How To Breed Fancy Pigeons
by Sydney Parker
You don’t know it yet, but there is a Pigeon Fancier inside of you just cooing to get out. Sure, you think that your passion for books, roller derby, crafts, or S&M; is what truly sets your heart ablaze, but that is only because you haven’t tried breeding your own Fancy Pigeons.
My passion for pigeons first ignited in New York City: while my college friends took in the breathtaking skyscrapers, bluegrass accordion acts, and breakdance battles in the cultural epicenter of the universe, I watched the city’s pigeons do their funny pigeon dance and giggled like a woman in love. I was tickled by their little iridescent heads bobbing about on their chubby pigeon bodies as they casually weaved around frantic New Yorkers rushing to do all the important things important New Yorkers do. It brought me peace to know that while I was fretting about school, work and finding love, the pigeons were crapping at will, copulating on the Statue of Liberty, and eating leftover pizza.
When I finally found love with Sam, my now-husband, I kept room in my heart for my feathered friends. After a raucous night at Medieval Times, Sam and I had our first kiss at a bus stop on the side of the New Jersey highway as pigeons encircled us under the stars. When Sam and I moved in together, we awoke each morning to pigeons chortling their festive pigeon songs on the windowsill of our sixth floor walk-up. Sam was less than thrilled with this noisy start to the day, but I greeted the pigeons like a modern day Sleeping Beauty, trilling “Good morning Mildred! Good morning Edith!” as I made breakfast and dressed for work.
When Sam got a great job offer out in Los Angeles, we decided to take the plunge and make the move. Los Angeles was sunny, friendly, and full of kale, but I missed my friends, the seasons, the excitement, and of course, the pigeons. Seagulls are cool and all, but they’re not pigeons.
My pigeon nostalgia took on many whimsical and disturbing forms. I began painting pigeons and writing pigeon poetry. It was what I like to call my “Pigeon Renaissance.” This was a time of great creative flourishing where I painted pigeon masterpieces such as “Pigeon by Day” and “Starry Night Pigeon.” The pigeons were all-consuming. I’d try to draw something else like a bowl of fruit or a self-portrait, but somehow it would still end up looking like a pigeon. Our apartment took on the aesthetic of John Nash’s office at the end of A Beautiful Mind — he too, was fascinated by pigeons. Sam was supportive of (and amused by) these creative endeavors, but also wanted to know what the fuck was going on and encouraged me to meet some new people, maybe join a club?
After some furious Googling, I discovered The Los Angeles Pigeon Club, a place for special pigeon lovers and their “fancy” pigeons. I met some of the kindest retired senior citizens in the world and learned about breeding fancy pigeons or what Leon Stephens, President of the Los Angeles Pigeon Club, likes to refer to as “bio-artistry”.
Unlike common city pigeons that mate for life, Fancy Pigeons are selectively bred by their owners to enhance desired traits such as enormous tails, unusual coloring, puffy chests, funny feet, or curly wings. For centuries, pigeon enthusiasts around the world have been breeding mutant pigeons to create exotic-looking birds for show. Thousands of pigeon breeders compete internationally to become the next Master Breeder.
I wanted to know more about Fancy Pigeons, so I reached out to LA Pigeon Club Master Breeders, Tally Mezzanatto and Frank Barrachina, for a tutorial. They took me under their wing and invited me to spend an afternoon in their backyard pigeon paradise learning the art of Fancy Pigeons. I have returned to share the wisdom of their experience.
Step One: Find Your Pigeon Soul Mate
So you’ve been looking for love on OKCupid and haven’t found a keeper. I’m not surprised. If you’re serious about finding true love, do yourself a favor and pick up a pigeon hobby magazine. Frank discovered the love of his life in a 1969 issue of American Pigeon Journal. Beautiful brown hair down to her waist and a prize-winning pigeon in hand, Frank knew Tally was the kind of girl he just had to meet. Not only was she a groovy babe and pigeon master, she was also top of her class at Berkeley in microbiology. He wrote her a love letter and they became pen pals; soon, Frank moved out to California to be with her full-time.
