Trouble in the Nest—What Do I Do?

{Note to Reader: The following situations are some that I’ve run into in my own loft. If you have seen other problems that you’ve solved, or problems that you haven’t, send your question or problem/solution to me at cozmd@aol.com and I will post it here with the answer. David Coster M.D., Editor}

So. You have your new Seraphim and have set up the nest boxes and are anxiously awaiting the appearance of the first eggs; and then something terrible happens and ruins everything. Now what? Let’s go through a few possible problems that can occur in the breeding loft. The good news is that they are all solvable.

Q: You have plenty of nest boxes up and they are all the same, yet two or more cocks are fighting viciously over one box! What is the problem, and what do you do?
A: Let’s talk basics here. There is a reason that this happened. The usual explanation is that the box was placed in a site that was previously taken as a territory by one of the cocks. It could have been a regular nighttime perch or just a place on a shelf where a cock had set up his boundaries, keeping all other birds away, but now you’ve plunked a nest bowl there or a box and though the primary cock identifies that region as his spot, the box has now become a major attraction for another cock or two in the loft who also want nest space. The solution is to put boxes in areas where no cocks have claimed a territory – a blank wall or area where there has never been a perch or shelf is a neutral area. The cocks may still fight, but with equal claim to the territory and more of a willingness to give up if needed. Ideally one should place enough boxes for all pairs, and all boxes should be at about the same height and in a neutral territory originally. Most cocks will want the highest box. If possible space the boxes around the loft at the same level in different areas reasonably remote from the nighttime roosting areas. This will allow the cocks to claim a small area for their own and they can all imagine they are of equal power since the boxes are at about the same height. There will still be some squabbling, but it will be over quickly. Problem solved. Seraphim tend to be quite territorial about nest locations. I have found it best to only use single boxes (no doubles to invite a potential takeover; it’s easier to defend a single) and NOT to place them closer together than eight feet or so. When young birds have reached sexual maturity, take them out of the breeding area so they cannot worry the breeding pairs with their constant attempts to take a nest box.

Q: A cock is constantly interfering with the other birds trying to nest; what do I do?
A: If it is an unpaired cock, get him out of the breeding loft. If it is a paired cock, lock him into his nest box with his mate until they have eggs and he has something to do all day (sitting on his nest) instead of bothering everyone else. If that doesn’t work and he now leaves his eggs to interfere with other pairs, he has to be moved to his own pen with his mate or taken out of the breeding plan entirely. When he is older he is less likely to behave in this manner. Hold him back a year and try again if he is something special.

Q: Eggs are laid and everything seems fine; what do I do to assess their status?
A: You can tell when the hen has laid, as she will sit tight on the nest the first two or three days, and then she’ll allow the cock to set during the day and she will take over night duties. At about a week, go in during daylight hours and reach under the bird and remove the two eggs. He will likely fly away, but he’ll be back as soon as you are done. Either hold each egg up to a bright lightbulb or use a penlight or LED from your cellphone to illuminate the egg from behind. If the egg is fertile, you will see the tiny embryo with a circle of blood vessels around it. It’s best to do this in a dark corner so there is contrast between the lit egg and the surrounding atmosphere so you can see better. If the eggs are clear with just a bare outline of a yellow yoke, they are sterile and can be discarded. The birds will start over. If fertile, put them back in the nest and don’t bother them again. If one is fertile, replace them both and only remove the infertile one after the fertile egg has hatched. They will hatch at 18 days from laying, so make a note of about the time you think they should hatch. Keep a close eye on things about that time; you will be able to tell the babies have arrived by the behavior of the parents. You may also find discarded half shells lying on the floor. Don’t bother the babies for five or six days unless you happen to come in when both parents are off the nest. You MUST begin daily exams of the babies at 6 days as they will soon need to be banded and you have to make sure they are being fed. Check their crops and make sure they are stuffed by mid-morning each day. When they are in quill the parents will leave the babies alone in the nest for extended periods of time.

