Fat Hens

First of all, I would like to thank Dr. Chalmers for tackling the topic of fat in breeding pigeons. The way most writers address that topic would be considered controversial. But as always, when Dr. Chalmers handles a topic, it is done factually and backed up by scientific data, which gives his conclusions credibility and plausibility to us non-scientific pigeon flyers. Here in Florida, his ideas were discussed in depth during a round-table session under my oak trees. I certainly appreciate his presentation in the Digest.

I also have some thoughts and observations on this topic, although with no scientific backing. For over 30 years, I maintained a large breeding operation in the southeast corner of Wisconsin. This area is far enough north in latitude that fur-bearing animals produce exceptional coats each winter. The heartland where I lived was home to numerous mink ranches during the time when mink coats and stoles were popular. It was also a prime location for trapping and harvesting raccoons. Because of the quality of these pelts, raccoon skins are still exported to Russia, of all places. During these years, my birds were always admired for their good feathering. Yes, this is genetic in part, but I believe the climate was also a major factor.

Now getting back to the fat in breeding pigeons. In Wisconsin I housed literally hundreds of birds in large lofts, all with open fronts. To maintain these birds under winter conditions, they definitely had to be fed a diet that contained a lot of fat. I accomplished this by increasing the corn content in their feed mixture. In essence I was insulating the birds with enough fat to produce body heat so they wouldn’t shiver. A side note: when birds are kept in a very cold environment, the cold affects them so much that when they are on the perch, they cover their feet with their feathers as you would expect a penguin to do. This makes it quite difficult when trying to find a certain band number in a large group of birds housed outside.

To maintain the birds in those cold conditions they were fed a minimum of twice a day, meaning “fed as much as they would eat.” At the same time they were given lukewarm water. (These pans were emptied in 15 to 20 minutes because otherwise the water would freeze into a solid block of ice.) When the temperature dipped below zero the birds would be fed and watered 3 times a day. This kind of feeding produced fat birds with a minimal problem of maintaining body heat. They also were very healthy.

It’s more than likely that a good number of you reading this article are past customers of mine. And you know that the birds you purchased from me in the winter were not super fat pigeons that could not breathe. So how did I accomplish sending you birds several days after you ordered them that were only slightly on the heavy side, but not fat? The birds took care of that themselves.

It was actually quite simple. When I chose birds to be sent out to you, it was in a nice warm cozy environment in my home. As many of you know, there were 36 show cages set up in my work area where it was never cold. As I selected your birds, they remained in the show cages so they would be pre-mated before you received them. During those couple of days when they were in the warmth, they always had a cup of feed and water in front of them. But let me assure you, they touched very little of the feed and in just those few days there was quite a transformation in their body weight.

Now let’s consider my own breeders in Wisconsin that were not housed in the warm environment. Most of the time it was the hens that would get very heavy, seldom the cocks. But when I mated those very heavy birds, the mating process and perhaps the driving process seemed to bring the birds down to a manageable weight very rapidly. And when I mated my birds, there was always feed and water in front of them. They would lose the weight and they would lay with no problems. Of course they had a minimum of 14 ½ hours of light.

Ken Wetzel, my good friend during those days, lived in the same climate as I did. He worried constantly about the weight of the birds. In fact, he would be horrified when he saw some of my hens in the wintertime. We put our birds together at very similar times, and Ken complained year after year about the amount of blank eggs in that first round. I considered myself lucky from year to year because my percentage of infertile eggs was very small compared to his. And yes, let me mention one other factor. Ken Wetzel was a very good flyer in the North Valley Combine. We are not talking about someone with theories, but someone who could back up what he did with a well-deserved reputation as an excellent flyer.

So I will now present a theory that this old fancier has developed about fat hens. Now remember, this is not something scientifically proven, as Dr. Chalmers or one of our other vets would demand, but strictly a Horst Hackemer observation over many years.

In my experience starting in the 1950’s until now, it seems that there is a correlation between fat hens and exceptional breeders. Now this is not some magic shortcut I am offering you, or some great secret, but an observation. One example was the old Harper Foundation Hen that I purchased at Don Harper’s total sale. She fell into the category of a “fat hen”. He came up to me afterwards and apologized about her always getting that way in the winter. Then there was my Yellow Bar Hen that was such an influence across the whole country. If I let someone handle her in the wintertime I was always afraid that she could have a heart attack. And I’ve seen this fat hen syndrome elsewhere when one or two fat hens are the foundation pigeons of certain colonies. Is this a crazy coincidental observation? Or are we perhaps dealing with an animal that has better food conversion and passes that on to her offspring so they will have added energy at their disposal during their racing career? In other words, are some birds capable of extracting more fat or energy out of food and therefore filling up their “fuel reserve” easier?

It is a habit of mine to question the credibility and experience of authors in our pigeon publications. I have known several very closely who have merely parroted information from someone else. I think you have every right to question and look at an author’s background. With that in mind, feel free to take a look elsewhere on this website, where, in addition to current information, you will find some articles and a number of “Ask Horst” questions and answers from past years.

Until next time, enjoy flying your birds and have a healthy New Year.