Raising pigeons and squabs for fun and food

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How to keep and raise pigeons for food (squabs) and how to butcher and dress the young birds. Suggestions for types to buy.

Pigeons are one of the easiest kinds of livestock to raise.

Their requirements are so easy to meet that city-dwellers can often find room for a small flock. They are not picky about what they eat and each pair will reward your care with two squabs about six times a year. A “squab” is a baby pigeon and is considered gourmet fare all over the world.

A small coop, big enough for you to move around in easily is necessary. This can be free-standing or a wired-off part of a larger building. An enclosure six feet by eight feet and about seven feet or more high will be fine. If you have more room, make it larger if you like. You will need a nest box for each pair of pigeons you plan to get plus a few extras. Five-gallon plastic pails, cut in half, top to bottom, and fastened to the wall will make fine nest boxes. Fill the nest boxes with straw or long pine needles. Provide containers for food and water that the birds can eat from but not get into, if possible. Feeders made for chickens work or you can cut openings in empty gallon milk jugs. Pigeons are social birds, so plan on three to five mated pairs to start.

FEED AND WATER

While it is possible to raise healthy pigeons on mashed potatoes and stale bread (many people made it through the depression doing just that and selling their squabs to restaurants) your birds will be happier if you feed them a variety of grains. The local feed store will have bags of “Pigeon Chow” and all you have to do is carry one home and dispense to the birds. They appreciate chopped greens from your kitchen and love whole-kernel corn and stale baked goods, like good pigeons everywhere. Always keep fresh clean water available to your birds. Make sure it stays clean and does not freeze in winter.

WHAT KIND OF PIGEONS TO GET

Simply put, the bigger the better! Croppers are a good choice or White and Silver Kings, even Indian Fan Tails are a good choice. When you make inquiries for breeding stock, be sure to ask for “utility” birds or you could end up with show-quality pigeons. They will be beautiful but very expensive compared to the utility grade. You should be able to acquire your birds for around 15 to 20 dollars a pair. Make sure they are healthy, with no deformities. Pairs should be able to produce 10 squabs per year for five years, so get the best stock you can find.

Put your birds in their new quarters, keep them fed and watered and wait for nature to take its course. As soon as the birds settle in they will begin selecting nest boxes. Pigeons generally mate for life, unless death or humans intervene, and they become attached to their own nesting place. Provide a few extra boxes so that everyone can be happy. There will be a certain amount of squabbling over nest boxes but eventually, the birds will settle down to the business of making babies.

The male birds will strut proudly around in front of their silent mates, cooing and growling to coax them into receptive moods. Eventually, the females will deign to notice and permit some frenzied mating activity, complete with lots of wing-flapping and falling over on the male’s part.

The hen will lay two eggs and both birds will take turns sitting on them for the 18-day incubation period. If you befriend the parent birds, they will allow you to peek under them from time to time without pecking your hand to shreds. Try to make notes on your calendar as to when eggs are laid so you will have a good idea when to look for chicks. Once the chicks hatch the parents will feed them with pigeon “milk,” a creamy substance produced in the intestinal tract of the parents and regurgitated for the babies.

PREPARING FOR THE OVEN

Squabs are ready to be butchered at 28 days of age. At this stage, their feathers will be opening but they will not yet be flying or even leaving the nest. Remove them from the nest in the morning they will be killed so that they are not full of food. Cut off the heads with a sharp butcher knife and hang to bleed. Dry-pluck the feathers, working gently so as not to tear the skin. Do not scald to pluck. You will find it very easy to remove all the feathers. Cut off the feet and discard. Cut open the body from the vent to the tip of the breastbone and remove the internal organs. The heart, liver, and gizzard should be saved. Rinse the birds well with cool water and refrigerate immediately.


The birds can be frozen at this stage until you have enough for a meal (figure two birds per person) or keep in the fridge until you are ready to cook them. Squabs are rich and tender and can be split and broiled or grilled or stuffed and roasted.

CONTINUING THE CYCLE

The parent birds will soon mate again and lay another pair of eggs. They will do this five or six times a year. As time goes on, you will want to keep a few of the young birds for replacement breeders. Try not to keep littermates, but select young from different pairs. It is difficult to sex young pigeons, even old pigeon hands who claim expertise in this area are wrong as often as not. Allow the young birds to mature and you will soon see differences in behavior. The males will strut and become very vocal. The females will sit quietly and pretend to ignore the noisy boys. You will always have a few un-mated birds once you get going. These can be sold or traded or just kept for replacements if half of a mated pair dies. As in most fowl, once a certain age is passed they cease to be very interesting as the food. Unless you have a fondness for pigeon stew, there is not much point in butchering older birds.

A SPECIAL PIGEON TREAT

If you live in the country and do not have a lot of hawks in residence, let your birds out for exercise a few hours every day. They really enjoy this freedom and will always return to the coop at night. While lose the birds will find lots of free food in your garden and lawn. They are also very ornamental when flying. Many people who raise pigeons allow their birds total freedom to come and go. Know that you run a risk of losing birds to hawks and other predators. If you do allow your birds out, either close their door at night or make sure it is inaccessible to climbing thieves such as possums, raccoons, weasels, and black snakes.


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