Q: One of the babies in the nest is huge and the other is scrawny and looks terrible. Now what?
A: Some pairs will feed only the strongest baby, i.e. the first to hatch. They will give the smallest one a chance for a few days, but then just stop feeding it. Examine the baby. If the crop is empty and the crop of its nest mate is full, you have your answer. This is a problem you should anticipate, and you should decide now how you intend to handle it. You can let nature take its course and let the chick die, but it’s a terrible thing to observe; it’s slow starvation. You can put the baby in a nest of “feeders” – pigeons kept for the specific purpose of feeding orphan babies. Or, you can leave the baby in its nest with its mate and parents and supplement its feedings, a very easy thing to do. All breeders should keep on hand a set of syringes designed for this purpose, along with some cannisters of Kaytee Exact baby bird formula (you can order this on Amazon). Follow the directions on the container and stuff the baby’s crop full once every afternoon and then put him back. All you do is hold the baby and gently squeeze the beak open at the base, poke the syringe down his throat, and fill him up. It takes about thirty seconds with a couple of pauses to let him catch his breath. He will quickly come back to life and begin growing again rapidly, soon nearly catching up with his nest mate. His sudden increased energy will get the attention of his parents, and after a while they will start feeding him again and eventually probably take over the job completely. The benefit to the baby is that he stays with his family.

Q: There is one baby in the nest and one of its legs is sticking out to the side and won’t go back into proper position; what do I do?
A: This can happen if a) there is one baby in the nest with no one else to lean against and b) the nest is slick on the bottom and the baby cannot get a grip on anything. Solution: put a pad on the bottom of the nest and surround the baby with a thick layer of Timothy grass so the baby can get a grip and be propped up on all sides. If the baby still lists, place a stone about the same size as the baby on the side of the affected leg so the leg is forced back inward toward the midline. Remove the stone in a week when the baby’s leg is looking more normal again.

Q: My babies are freezing to death because the parents won’t incubate them during the day! What do I do?
A: The parents will stop warming the babies constantly once they are about a week old. During a cold snap in an unheated loft the babies can get seriously chilled. Usually they make enough body heat to manage even in ridiculous cold, especially if there are two and they are already in quills, but if there is just one it is at high risk for loss, and fighting the cold takes a lot of calories that would otherwise be used for growth. If you have an unheated and non-insulated loft, don’t start the breeding season until the average temperature is above 40 degrees. If heated and insulated, keep your loft at least 60 degrees when there are young chicks in the nest and breed whenever you want to. If you find a chick suffering from hypothermia, don’t assume it’s dead even if it’s ice cold and looks lifeless. I have resurrected such chicks simply by holding them in my cupped hands and breathing warm air over them for about ten minutes; if they show no signs of life after ten minutes and are as stiff as a board, they are dead. If you have to take the baby in the house, there is a strong possibility the parents will no longer recognize it when you bring it back as they will have decided their efforts to raise a youngster have been in vain. Now you have to hand-raise it and will need to set up an orphanage in the kitchen (or farm it out to a pair of feeders if you have them). As soon as you can, move the baby out to the loft in a box protected from the other birds and feed it there twice a day until it fledges. It will need the influence of other pigeons to develop properly neurologically.

Q: My pigeons stop being interested in breeding in late Fall and Winter; how can I get them to breed during those months?
A: Your birds are responding to the shorter daylight hours. The hens will stop ovulating during the deepest part of winter with the shortest days. This is a simple problem. Put a light on a timer in the loft and artificially increase the daylight hours to 14 or more (6 a.m. to 8 p.m., for example). Your birds will go to nest in a few days.

Q: My baby pigeons jumped out of the nest too soon and can’t fly and are running around on the floor; what should I do?
A: Make a lean-to in the corner and fill it with hay so they can walk in from the side. Put them in there. They will hide there from the other pigeons but come out to be fed by their parents who will find them there. Don’t bother to put them back in the nest. They will just jump out again.

