Q: The breast skin of my birds is a dark maroon or grayish color and the birds will not take a bath. My losses are high and my performance is terrible in the races.

I would think that you are dealing with some sort of poisoning of the birds. It could be from chemical sources or from aflatoxins on your feed. Let's first consider the possibility of chemical poisoning.

A very common and irreversible poisoning occurs when birds eat small pieces of tar. The most likely place a bird obtains tar is from a pigeon loft roof which was built using rolled asphalt as a roofing material. As the roofing material starts to deteriorate, so does the performance of the birds.

One often reads that a pigeon loft should be replaced every so many years because it is not sanitary any more; different bacteria within the loft are blamed. You hear of people disinfecting lofts by using different chemical disinfectants. Chlorox or bleach may be used. Another method is when people use a torch to heat all the loft surfaces. I have also read at different times of fanciers who virtually disassemble the interior of the loft and go through this super cleaning process.

These methods certainly cannot hurt, but I think it would be much more advisable to look at the surface of the roof or landing board to see if there is any asphalt that is deteriorating and crumbling. For whatever reason, birds seem to be very fond of these little pieces of asphalt. Also, rolled roofing as sold nowadays seems to have less stone granules per square foot, which in turn allows it to deteriorate quicker.

The Germans often talk about "moss sickness", especially in young birds, and how important it is to clean the rain gutters to eliminate that. Perhaps the real problem is the small little granules that wash off a rolled or shingled roof into the gutter. The birds of course pick these up just as they would pick up grit, but there would be small particles of asphalt attached to them. Let's not forget, a bird does not have to become totally toxic, but only partially toxic to lose his ability as a performing athlete.

So you see it is possible for your birds to pick up poison right at your loft. Once a bird ingests asphalt or tar, the skin of the bird will look the way you described it, a kind of maroon or gray color with the skin having a leathery feel to it and being dry. The birds will refuse to take a bath.

Another possibility for poisoning occurs when you purchase a new garden hose and you allow the water to sit in this hose, especially when the weather is hot. This hose will release chemical toxins that will produce symptoms similar to those of birds that have been poisoned by asphalt particles. The kind of hose you need to buy (at least this is what is available in the farm supply stores here in Wisconsin) is a hose marked "drinking water safe". In our local stores, these hoses are white with a little dark stripe. They are also marked "to be used for RV's and boats". They cost no more than the standard garden hose.

When birds are toxic from chemical poisoning, you may have them posted by your veterinarian with tissue samples sent to a lab. The results will be that the birds show toxicity in their kidneys and livers, but you probably will not be told what caused the toxicity.

The birds' environment, such as roofing material and number of particles in rain gutters, can be perfectly okay to start with. But then these items slowly deteriorate without us realizing it and therefore become silent enemies for our athletes. On the other hand, a new water hose gives off an odor and bubbles at times. As it gets older, the hose becomes safer.

I am sure you will want to know what the chances of recovery are. I hate to tell you, but my experience has been that once the birds are toxic from a chemical source, they will not recover. Of course different birds will have different degrees of toxicity. You will be able to squeeze out an occasional race from some of them, but the recovery time after a race will be very slow. It also does not do you any good to keep these birds from one season to the next with the hope of recovery. Once they are poisoned in this manner, they are poisoned. At best, if they are valuable, put them into the stock loft. But their racing days are over.

I wonder how many fanciers have been frustrated when their birds have been partially poisoned on their roof or possibly a neighbor's roof as the roofing material has gotten older. I'm sure many people have become non-competitive -- totally uptight, have blamed the birds, lack of training, methods used by other people -- when in reality, the enemy has been right underneath their noses. Sadly, it may have driven them out of the sport.

These forms of poisoning are ones I am aware of, but how many other subtle minor forms of poisoning are our birds exposed to?

I am not a chemist nor am I schooled in the chemical or medical fields. These are strictly my observations derived from years of experience. It's similar to when one of my fellow club members tried to pin me on one of my opinions and when he said "Why?", I simply replied, "Ron, because I'm old". We still laugh about this profound statement. It has gotten to be kind of a catch phrase.

I have also been asked recently about birds being poisoned by aflatoxins on their feed. I will cover that in an upcoming Ask Horst.