By Dr. Colin Walker
'The Flying Vet'

As the day of basketing approaches, it becomes increasingly important that everything is done correctly. An error now means that there is little time to correct it or for the pigeons to forget. The fancier should walk into his basketing centre with healthy, fit, motivated pigeons that are calm in them and ready for the task at hand. The fancier's efforts during the week culminate on the day of basketing. The result on race day is a direct quantitative assessment of these efforts.

What to drink
Of prime importance is that the birds drink well during the day. Often, clean, plain water is the best. Some medications are bitter and these are best avoided. Anything added to the water should be familiar to the birds and very palatable. Benefit can be obtained in some birds by giving probiotics or multivitamins. Do be careful, however, as sugar-based or electrolyte preparations put in the water too concentrated can actually dehydrate the birds.

What to feed
Carbohydrates and fats are the energy sources during flight. This does not, however, mean that the birds should be gorged with these types of seed. This only leads to the accumulation of body fat, which is a hindrance. The diet should be based on these grains but should be fed at a level matching the birds' exercise to allow them to become full and buoyant but not heavy in the hand. A grain mix based on corn, safflower, milo, wheat and rice is good. It makes no sense to feed more than approximately 25% legumes (peas and beans) now. Any grits, pick stones or other supplements that contain excessive (more than 2%) salt should be removed 1 - 2 days before basketing but returned to the loft before the birds return.

When to exercise
Some fliers prefer to keep the birds in the loft on basketing day. This prevents the risk of the birds over flying due to their race readiness or a loft scare. The last thing anyone wants is for the birds to fly their race around the loft on basketing day. Keeping them in also allows for controlled feeding. With the birds in the loft, there is no chance of the first birds through the trap eating substantially more than the last ones in or getting more of an opportunity to selectively eat more of the tastier grains, e.g. safflower. If kept in the loft, the birds also cannot get wet if it does happen to rain. It is nice to send birds covered in bloom and definitely bad to send birds that are damp.

The decision to keep the birds in or not is more important for sprint racing. The advantage of letting them out is that the birds stay in their loft routine. All pigeons, particularly youngsters, get a feeling of security from a daily routine that is predictable for them. A day that is relatively normal puts them more at ease. If accustomed to a fly and not let out, the birds can often be extremely restless in the loft. If flown normally, they are more likely to drink normally and rest properly in the loft as basketing approaches. A moderate fly also allows them to stretch and tone their muscles.

The act of basketing itself should proceed routinely and calmly. Remember to be kind and quiet with the birds and to conceal any excitement you may be feeling. Any motivation techniques used can be negated by a rough basketing, which in turn can result in a bad trap on race day.

what happens as the birds arrive from a race very much affects subsequent race results. It is easy to be distracted by the excitement of the moment, with people phoning to compare clocking times, etc., but it is important to remember what is happening from the pigeon's point of view. When a bird returns from a race, it must be given the opportunity to recover physically and also be rewarded for its effort.

Physical recovery
When a bird returns, it is hungry and thirsty, its body energy and electrolyte reserves have been depleted, and it is tired. Poorly managed, this means prolonged recovery, decreased opportunity to race the bird and decreased motivation on subsequent races. Correct management means the race can be a positive experience, adding to the bird's fitness capability and also its keenness in subsequent races. For physical recovery to occur, the bird must be provided with several basics: food, water and electrolytes and rest.

Obviously food must be available to the returning birds, and all the better if it is the right type. The aim here is to quickly restore blood sugar levels and start to replace organ glycogen reserves. Basically, the birds initially need a mix that is high in energy and calories and low in protein, a mix that is often described as a 'light' mix. The mix needs to contain carbohydrate- and oil-based grains that are readily digestible such as milo, safflower, wheat, rice and corn. In addition, there is advantage if small seeds with similar composition, such as white millet, canary, canola, hulled oats and linseed, are used. These have a larger surface area compared to their volume on which digestive enzymes can act and so their nutrients are released more quickly to the birds. There is also advantage in adding to the seed a small amount of blended conditioning oils, such as Polyseed Oil (e.g.
- 1 ml/kg). However, several hours after return or the next day after the birds have rested, depending on the type of race, a more substantial mix with peas and beans should be offered. These are protein-based grains. Proteins are the building blocks for healing and tissue repair.

