"How on earth is it possible that your youngsters trap so fast!?"
"Why don't you show the widowhood cock a hen before basketing!?"
These are some of the questions that I get all the time.
It might sound strange, but both are linked to one another. Both are examples of 'conditioning' or reflexes in other words. There are two kinds of reflexes. One is conditional reflex or stimulus that has its origins in the evolution of the species while the conditioned stimulus or reflex has its origins on the experience of the individual animal, in our case pigeons. 'Conditioning' is like 'habitual behaviour'. 'Habitual behaviour' is defined as automatic behaviour, 'reflexes' are defined as 'unwanted reactions initiated by an external stimulus'. Aristotle would have called the simplest form of classical conditioning the law of contiguity, which states that: 'When two things commonly occur together, the appearance of one will bring the other to mind.' Well here is my story.
When I was little, both of my grandmas had cats.
One grandma only had to call 'kitty, kitty' and the cats came running in immediately. My other grandmother's cats reacted totally different. They came running when they heard the sound of their feeding bowl when it was put on the floor. I asked my grandma:
'Why don't you say 'kitty, kitty?'
She smiled, called 'kitty, kitty' but the cats seemed deaf and didn't react at all.
I was astonished and asked: 'How is this possible, grandma!?'
So she explained me:
'When the cats were still kittens I also used to call 'kitty, kitty'. At the same time I put the bowl with milk on the floor. After a little while only the sound of the bowl was enough. I no longer had to call 'kitty, kitty'.
Both grandmas had taught the kittens that they got fed after 'kitty, kitty'.
Of course you could also teach them that food would follow when you call 'doggy, dog' or 'get lost, get lost'.
As a kid I had a teacher who punched us when we wouldn't listen. He got up first, took off his ring and then he punched. It didn't take us long to know the drill. We already shut up as soon as he got up and reached for his ring finger.
We were 'conditioned' this way.
It is no different when you want to teach (baby) birds.
Birds also react to signals and the sooner you teach them, the better.
We all know that it is very difficult to get a badly educated child back on track.
With pigeons it is the same way.
My daily routine before the birds get ready to roost is as follows:
I first put some seeds, grit and peanuts on the perch and then I stroke some on the heads and let others play with my hands.
The bird stays in charge at all time and of course it always wins 'the fight'.
It is really amazing how fast they know 'the game'.
Very soon they will fly towards me as soon as I put out my hand. Simply because they know they will get a treat.
When visiting fellow fanciers, I often see the opposite.
The birds are afraid of their hands, though they don't look different from mine.
In such cases the handler has taught them to fear his hands. They roughly grab a bird between the legs or against a window. Or even worse, when they want to grab the bird they hold their hands behind their back and all of a sudden they 'attack'. 'Got ya'. Or sometimes they miss.
A cloud of feathers and scared birds flying away to all directions are the visual proof of the clumsiness of the handler. This is the perfect way for your birds to lose all confidence in you. Those poor birds are frightened and try to get away as soon as the handler enters the loft.
You can hardly expect such birds to trap fast upon arrival from the next race.
When I enter the loft the birds don't even move. It's as though they want to say 'You finally turned up, he?'
The fancier's hands are of major importance for a pigeon:
It's the hands that feed them, grab them to be basketed and grab them after the race if not clocked electronically.
Pigeons should not fear the hands of the fancier.
Whenever I am in a hurry or I am stressed I stay away from the lofts.
You know how it generally goes. When you have tried to grab a bird and you have missed, you will try a second time. Only this time the grabbing will be rougher. The result may be again that the birds will lose confidence in you.
Another way to scare birds is to just drop them out of your hands or even worse 'throw' them on the ground. Such handlers should watch in slow motion to see themselves how much the bird is under pressure to spread its wings to land safely when they are dropped.
A good handler should be able to grab the birds using one hand only.
Some fanciers always have peanuts or treats (seeds) for the birds in their pockets when entering the loft. This is a good attitude.
You should always grab and release pigeons gently and never lose your temper.
Of course you should not exaggerate
The following example is also pretty common.
If the fancier has a race on Sundays he needs his wife to trap the pigeons.
Why is that?
Because it is her who feeds them during the week.
You should treat your pigeons with care and respect to get fast trappers.
You will never make it to a good young bird racer if you just quickly throw some food on the floor.
When my birds are only a few months old I call them down immediately after the training.
I call them down not only with my voice ('come, come') but also rattle the feeding tin.
You can also use a whistle or call 'kitty, kitty' but that may look kind of stupid.
Very soon my babies will rush into the loft and I no longer have to call them down. This is just like my grandma that doesn't need to call 'kitty, kitty' anymore.
Seeing me alone is already the signal for them to enter the loft, also after the races, since they are 'conditioned'.
Since the difference between winning and losing has become a matter of seconds in many races trapping has become a very important aspect of our sport.
The secret of fanciers that have pigeons that trap like hell is 'conditioning'.
The role of the hen in widowhood racing is often subject of discussions. I don't believe the cock races back home 'thinking' about his hen.
Unfortunately widowhood cocks cannot tell me if I am right.
But I doubt if 'showing' the hens before basketing makes any difference.
In my opinion the actual staying in the basket itself 'conditions' the birds.
I am convinced the race itself and the trapping are so strongly associated to another that it makes showing superfluous.
I only see the disadvantages: stress, fights, and a needless waste of energy.
OTHERS AS WELL
Many fanciers who used to 'show' before basketing have changed their minds over time, since they noticed it didn't make any difference.
I also read an interesting story about a short distance champion.
Every Sunday he races from Noyon and Quievrain, two famous release stations in Belgium.
The birds for Quievrain are basketed on Saturday evening, the ones for Noyon on Saturday afternoon. The Quievrain birds were shown their hens before basketing, the Noyon birds did not see their hens.
And guess what'. he didn't notice any difference.
Another example that shows pigeons associate things to each other is the story of Robert de Neve, a champion who also races Noyon and Quievrain.
His son never enters the loft during the week. Only on Sundays he clocks the Quievrain birds.
One day during the week de Neve was not home and his son cleaned and fed the birds. In the evening he had surprising news for his dad.
When he opened the windows to let the birds train none of the Quievrain pigeons got out. They got excited instead and started cooing when they saw him.
The Noyon pigeons however that were always called down and clocked by Robert himself, trained as usual.
Robert believes he has an explanation.
When the Quievrain birds saw his son they were convinced to get their hen, just like after a race. So the birds associated Robert's son with seeing their hen.
Who said pigeons don't have a good memory!?