“Tally is really a great gal,” says Frank. “Our love of pigeons brought us together.” Forty-six years later, they are still madly in love, having raised over a thousand Fancy Pigeons together and traveled all over the world for competitions. Rather than His & Hers monogrammed bath towels, Tally and Frank cite His & Hers pigeon lofts as one of their secrets to a happy relationship. Sam and I can’t give pigeons the home they deserve in our small one bedroom, so for now we have a plain old dog and settle for lame activities like “conversation” and “kissing.”
Step Two: Choose Your Fancy
There are hundreds of gorgeous breeds to choose from. Fan Tails, Frill Backs, Croppers, and Dragons are a few of the most visually notable, but the standard variations are endless. If you want only the finest fancy pigeon, you might consider traveling to Germany, well known by fanciers as the “Mecca of the pigeon world.” Tauben (German for “pigeon”) competitions feature up to 35,000 birds and are held nearly every weekend.
Beware, though: fancy pigeons are pricey. “Some fanciers will pay over $3,000 for a pair of prize pigeons,” said Tally. If that seems like an extreme investment, don’t worry. Many breeders will sell you excellent fancy pigeons for a few dollars if you are genuinely interested in the craft. Pigeon fanciers are passionate about their hobby and eager to share it with newcomers.
Step Three: Join the Club
Joining your local pigeon club is a great way to make new friends while learning the ins and outs of the hobby. Birds of a feather stick together. The Los Angeles Pigeon Club boasts a loyal membership of fanciers, many of whom have been in the club together for over 50 years. The warmth of the welcome I received at my first pigeon club meeting rivaled the reception I enjoyed when I emerged from my mother’s womb. The club was still riding high from the success of their recent Grand National Championship and thick, generous slices of celebratory cake were consumed by all. Mike Tyson, a long-time pigeon enthusiast, kicked off the opening ceremony for the Grand National with the release of two hundred white pigeons into the sky. Tyson’s celebrity, combined with increased club marketing efforts, attracted an unprecedented number of local and international fanciers to the show.
Step Four: Two Pigeons, One Cage
Once you have selected a “James Dean, daydream” cock and classic, red lip hen with traits that you like, put them in a spacious cage together and they’ll never go out of style. Frank and Tally introduced me to what they jokingly refer to as their “Playboy Pigeon,” a bird with the largest chest I had ever seen. They also have an 18 year-old former “Cover Girl” pigeon, a rare beauty of her time. “You have to coo to the pigeons,”said Tally. “It relaxes them so they puff out their chests and impress their mate.”
Someday, when I get my own pigeons, I’m going to take creative liberties when it comes to getting the birds in the mood. Boyz II Men, Marvin Gaye, votive candles or a Shakespearean love sonnet are all sensual ways I intend to inspire them to do the Dirty Bird (these ideas are purely speculative on my part, but enticing prospects nonetheless).
When the hen lays her eggs, make sure that she actually sits on them. Fancy hens can be vain creatures, preferring to strut about the coop rather than tend to their unborn. “The prettiest birds aren’t always the smartest,” said Frank. If the Fancy Pigeon absolutely refuses to sit on her eggs, give them to a “common,” foster pigeon. The commoners, resigned to their lowly position in life, will dutifully assume the responsibility. When the eggs hatch, ta-da! Fancy Pigeon.
Step Five: Maybe She’s Born With It. Grooming Your Fancy Pigeon
Before your pigeon’s first cotillion, ahem, I mean, competition, you want her to look her very best. Tally and Frank recommend feeding your pigeons a natural diet of oyster shell pigeon grit, mineral oils, and a little salt to keep her feathers shiny and healthy. Clip her pigeon toenails and trim her stray feathers. Your debutante should take her beauty rest in the same crate that you’ll be using to show her off at the pigeon pageant. This will give her a chance to get comfortable in her new accommodations so that nothing will ruffle her feathers on the big day.
The judges will determine if she makes the final cut, but it’s important you let your pigeon know you appreciate her unconditionally, win or lose. The glory of winning a pageant is only temporary, but the love of a good pigeon lasts forever.