For distance racing, the practice of feeding a high-carbohydrate mix, often called a 'depurative' mix, for several days after the race should be discouraged. A man working hard all day does not want to sit down to a piece of cake but is looking for a steak and pigeons are no different. Essentially, we need a quick replacement of lost calories and energy, followed by access to foods that will rebuild the body's energy reserves.

Water and electrolytes
during exertion, both water and electrolytes are lost from the bird's system. These need to be correctly replaced to restore the bird's sense of well-being and to speed recovery. With short or easy races, plain water and access to grit and a pink mineral (e.g. PVM Powder) will be sufficient. However, with extreme exertion, significant levels of electrolytes will be lost. If the birds are allowed to drink plain water upon return, this further dilutes those remaining electrolytes, leading to a condition called 'water intoxication' and results in a prolonged recovery. Recovery is therefore speeded by the use of electrolytes in the water. At my clinic, I recommend an electrolyte preparation (Electrolyte P180) be placed in the water on long races and in particular on hot days when the birds arrive at the loft distressed. Alternatively, products such as Probactrin can be used. Probactrin contains electrolytes, multivitamins, avian probiotics and simple sugars. These simple sugars do not need to be digested and in pigeons are passively absorbed through the bowel wall. This means a quick replacement of lost energy. Probiotics (beneficial bacteria from the bowel) are necessary for digestion and absorption of nutrients. These organisms are essential for health but yet are the first to be lost with any stress. Quick replacement enables bowel function to return more quickly, meaning the droppings in the postrace bird return to normal more quickly and that feather down drop resumes. Probactrin replenishes body fluids, provides energy and nutrition, helping to re-establish blood sugar levels and replace depleted glycogen reserves, and floods the bowel with beneficial bacteria, replacing those lost during the race. On the Continent, where widowers are often sent to a 200-mile race each weekend, the use of such medications has particular advantages. Quick recovery means a quick return to race form.

All fanciers are keen to check on their birds as they return and in particular to check that all of their fancied birds are back. But it is important that the birds are given a chance to rest and sleep. Try and avoid unnecessary disruption.

Psychological recovery
It is important to remember the three cardinal requirements of a pigeon to win: it must be fit and healthy, have genetic quality, and be motivated. If the bird is fit, healthy and of quality, then it is relatively straightforward to get it to home what makes it a winner is its keenness to return. This is why, on the Continent, where fanciers provide each other with the world's toughest competition, that so much effort is put into motivation systems such as widowhood.

Too often, this aspect is overlooked by fanciers. In Australia, because the vast majority of birds only compete in their first year of life, the season can be viewed as simply an extended European Young Bird program, with many fliers relying on food and love of the perch to draw their birds home quickly. The Australian practice of separating the sexes as puberty approaches before or during a season would appear alien and bizarre to most Continental fliers.

Behaviorists tell us that when an animal is doing something for a reward, the benefit of the reward is halved if it occurs more than 5 seconds after the event. It is therefore important that the returning bird has access to its own perch, box, section, hen, eggs, etc. One can imagine the negative effect on a bird when it arrives late to a closed trap or return and have to wait in a trapping section to be counted, etc. Obviously, other factors like loft security from cats, etc. must be considered here but the fancier must keep in his mind what is going through his bird's mind as it returns from a race. The pigeon must feel welcomed back into the loft, anticipating during the journey a reward, be it simply food and a secure perch for a young bird, eggs for a naturally raced bird, or the hen of a widower.

Interpreting the results of race day
obviously, a good indicator of how the team and loft are fairing is the position in the race. This can, however, be deceptive in places where organizations have a clocking limit. One competitive bird can make a bad team look good. What one should be looking for, in addition to the time of arrival of the first bird is a good percentage of the team arriving in competitive time. Essentially, what we want is for large numbers of birds to come at the loft quickly and for them to look neither mentally or physically distressed. Look for the following four indications of health and fitness.

