Richard Cryberg asks....
What is good nutrition?
In an animal the raw materials are the various foods eaten, the oxygen breathed in, various trace elements and vitamins that are needed in small amounts and that the animal can not produce all by itself and, like many factories, a bunch of water to do all kinds of things inside the building. In an animal, the machinery is all the various organs and the workers are the cells and chemical processes that do diverse special tasks.
The components of nutrition are much like that copper wire. An animal needs so much to run its internal factory every day. If it has extra raw materials it either has to store them or get rid of them. Either storing excess amounts or getting rid of excess amounts reduces the efficiency of the animal, just like it would a factory. Storing small amounts of some nutrient, particularly something that may not be imported into the factory every day, is okay. But excessive amounts are simply a waste at best and a poison at worst.
So what do we know about the raw materials pigeons need to perform normally? We know they need a variety of clean, quality foods; they need clean water, a good grit mix and they need air to breath. Cleanliness and quality is important to a pigeon just as it is for a human-operated factory. If that copper wire is corroded it may not solder properly. If it has breaks in it the electrical properties will be wrong. In the case of food, 'clean' means dry and no molds or decay. 'Quality' means the food contains the ingredients needed by the pigeon.
Quality does not mean 'natural' in any way. In fact very little that we normally feed our pigeons is something that a wild Columba livia would have ever had an opportunity to eat. For example, corn is a genetically modified organism that so little resembles its wild ancestors we still do not know for sure exactly who its wild ancestors were. Further, corn is a plant native to the Americas and no wild C. livia evolved in the Americas. Wheat is another genetically modified organism created by man. There was never any such thing as a wild wheat plant growing in nature before man created it. So wild C. livia never had any chance to eat wheat. In fact everything we feed our domestic pigeons is either a crop that wild C. livia never had any chance of eating because that crop did not grow where they lived or in some cases only grew in a small range where wild C. livia existed. However, it is rather obvious that our pigeons do fine on the things we feed them. So what are the things in our feeds we need to actually worry about?
Pigeons get quite a number of things from the feed we give them: proteins, carbohydrates and fats are the main things. They also get trace elements such as manganese, copper, selenium, iodine, iron, and vitamins, etc. The important thing to consider about feed is the balance of these major and minor ingredients and their digestibility. Proteins contain a variety of amino acids. Any individual feed grain has these amino acids present in some ratio that is not going to be balanced for a pigeon.Like that factory that needed some copper wire, if a grain does not have any, or very little, of one particular essential amino acid, the pigeon is either not going to work right or must find that amino acid someplace else. And if some amino acid is greatly in excess in the total diet it is waste and takes energy to dispose of.
The best studies ever done on what makes a good diet for pigeons were those done by Levi on his flock of squabbers where productivity was the measure of a quality diet. He showed that pigeons do fine on a diet of just a few rather inexpensive grains such as milo, corn, wheat and peas. He also observed that in cold weather the birds did better with more corn. In cold weather corn provides a lot of carbohydrates, which give the pigeon an efficient source of energy to stay warm, while at the same time containing a low concentration of protein so they do not have excess protein to dispose of. It is worth noting that the only one of these grains available to any wild C. livia was peas, which were available to only a few and only at some times of the year. Levi also found that those same grains converted into pellets worked even better than the grains themselves.
At the time he did those tests, the pelleting process was experimental and expensive, so was uneconomic for his flock of squabbers. Is the same diet optimal for a flying bird as for a squabbing bird? Highly unlikely. Birds fly using fat reserves as their energy source. The carbohydrates are partly converted to fats, combined with fats in the diet and stored as fat, mainly in the body cavity. During exercise these fats are burned. As a squabbing bird gets little exercise, it is reasonable to expect it to need lower fat content in its diet. I know of very little actual documentation on optimal fat levels in a performance bird's diet, but it is reasonable to expect they need more fat than a non-flying bird.
How about all those minor things in the food, like trace minerals and vitamins? With no exceptions, if you feed a variety of grains grown in a variety of different places those grains will contain enough trace minerals and vitamins. This is particularly true if your birds have access to some green leafy material to eat, as well as a good grit mix. What is very dangerous is to feed a mix where all the grains are grown in roughly the same soil types. In that case you can get either underdoses or overdoses. For instance, I would avoid a feed mix where all the grains are grown in Nebraska, as those soils are very low in iodine and selenium. would also avoid a feed mix where all the grains were grown in California, as those soils are very high in selenium. Just like the copper wire example, too little can shut factory production down and too much can be a real big problem. In the case of selenium as well as with several other trace elements too little means death and too much can also mean death.
A very common vitamin problem in cage birds is a lack of vitamin A. This is ironic. Vitamin A is all over the plant world. All you need to do is feed any sort of green leaves and there is no such thing as a vitamin A deficiency. Yellow corn and peas are also very good sources of vitamin A. If you have yellow corn or peas as part of the diet for your birds you will meet their vitamin A needs. And like the copper wire and trace elements, more is at best no help and at worst can cause problems. In fact if you feed the Levi diet you will Good nutrition provide a fully adequate amount of all the vitamins that pigeons need to be healthy, with the exception of vitamin D. If your birds get some exposure to unfiltered sunlight they can make all the vitamin D they need for themselves, just like any other animal. In fact pigeons do not even need dietary vitamin C because like most animals, with the exception of great apes, humans and probably a few I have forgotten, they are fully capable of making it for themselves.
Doctor Hollander fed his flock for many years on nothing but a mix of whole yellow corn and hog pellets. I know others who use such a diet and have even flown racers on it with acceptable results. I know quite a few people who feed whole yellow corn and a game bird pellet of some sort. That is the diet I feed my birds. At the time of writing this, it was late January and I had birds on eggs and squabs in the nest. It was 100F here a few nights before.
Such diets have a couple of advantages in my mind. They are inexpensive compared to alternatives. My current cost per 50 lbs of feed is about $10. I am also sure that the ingredients in the pellets were grown in soils all over the country, so should naturally tend to have reasonable levels of trace elements in them. Also, the pellets are actually analyzed and a variety of additives included in the mix to make sure things such as trace elements are at the proper level. The one I feed even has probiotics added. Corn also is grown widely and typically gets mixed so much during distribution that a single bag could easily have seed grown in a half dozen different states.
Can some supplement help your birds? Chances are very good, in my opinion, that the best you can hope for from supplements is that they do not do too much harm. If you are already feeding a clean, quality diet with a variety of ingredients, it is highly unlikely that you need any supplement. But, if you're convinced there is an elixir that will improve performance in some way I would encourage you to do controlled experiments before accepting the claims made for the product. For example, say you think some supplement will improve racing performance, do a test where you fed the supplement to at least 25 birds and had a control group of at least 25 untreated birds so that you could compare treated to untreated performance in the same race. There are easy statistical tests that can analyze the results of such experiments to see if the supplement helped. If the suppliers of supplements can't provide such data why should you spend money on their products? My prediction is if you feed a reasonable diet and you tested 100 supplements and gave me the performance data so I could do statistical analyses, 99 would either harm or do nothing. Maybe one would help if you were lucky.
One reason I have zero faith in such elixirs is because you have no idea what is really in such concoctions. A recent study was reported where human supplements were purchased from several mainstream bricks-and-mortar store chains. Laboratory analyses showed half of these over-the-counter products did not even have any of the main ingredient listed on the label In fact it is well documented that some of the products sold for human consumption can cause harm if overused. Just this week there was a news story about several athletes at a college who ended up in the hospital due to taking supplements. I have even less faith in supplements sold for our pigeons.