Acquired: Breeder (non-professional, hobby breeder)
Congleton, Cheshire, United Kingdom
Posted Sep 04, 2012
Like many fancy pigeons, the king pigeon has a fancy form and an utility form and the utility form is farmed for meat. This review is about the utility form.
I know that this is typically used as a fancy bird these days, but my father went to France as a child and he used what he saw there to bring the dovecote that we had at the head of one of our barns back into use. We had King Pigeons and Red Carneaus (Utility) along with a few rescued wood pigeons (or wood pigeons that had paired with one of our domestic pigeons) for raising squabs.
Though the method of raising pigeons for squabs originated in France, the White King Pigeon was developed in America through crossing the King Pigeon with racing pigeons. This kept the white plumage, but increased breast size compared with the body. This breed has been exported world-wide for meat production.
All domestic pigeons are descended from the wild Rock Pigeon and pigeons were one of the first animals domesticated by humans (we have records of their being kept in Egypt and Babylon over 5000 years ago in dovecotes that look similar to the ones we have today). Apart from France, the use of pigeons to raise meat as squabs is a dying art in most of Europe (it was very common in Britain until the 1920s). It is an increasingly popular pastime in Australia though where both the King Pigeon and the Red Carneau are being imported and raised for meat.
Of all the domestic pigeons the King is the largest and gives the largest squab. The King Pigeon is a very upright bird and its size makes it stand out. As a result it's good for showing. It is characterized by a short, stocky, body, a well-rounded body, a large head and pinkish-white skin. The feathers are tight which makes the bird attractive and nice to stroke. Adult birds are heavy and can weigh up to 1 1/2 lbs. The white king is classed as a variety of the king pigeon.
Traditionally they are housed in dovecots, though modern breeders will probably use a skillion-roofed shed with an enclosed flight area. In all cases, pigeons need a double nest as the female typically lays a second clutch of eggs before the squabs have fledged and a double nest allows the male to feed the first clutch of squabs whilst the female broods on the eggs.
Pigeons seems to have a preference for coarse nesting materials and pine needles, straw and wood shavings are ideal. The nest spaces should be fitted with nest bowls as this prevents the squabs from falling out (a squab that has fallen onto the nest floor is prone to cannibalism).
Pigeons form into bonded breeding pairs and they can begin breeding from the age of 6 months, which is when males and females should be introduced to one another. A pair of breeding pigeons can yield up to a dozen marketable squabs a year (each with a finishing weight of up to 600g).
I think it is best to allow pigeons to choose their own mates (though some breeders use force mating). When you allow natural mating you can identify bonded paris as the male struts around his chosen female. Mark such pairs with coloured and/or numbered leg bands for later identification.
When ready to mate, move the mated pairs into individual pens or into individual cells of a dovecote. If possible, stagger matings as this will allow for continuous production of squabs. After the eggs are laid, there is a 17 day gestation period. Each female will lay tow eggs, though the second egg may not be laid for 1 or 2 days after the first. The female will typically lay a second clutch when the first pair of squabs are 14 days old. Though both parents feed the squabs the male will do the lion's share of feeding. Pigeons produce a nutritious secretion in their crops and it is this that the squabs will mainly eat. This is very energy-rich and ensures the squabs grow fast and put on weight readily. Because of this you should supplement the pigeons' diet with bought feed when they are rearing.
If a squab dies during the first 2 weeks of rearing you can move in a squab from another nest (this makes the chick-less pair lay another pair of eggs sooner, maintaining production). Pigeons are not fussy eaters and prefer grains (crack maize if using this as a feed). If you are raising squabs for breeding, these should be left in the nest with the parents until at least 6 weeks old, so that they learn to feed and drink. They can then be removed to a separate rearing area where you can sex them.
If raising on a small scale or for your own use you can improve squab weights by hand rearing from about when they are 10 years old. They can be given beaten egg using a syringe fitted with a narrow tube and they can be fed on pigeon grain ration (this must be soaked in water for 4 hours beforehand to soften).
Squabs are usually ready for the meat trade when they are about 28 weeks old (they will be fully-feathered under the wings). Typically they will be between 1 and 1 1/2 lbs in weight at this time. Squabs are eaten either whole or as just breast fillets.
Rearing pigeons for meat is quite labour-intensive which is why the practice has died away. Yet, it can be very rewarding too. The breeding pairs can be hand-reared and they become very affectionate. Just be aware that close association with pigeon can yield to 'pigeon fancier's lung' which is an allergenic immune disorder where white blood cells in the lungs attack proteins in pigeon feathers and droppings breathed into the lungs and then go on to damage the lungs. For safety, if you are interacting with large numbers of pigeons wear a face-mask.