Q: My baby pigeons came out of the nest too soon and now the parents seem to be ignoring them. How do I know they are eating and drinking enough?
A: First of all, watch them. If they come out and beg every time an adult walks past their lean-to, they are not being fed or watered. Keep a bowl of water and a bowl of seed in front of their lean-to. Pick them up and dip their beaks in the water deeply, up to the nostrils. If they are dry they will gulp water like crazy. They will also quickly figure out where to get it. Just check a couple of days to make sure they are drinking; if they don’t gulp when you put their beaks in the water, they are drinking on their own. Put some seed in your hand and hold it in front of them. Tap a finger into the seed over and over again, like a pigeon pecking. They will mimic you and peck at the seeds and eat a few. You can also pick them up, open their mouths and pop in some peas or corn; they’ll just swallow it. Some people put seed in a mason jar and cover it with cloth and then poke a small hole in the cloth, turn it upside down and poke the baby’s beak into the hole while holding the jar over the baby’s head. This mimics a parent with a full crop looming over it, and it will automatically start pushing against the cloth and shoveling seed in its gullet. You can see its little beak working away through the glass. A nice trick if needed. You can also, as always, grab the syringe and supplement with formula if needed until they are on their own.

Q: I have too many babies! How do I get these pigeons to stop?
A: Well, if it’s winter time, turn off the light timer and make the days short. Then replace all eggs in active nests with wooden eggs. Any time a pair lays again, replace the eggs immediately with wooden eggs. They will sit there for 18 days and then abandon the nest. Simple. You can do this year around if necessary. If you just remove eggs and fail to place wooden eggs, they will lay a lot more eggs than normal and wear themselves out in the process, so use wooden eggs. You can also split the pairs and make two pens, one with cocks and one with hens. They don’t much like this, but they will give up on the egg laying. They won’t be as much fun to watch though. They are more interesting as pairs.

Q: I want a Seraph that is a real tame pet. How do I get one?                                                       A: You steal a baby. Let the parents take care of it until it’s four or five days old so it gets crop milk for that first critical period, then kidnap it. Keep it in a nest bowl in a pet carrier in a warm room in the house. Make a nest of soft kleenex and change it daily; keep it covered with an old wash cloth so it stays warm. Give it a tiny white stuffed bear to burrow into if you can find one. Feed it twice a day with Kaytee Exact formula until it is about two weeks old, then feed it once daily. Play with it. Pet it. Scratch it’s head. Talk to it. Start providing (and feeding it) a seed mix a little at a time at about four weeks. At five weeks taper the syringe feedings off and just provide seeds and water. It will scream at you for a couple of days and beg unmercifully, but it will eat on its own. Having been kidnapped at such a young age and acclimated to humans, it will be tame and come to you without a problem. Be sure to scratch it’s head a lot. They like that.

Sorting Your Seraphim

The best time to photograph young birds is during the annual sorting. Photographs allow buyers of your Seraphim to have a clear vision of the quality of your birds.

Whether you breed your Seraphim year-round or establish a “season” for breeding, you will at some point need to stop and evaluate the result of your efforts. For your own sake, and that of your breeding birds, it is most advisable to designate a period of months for reproduction followed by a period of rest and evaluation. The period of rest is a great time to evaluate and finally sort your birds.

As you know by now, Seraphim and all other Fancy breeds have an annual molt at the end of the summer, generally beginning in late August in the Northern hemisphere and ending at the latest by mid-November. The winter period after the molt (October and on) is thus riddled with show schedules, culminating in the big national show in January, since the birds look their best during that period of time.

Because of the timing of the annual molt as well as the annual show schedules, most breeders will set up their mating pairs between January and March and terminate the breeding season by August. Your birds will never look better than they do for the few months after the molt, and will never look worse than they do during the breeding season attending to messy little babies day in and day out, so there is a definite method to this scheduling madness.

If there is a special annual show or two where you always like to attend and show your birds, it’s important to work around them with your breeding schedule so that your adults all look their best for the show and the annual young have had the chance to molt into adult plumage as well. It’s also important to keep in mind that feeding youngsters and molting simultaneously is pretty tough on the adults nutritionally. Either the parent or offspring can suffer from protein malnutrition under such circumstances,  so additional protein in the diet will be needed, along with more fat and vitamins.

