I think it is fairly well known how I feel about using planted birds and why I go to—what some might see as—extreme measures to get our Llewellin Setters into as many wild birds as possible. When this is not possible or in the off-season, I still have puppies or dogs coming in for training or some in our own string I may want to work on certain issues with or when clients want to see the dogs work. I find the pigeon to be the perfect training bird. There are times I may want to use good flying quail or chukar, but I rarely do anylonger. I do most of my training on wild birds. There is no substitute and no better way for a dog to learn how to hunt wild birds than to expose him to exactly that. There is no pen raised, released, or “liberated” bird that acts like a wild bird. But, if used properly, the lowly homing pigeon can be used and will act more like a wild bird flushing than any other.
I choose the pigeon first, because they are very easy to keep. They only require a loft of simple means, an aviary, and food and water. They are very hardy and so much easier to keep compared to other game birds. Second, homing pigeons can be used over and over and over again (unless of course, you shoot them) and in any area you have access to for training. Third, they really stink!
I prefer to use homing pigeons of good racing stock. Not only do they home, but they home fast! I’ve never had a dog be able to catch a racing pigeon and rarely do I lose a racer to a hawk. After a racer is flushed, it heads straight back to the loft as fast as they can, after all, they are racing pigeons. Feral (barn) pigeons after flushed will usually land in the nearest tree, hang out there for a while, and eventually head back to the loft. They usually make it back ok, but I’ve lost many to hawks because they take their good old time getting home, giving a hawk ample opportunity to an easy meal. I do use feral (barn) pigeons for shooting purposes as I will not shoot my racers.
I find using the pigeons in traps and releasers (not dizzying them) to work very well for introducing pups, to steady a dog, work on range (rather it be to increase range or bring it in), tighten up a pup on point, and more. Yes, some dogs will become bored with pigeons; some will even “grow out of them” and not point them any longer. That’s okay; he has obviously had his nose full of wild birds. I don’t over use the pigeons on any dog and I always “mix it up” by running the dogs in as many different areas as possible (this farm or that farm or the game lands here or there)—not in the same place day after day. I also use pigeons only where I am fairly certain there are no other game birds. I have found that a dog will ignore the pigeons if there are other game birds and rightfully so!
The great thing about using pigeons is no matter where I choose to work the dogs that day, the pigeons always return home. This enables me to work dogs in lots of different places, giving him so much more exposure to varying terrain, cover, scenting conditions, etc. and a much more rounded experience.
Pigeons are so easy to keep, raise, breed, and train, that even a caveman can do it (couldn’t pass that one up). There are many plans available on the internet either free and a loft can be built to suit just anyone’s budget and can be as elaborate or simple as you desire. Both of our lofts were actually sheds that we easily converted by adding an aviary (larger wire cage so the birds can get fresh air, rain, sun themselves, etc.) on the outside, two openings (one so the birds can get out to the aviary and the other for the bobs for returning birds), simple perches, and simple nesting boxes. We also had to be certain varmints could not get in (unless I do something stupid like let the door unlatched, which I recently did). For many, many years we had a very simple coop we built. We had about 8 pigeons at any given time and we let them come and go as they pleased (called free-flying). It worked just fine for a very long time. It was only after losing so many of them to the increased population of hawks in our area and after discovering racer pigeons (which can be quite pricey), I stopped free-flying them. I still release them almost daily right before dark while feeding and they return promptly and I don’t lose any to hawks.
In regards as to where to place your loft on your property, I’ll let that research be up to you. I’m sure there were considerations as to what direction the aviary should face (south I believe), and shaded if possible, etc. I do not exactly recall. I have found it best to locate it where your bird dog does not have access to it. When our original loft was in the main yard where the dogs run, they would, of course, point them endlessly and I would have to constantly go pick up a dog and bring him in. I’ve looked for young dogs when they didn’t immediately come and found them lying under the pen. You can hardly blame them with this torment! This is when the pigeons were free to come and go as they pleased and they (the pigeons) became very wise to the dogs and would fly out and set on the roof of the house taunting the dogs until I brought the dog in. Now, our loft is on the other side of the fence and much further away. Dogs will still run the fence going insane and pups often catch the scent when the wind is right and will lock on point. I’ve even had pups dig under the fence to get to this new, interesting and arousing scent. I’ve had to reinforce that fence and even bury it several feet into the ground so pups can’t get out! I recall when I used to let the dogs out, I would open the door, the dog would start to go out and then immediately go on point because the pigeons would be on the roof and the scent would hit them as soon as the door opened.
Training Squeakers to Home
Pigeons are easily trained to return to the loft. I start the babies (called “squeakers”) when they are old enough to fly by taking them out of the loft at feeding time, putting them in a wire cage we made that sets on top of the aviary with an opening that butts up to the opening with the bobs. The squeakers can see the rest of the pigeons inside the loft eating and learn how to go through the bobs, and back into the loft to eat. It only takes a few times of this, after which I then will take each in my hands and stand 20 feet or so away from the loft and “lob” each toward the bobs. They will land on top of the aviary, maybe walk around a bit, and then go right through the bobs into the loft. I stand further and further away and do this over a few weeks. The squeakers then take to circling the area a bit, then returning. Pigeons won’t fly in the dark, so it is best to do this training right before dark and at feeding time so they will always return.
