Cold Weather Flying

Cold, cold cold. Florida, like the rest of the nation, has experienced well below normal temperatures this year. So recently Dennis and I got into a deep discussion about flying when it is cold outside. He told me I would never get my widowers ready for the races in Minnesota. He is right; my widowers would not be ready at the beginning of the season. But you can be sure they would be ready after several weeks. Of course, first and foremost I would avoid living in Minnesota.

So how do you handle your race team during a cold spring?

In the Midwest, we started our old bird season the last Sunday in April or the first Sunday in May. Therefore, when starting to train several weeks earlier, there were nasty damp headwinds and no leaves on the trees. This presented several real dilemmas. One was that the time available to get the birds trained out was very limited. My goal or hope was always to have ten good tosses (hopefully consecutive) before the races started. And why was this so difficult? Like many others, I felt the temperature should be approximately 40 degrees to be able to work the birds well. The years there was cold headwind weather the first few weeks of racing, my friend George Spannenberg would always say “Well, we don’t have to worry about the widowhood flyers today.”

You see, in Chicago George always flew to the nest or in other words, “natural”. However, Chicago also had a strong contingent of Belgian flyers that flew widowhood. A number of these Belgian immigrants worked at the high-rise buildings along the lakeshore. They were janitors who kept the furnaces stoked, carried down the garbage from all the external porches, but most important, they had their pigeon lofts on the rooftops of these tall buildings where they worked. And of course widowhood, which they brought from Belgium, was their game.

So the early cold races were not favorable to their birds. In fact, it would often set the Belgians back at least one week more once the sun began to shine and the lilacs were blooming. Yes, we really watched for lilacs. When those bushes would flower, then it would be a good environment for our birds. In those early races, George and I would set up our birds so the first race they would be sitting 10-day-old eggs. Of course the second race they would be on 17-day-old eggs, and by the third week, a single small youngster. And I would stagger the time schedule so some birds would start a week later.

It soon became apparent to me that when it was cold, the hens would usually out-perform the cock birds in the early races. I pondered this result many times because once the weather warmed up, in general the hens were not superior anymore. I am not referring to individual birds, but looking at them as a group in George Spannenberg’s loft and mine, where I knew the birds intimately.

It was not until years later that the possible answer came to me. And it was not my genius observation, but that of a then-excellent pigeon flyer who authored a number of very good articles and eventually a small book titled “It’s Up To You”. I had the pleasure of knowing Roy Dyck from Barrington, IL quite well. This was a man who thought everything through carefully. He always reminded me of an English gentleman. It was his neat dress with his bow tie and his very articulate quiet demeanor that distinguished him. But most of all, I respected him as a real thinker in the pigeon game.

At one time, Roy had won average speed in Chicago flying with just twelve widowhood cocks. He tried for the next 30 or so years to repeat that feat living in the suburbs. He flew many exceptional birds, eventually switched to double widowhood, but then returned to his beloved straight widowhood. In other words, he tried and tried to duplicate what he had once done but could never achieve that again. His team was not big enough to overcome a difficult race or two.

One day, when we had a quiet lunch together, I asked him why he did not enlarge his widowhood team to again accomplish his goal. Roy said it was not the size of his team, but rather that in early races, the hens of the nest flyers were not as affected by cold as much as his widowhood cocks were.

Then we discussed the necessity of warmth in conditioning his widowhood cocks. He was a great believer in keeping them warm. Roy was not the only one. In Europe I had observed heat plates in lofts. This was a common sight in many lofts in Belgium, Holland, and Germany. But the Germans had gone one step further (at least that’s where I first saw them). Small heat plates were mounted in each individual widowhood nest box. And yes, on cold damp days, you would see the cocks actually lay next to them.

So when I built a new loft in Wisconsin, my widowhood loft had three compartments with 9 nest boxes each. My friend Dean Jamieson installed heating strips in a double floor in all my nest boxes. Since I like to experiment, each section could be turned on and off separately. However, I did not see any substantial difference, nor did the cocks outperform the hens in the spring of the year.

Now let’s get back to Roy Dyck and why the natural hens flown by other lofts were such a menace to his widowhood cocks, as well as to the statement that George Spannenberg used to make, “It’s still cold and we don’t have to worry about the widowhood flyers.”

I always assumed that hens were superior because of a possible hormone change when they were sitting on the nest. But it was Roy Dyck who came up with the simple theory that the hen, when sitting, conserves her heat. When you think about it that makes sense, especially when you consider that the hen sits from approximately 5 p.m. until 9 or 10 in the morning with her body huddled in a nest bowl. The cock bird on the natural system accomplishes some of this by sitting in the daytime, but he doesn’t get the same hours of total rest while conserving his energy and heat tucked in a nest bowl. That certainly was a worth-while lunch for me with Roy Dyck, and I approached my widowhood flying in a totally different way from then on.

I had always enjoyed setting birds up when flying to the nest. To me, that was the surest way of having a bird ready for the right race. But I also enjoyed my widowhood birds. And I’m one of those people who changes methods during the season. I have been known to virtually drive people crazy who watch me fly, because change, whether it is method, or training, or feeding, is something that I often do. And that is contrary to what the experts have usually said.

But this is how I approached flying after my lunch with Roy Dyck. First I set the entire team up so they would be approximately 8 to 10 days on eggs for the first race. I did this to favor the widowhood cocks as the backbone of the race team for the season.

To explain, the hens were road trained as soon as possible in the cold nasty weather while the cocks virtually stayed home with some loft exercise. You cannot loft-fly your hens well when they are sitting on eggs. Remember, they sit until 9 or 10 a.m., so a motivated hen will not loft-fly to get physically fit in the spring. You can loft-fly her once she is on widowhood in the morning or evening, but not when she is sitting on eggs. Any loft flying at that time has to be done at noon. A hen will not exercise well when her instinct tells her she should be on her nest. So I flew the hens on 10-day-old eggs for the first race, followed by the 2nd race of 17-day-old eggs, and then possibly on a small youngster the 3rd week.

The cock birds would be road-trained as soon as the weather was decent. After the third week, I would switch them to widowhood. If the weather still was not favorable, the hens would fly again. When you are four weeks into the schedule in the Midwest, chances are the race team has taken a hard one or two and had to struggle. As soon as that occurred I would then ship a brand new team of my cock birds. Now the hens would only be loft-flown. Should the cocks get hammered, then the rested hens would be coming back.

I should mention that the observant fancier adjusts the feed during these swing periods. He does not follow rigid programs described by so many.

Also, hens and cocks are exercised separately around the loft. When loft-flying, the sex or team that is scheduled for that week’s race would be exercised first thing in the morning. In other words, if you plan to race cocks the coming weekend, they fly the first shift in the morning or are road-trained. The opposite sex, or in this example, the hens, are loft-flown the second shift. If time is a problem because of work, then your second-shift birds or reserve birds get their exercise in the evening. The next week, if you decide to fly the hens, then of course they get the a.m. training time. In this way the team that is going to compete that week will fly or exercise better than the ones that are staying home.

So in essence this is what you end up with once the weather is warm. Your widowhood cocks become your prime team of birds and will use the preferential time of exercising first thing in the morning. They will be shipped to the races for the balance of the year. However, your hens will also be exercising either after the cocks in the morning or else in the evening if it is more convenient. They will be your standby team if anything goes wrong with your cocks. You can have them jump in at any time and carry the load.