Domesticated pigeons (Columbia livia domesticia) are raised for racing and ornamental purposes and for meat production mainly as young birds (squabs). The ancient Egyptians were one of the first to produce squabs for the table and this practice spread to Rome and Medieval Europe. Today, Egyptian farmers raise more than 70% of the squabs on a global basis.
They grow at a rapid rate and have a prodigious appetite, and depend on their parents to provide nourishment in the form of ‘crop milk’ which is stimulated by the hormone prolactin (as is also done by some other avian species such as some flamingos and penguins). The composition of the milk changes as the squab ages. Initially it is high in fat and protein with high levels of the essential amino acids. Production of crop milk declines and ceases in the female earlier than in the male which allows her to lay two more eggs and to incubate them, assisted by the male.
Eggs will hatch at 17 days. In a breeding season, which is September to January, one pair of pigeons will produce 12 to 15 squabs, each weighing about 500 g at 24 to 28 days of age when lactation has already ceased and they have full feather cover. Dressing out is about 350 g, although this will vary with the breed. The meat is dark in colour and similar to that of duck meat.
The industry has grown from about $6.2 million in 2002 ( 680,000 squab/year processed) to close to $11 million today. There is an Australian Poultry Squab Producers Federation which has members in most of the states. These family-run farms typically have 500 to 1500 breeding pairs, which produce 6,000 to 12,000 squabs per year. Some rely on outside processing plants to process their squabs and others rely on other game bird producers to market their already processed squabs. They are held in breeding pens or lofts with wire mesh or solid floors with wood shavings and holding 20 to 30 pairs. The pen is either closed or with an open flight area depending on the climate. They are best suited to dry, temperate conditions. There are two raised nest boxes per pair to accommodate the two squabs still being fed and this also allows for the hen to incubate her eggs for the next hatch.
Pigeons are housed according to age. Young birds of similar age are kept together, as are first time breeders.
There are several different breeds, which are often cross breeds, used for squab farming but the White King (750 to 850 g) crosses from the United States are the most favoured. The slightly smaller Red Carneaux from France is also used in breeding programs. Breeding pigeons are left to their own devices when it comes to nest building and pine needles, straw or wood shavings are left in a pile in a rack. Pigeons are sexually mature at about seven to eight months. The female will breed for approximately eight years and the male for five years. Pigeons are usually given a choice of grains, legume seeds such as peas and whole or oil-extracted oil seeds with access to grit and minerals and vitamins. As their nutrient needs will vary with the stage of lactation and when incubating eggs, the birds will alter their selection of feed ingredients. Some producers feed their pigeons a formulated, pelleted diet with whole grain available separately.
It takes about 3 kg of feed for parents to grow one squab to 500 g. As crop milk is initially very high in water, pigeons need about one litre per day for five birds and there should also be water separately for bathing. Some producers maintain that crop milk produced by the lactating pair for no more than 10 days and that the parents then regurgitate grain to feed the squabs. The squabs are sent to the processing plant at about 28 to 32 days and dress out at 200 to 500 g. The price of grains has risen to the extent that few new farmers are now entering the business, which is only marginally profitable, although there is no shortage of consumer demand, mainly from the Asian population. Chinese and French restaurants are the main customers and squabs can be bought in some farmers’ markets.
Provided the pens are kept dry and clean and management is of a high standard, bird health should not be a problem. Weak and unhealthy birds should be removed immediately. However, the roundworm, Ascaridia Galli, is a common internal parasite, and lice and red mites are external parasites in pigeons. Chronic respiratory disease, pigeon pox and coccidiosis are sometimes seen in birds. Silkiness of feathers is an external indicator of peak bird health.
Information kindly provided by Dr. David Farrell