Now the really fun stuff begins where I will start by taking them down the road ½ mile and releasing them. They are always back before I am. I increase this a little each day and in no time at all I am able to take the pigeons just about anywhere I want to use them for training and they always find their way back. I’ve only done this up to around 15 miles, but racing pigeons are known to home for hundreds of miles. Incredible, isn’t it?
Using Pigeons in Training
As for using the pigeons for training, I mentioned earlier that I will not dizzy pigeons and plant them. A dizzied pigeon will never ever act like a wild bird in my opinion and gives every opportunity for the dog to catch it rather you have someone assisting you in training to hold the dog or to flush the bird. I prefer to put the pigeon in either kick traps with string attached or electronic launchers. The pigeon remains very alert and flushes wild. Dizzied pigeons are, well, dizzy! I usually have to kick it, watch it walk around a bit, and finally fly off or pick it up, wake it, and throw it into the air which is nothing at all like a wild-bird situation! I have found my pigeons also know dogs and are very quick to get up and get away from them as fast as possible. So they are sitting there in the kick trap, quite aware the dog is near, and ready to fly as soon as released.
Another method is to tuck the pigeon’s head under its wing and set in where you want it. The pigeon generally will set for about 15-20 minutes. I have done this when introducing puppies to birds. This is ok and I do like it better than dizzying the bird, but I still prefer to use simple kick traps and sometimes launchers. Now, how is using pigeons in kick traps and launchers anything remotely close to a real hunting situation or a bird acting wild? Well, we have to get creative!
I like to set up a “course” of sorts, placing the pigeons in strategic locations depending on what I am working on with the dog. I wear rubber boots and gloves while setting the birds so the dog can’t track my scent to the bird and I also try to wait a good 20 minutes after setting up before I take the dog into the area. This gives some time for my scent to go away and the pigeon scent to build up. Remember to also set the dog up for success taking into consideration wind direction, scenting conditions, etc. If I think a dog may still be able to track my scent to the bird, I walk fake trails.
The kick traps I mentioned are just very simple wire “cages” that I set over the pigeon. Sometimes I use a long dark string tied on the trap so I can just grab the string and pull it to release the bird while working with the dog, or I can just walk in and kick the cage. It just depends on the situation and if I have a helper. For other situations, I can use the remote controlled launchers, although I only have a few and they are so heavy and cumbersome and my “course” far away from the truck, so I like to set up a course using both the traps and maybe a few launchers and to set the birds in areas a wild bird would most likely be at that particular time of day. This is very important–the placement of the pigeon in locations a wild bird would most likely be. I will even set a few birds/traps in close proximity of each other simulating a covey-type situation and more scent such as when wild birds would be walking around feeding putting off much more scent. This is also fantastic for days where the scenting conditions may not be optimal and putting 3 pigeons in traps in the same area will put off much more scent. This is a great way to keep a session exciting for the dog.
I’ve learned much and have made many mistakes along the way using planted birds and feel if done improperly, will cause more troubles with a bird dog than it’s worth. I have found, however, if I just think about a real hunting situation and try to match those situations as much as possible, the training sessions end up very successful. It just takes a little creativity. For me, using pigeons is ideal. I don’t own land where I can set up recall pens and such for quail. I have access to a lot of areas I can work the dogs and this gives them so many opportunities to learn. I can take the pigeons, use them for the session, and they return to the loft and I can use them again the next day or use a few feral pigeons when it becomes necessary to shoot a bird. It works for me fantastically.
I recommend further thought and research to consider if pigeons could be an asset to introducing birds to your pup or working on brushing up on some things in an older dog. Be thoughtful in creating wild-bird situations as much as possible, always consider the wind, set your pup or dog up for success, and don’t over-use the pigeon and they could be a very important (and fun) asset for you and your bird dog!
A quick search on the Internet will provide huge amounts of information, photos, plans, supplies, etc. You can generally find homing pigeons at livestock sales, on bird dog forums, Craigslist, trapping them from a local farm, etc. I would suggest trying to find squeakers (young birds that have not flown, yet). They would only need a few weeks in your loft before you can start training them to home. Note that you can’t use adult birds to begin with as they, of course, will home back to the loft you bought them from! You can sometimes get and use adults as breeders, just flying the babies. I have obtained adult retired racing pigeons that have, after several months of not flying, did make our loft their home and I have been able to successfully use them for training.
Here are a few links to get you started:
- Red Rose Lofts
- Loft design fundamentals
- Lion Country Supply loft plans
- Gun Dog Supply loft plans
- Pigeon House Plans on Amazon
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