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. 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. You can also make an entire wall of nest boxes in a neutral zone, so many that no single cock can possible expend the energy to defend them all; in this situation the top dogs will take the top row, the next toughest will take the second row, and so on all the way to the floor if necessary. Once dominance has been determined, everyone will stay where they belong. Again, problem solved.

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 five or six days, go in during daylight hours and reach under the bird and remove the two eggs. She will likely fly away, but she’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 yo can see better. If the egg is clear with just a bare outline of a yellow yoke, it is sterile and can be discarded. If fertile, put them back in the nest and don’t bother them again. 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 a cannister of baby bird formula (you can get this from Foy’s Pigeon Supplies). Follow the directions on the container and stuff the baby’s crop full twice daily 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 couple of days 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 can find a way to heat the nest bowl from underneath or use a heat lamp (be careful of fire risk) it’s best to leave the chick with its parents in the nest. 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.

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.

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