  1. How quickly droppings return to normal - As fliers would be aware, pigeon droppings are made up of three basic components: digested food from the bowel (browny green), solid urine (white) and liquid urine (clear liquid). Bile in pigeons is green and is produced by the liver. Bile digests grain, releasing its nutrients. When birds are away, their food intake is reduced or absent. However, urine production in a well-hydrated bird is constant. The droppings of a healthy bird on arrival are therefore made up of just urine and appear as a creamy patch of liquid. In races that birds find particularly taxing, either because of their difficulty or the non-preparedness of the birds, bile is produced because of the bird's hunger and exertion. And so, in these birds, the droppings on return contain urine and bile, appearing as a creamy liquid tinged to a variable extent with fluorescent green. Once the birds are back and eating normally, digested food will appear in the droppings and the droppings will start to look the way they did when the birds were sent. In healthy fit birds, this occurs within a couple of hours. Supplementing with normal digestive bacteria (probiotics) and electrolytes hastens this process. It is important that any supplements used are sweet tasting and readily taken by the birds. Returning race birds must drink readily so that any dehydration is quickly reversed. Birds that drink well upon return will produce a good amount of urine, making the first couple of droppings passed very watery. Fanciers should look for these to ensure that the birds have drunk enough.
  2. How quickly birds recover after returning, with food and rest - Within 1 hour on a short race.
  3. Crop emptying - Birds that recover well will have an empty crop the next morning. Electrolyte imbalance and slow recovery interfere with crop muscle function, leading to delayed crop emptying.
  4. Comparing results and returns with other fliers.

Some fliers look to whether the birds go to the food or the water first, as an indicator of how taxing the birds have found the race. With exertion and heat, moisture is lost from the surface of the air sacs. With air sac inflammation, this loss can be excessive, leading to birds being more inclined to drink first upon arrival. Healthy birds, however, will drink initially on a hot day, if suffering from transporter dehydration, or simply if the race has been long. Eating first does, however, indicate that the race has not been overly draining and that the bird has been exercising well within its fitness capability.

The day after the race is essentially a day of rest and recovery. Just how quickly the birds recover depends on the length and difficulty of the race and the condition that the birds were in when sent. Birds from low velocity, 'long hours on the wing'-type races are obviously going to take longer to recover than birds from sprints, i.e. races of less than 3 hours duration, and the basic post race management has to vary accordingly. Similarly, birds that are sent healthy and fit recover quicker than those that are healthy but unfit. Fit, healthy birds arrive at the loft and look as if they could keep going. They do not eat or drink excessively. They go to their perch where they may look tired for a short time before appearing normal and relaxed. Healthy but unfit birds are more tired, more distressed and are sometimes disoriented upon arrival, which sometimes results in abnormal behaviors, such as sitting on the loft roof or sitting on the landing board for an extended time. These birds often simply want to drink and sleep on arrival; however, 1/2 - 2 hours later they will eat food and often grit. Crop emptying time and the droppings take longer to return to normal. Birds that are sent with a health problem and are therefore unfit, not only need a prolonged recovery but also veterinary intervention. These birds arrive distressed, will often just sit on the loft floor and are not interested in food or water initially. Sick birds still look tired and have green watery droppings 24 hours after the race.

What to drink
Probiotics, electrolytes and multivitamins can be continued for 24 hours depending on the speed of the bird's recovery. If the birds still look tired from the race the following day, there are significant race stragglers or the birds that did not go to the race are tossed, preventative, health medication is best left until Monday. It is best to initially focus on the race birds recovery as prolonged race recovery can, in itself, create a vulnerability to disease.

What to feed
Continue with the light mix for 24 hours after arrival unless birds look completely normal. After this, reintroduce legumes at normal levels for a team in training (i.e. 30 - 40%). Ensure that grit and pink minerals, e.g. PVM Powder, are available.

When to exercise
It is best if birds are given the opportunity to fly the day after the race. They should be let out but not forced to fly. This gives them an opportunity to stretch their wings and to relieve any muscle stiffness. A bath is also a good idea and some fliers like to warm this.