Darkening old birds
As I'm writing this it's early March 2008, outside it is freezing cold, inside the heating is on, and in the garden it is pandemonium.
Birds are singing and flying back and forth with twigs in their beaks.
They have started building their nests, so much is clear.
But given the bitter cold and the cutting wind it feels a bit strange.
In December the temperatures were pleasantly warm, but then you didn't hear or see them!
Do birds have a calendar somewhere?
Do they know that it is spring, and that they are supposed to build a nest in spring?
Of course they don't know that.
Their behaviour is based on only one thing: lengthening of the days.
LIGHT AND DARK
What an enormous effect light and dark has on the behaviour of all that lives, people who keep chickens (think of laying eggs) or other birds will know, and for the last few decades so do pigeon fanciers who excel with young birds.
They had realized what a handicap the moult is. In Belgium they began to use drops, in the Netherlands they started to darken.
And immediately a huge gap was created. Fanciers, who succeeded in preserving the feathers of the young birds, either by using drops or by darkening, dominated the races for young pigeons in such a way that it was embarrassing.
And a new term was born in the pigeon sport: the 'young bird specialist'.
The details about darkening of young pigeons have been extensively described in the previous edition of 'The best of Ad Schaerlaeckens), that unfortunately (but not for me) sold out very quickly.
But something that nobody realized, when darkening young pigeons had become so commonplace, was that you can do the same with old pigeons.
By now everybody also knows about this and it is the most natural thing in the world to do.
Of course, I also tried out several different methods in darkening old pigeons, listened to others, and the conclusion was that it doesn't have such an enormous effect on the achievements of old pigeons than with young pigeons. Furthermore, people tend to forget that it's especially the good pigeons and fanciers that still have the most success.
Look at what happened with young pigeons. Everyone started to darken them.
When that became common knowledge, some fanciers were very pleased, 'luckily, this will be the end of the supremacy of the specialists'.
But nothing was more beside the truth.
What then is the great advantage of darkening old pigeons?
Pigeons are (usually!) in form at the time that you want them to, from mid May on and later when the races that count are on the program, and for many these are the one-day NPO races.
Not only because the distances appeal to many fanciers, but also there is a chance to appear on television with these races.
The point is these races only begin in mid May, and are held until well into July.
We know how important form is (for me, form is even more important than quality) and we also know that it is downright impossible to keep pigeons in top form for 3 to 4 months.
In that respect they are just the same as athletes.
Their form also shows a rising and falling curve, and the point is to be in top form just when that important tennis tournament is due, that cycle race or another competition.
However, pigeons will (normally) start to moult at the end of June, first only slightly but then they will lose so many flights that they can barely fly.
But these plumes and feathers don't fall from one day to the other.
Moulting is a result of hormonal activity in the body; it has started a few weeks before the actual moult shows itself and... this process affects the form.
In the past, people said: "Pigeons that are moulting are sick.'
I used to laugh about that but it wasn't really that absurd.
The effect therefore is two-fold.
When you darken, you don't only slow down the moult; but a few weeks after you stop darkening, you get a so called euphoric effect.
Think of darkening young pigeons and a light therapy for depressive people in winter.
Where I race, in Midden Brabant, the racing program finishes at the end of June; therefore, darkening doesn't make much sense and is hardly done in this area.
Except as a means of postponing the moult, you shouldn't expect miracles from darkening. When I asked Bas Verkerk if he was willing to give mainly novice fanciers some information, the fancier from South Holland said:
"You may know everything there is to know of me, as long as you don't ask me to give my pigeons away".
What he means is clear; without first class pigeons you can't succeed, no matter what kind of system you have, and not by darkening old pigeons either.
This doesn't mean that his methods are gospel, he changes his methods almost every year, but what he never changes is his search for ever better pigeons and not selling his absolute toppers.
Usually, Verkerk couples his pigeons only once, in early December. In 2007 he only coupled them in March (dry widowhood), but the pigeons started moulting sooner.
Possibly, another reason was that he had already stopped darkening on the 1st of May, while he normally continues until the end of May.
The pigeons are darkened from 5 pm to 7 am, about the same times as the young pigeons. And at the end of July, when the days are shortening, the lights come on at 5 am and stay on until 10 pm.
It's not an automatic process that top form appears three weeks after the end of darkening.
There are no certainties.
In 2007, he stopped darkening on 1st May, and the top form only appeared in July at the end of the racing season.
Verkerk believes that the weather also plays a role.
It also happened that his pigeons (against 'all the rules') were in top form while they were still being darkened.
He doesn't have a problem starting winter breeding with the pigeons that have been darkened; he barely looks if they have fully moulted at the time.
"They will pull through," he jokes.
Don't expect miracles of darkening.
Only if you have superb pigeons, you may hope for miracles.
However, when you want to race with old pigeons until September, you practically can't avoid darkening.
In South Holland, where Verkerk lives, darkening is done by many fanciers, but even so, each year usually the same people dominate the races.
Better pigeons surely?