well have given the parasites the opportunity to take hold. Please do your best to swap their beloved real eggs for fake. You are actually doing them a favor. Think about my birds and what happened to them.