One way to get adults ready for show is to replace new eggs laid after a specific date in August with wooden eggs, preoccupying the parents but also giving them a reprieve from baby duties, allowing them to maintain their own health, feathering, and overall cleanliness. Starting this during or just after the molt in August will allow them to hold on to that pure white magnificence you want for show purposes, and all the babies hatched before August will almost always be in top form for show by December at the height of the show season. Nearly all of the birds in your loft will be potentially show-able using this schedule.

The other thing such a schedule does for the loft manager is give them a break from the work intensity of the breeding schedule and an opportunity to study and thoroughly evaluate their birds. Obviously every loft owner will manage their flock as they please since their birds can and will breed year around if given the chance, but it doesn’t hurt to maintain a reasonable and healthy schedule for all parties involved.

When it comes time for sorting the fruits of my labor each year, this is how I do it: I breed from a few pairs each year, and each pair is assigned a color to designate that family line. For instance, the SeaHorse line is pink, the James line is blue, etc. At banding time, each chick is given a numbered band on one leg and a colored family line band on the other. In this manner I can watch and study the offspring as they grow up and easily record changes that help me identify them later, including gender, without the necessity for capturing the bird.

In mid-October I go out late one night with a flashlight and pick all the birds up and put them in travel carriers. The next morning they are all placed in show cages, with the parents heading up their line of offspring for the year. The youngsters are divided by gender, and the most superior cock and hen in the line up is moved ahead to the two cages nearest the parents; these will be part of my show team and/or kept for my own breeding program. The rest are marked for sale, even if they too are high quality and intended for show. I do the same thing with the next line, and the next until I have located the best cock and best hen from each line. If any birds are identified that have faults that make them useless as breeding pairs, those birds are marked for placement in a free flock that I keep out at the farm. (Some people will euthanize such birds, but I can’t unless they are seriously ill or deformed—it just bothers me.)

A young cock of outstanding form moved to the head of the line in the sorting process. This superior bird should be kept by the breeder to add depth to the breeding team, shown, or sold to a serious Seraph enthusiast who needs highly superior breeding stock.

I then line up the best young cocks from all lines, and the best young hens from all lines. I again compare. What I am looking for are outstanding birds, birds that are better than the parents, or in the case of exceptional parents, birds that are equal to the parents. I then decide if I need to keep any for my own breeding program, and which ones, depending upon the family lines and how they should be interbred and whether or not there are birds present now that can advance a particular characteristic in the flock that needs improvement.

Having now decided which birds you are keeping for your own loft and which you want for show competition,  the “For Sale” birds are identified (the “for show” categories and “for sale” categories will always overlap, as will the “to keep” and “for show” categories) by band number in a ledger. Already you need to begin thinking about how to pair them to fill orders, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of each bird. It’s important to know when filling orders whether the buyer is a serious breeder who will show birds, wants them for pets, or will be flying them in a free flock. The most exceptional birds adhering to the Show Standard should be reserved for serious breeders. Poor quality birds should simply not be sold, unless they will be functioning in a non-breeding situation, such as drops for Racing Homers. Of the “For Sale” birds, you should always pair family lines that are compatible genetically and will likely result in exceptional or outstanding offspring, and the good qualities of one bird or family line should offset any less than superior qualities in the other bird or family line.

Ultimately, this sorting process will also answer another necessary question: Are you producing top-quality birds with your current mated pairs? If you discover that the birds from one line are all inferior to the others, you must decide whether or not to continue that line, split the parents and pair them with different mates, or completely take those parents out of the breeding program. Sorting in the manner described can help answer that question and assure that you are constantly improving outcomes from year to year.

Finally, it’s important to keep and maintain your foundation birds. As the years go by you will rotate your older birds out of the breeding schedule to some degree. Nevertheless, if you have exceptional older birds that are the genetic foundation for your entire program, birds from which you can retrieve qualities that might be lost due to unexpected complications from breeding younger birds, you will always be okay.