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Pigeons more popular, interest in poultry plummeting

“When I was a kid, it was the other way around. Poultry was the thing and pigeons were less prominent.”

– O Pilchar

Brandon

In a huge room at Brandon’s Keystone Centre, the cages are filled with countless breeds of pigeons. Near the back, are a few rows of colourful chickens and ducks.

It wasn’t always like this, said Bob Pilchar, president of the Manitoba Poultry and Pet Stock Association. A fourth-generation pigeon breeder, the 46-year-old keeps a couple of hundred birds on his acreage near Brandon as a hobby.

“When I was a kid, it was the other way around. Poultry was the thing and pigeons were less prominent.”

The show featured birds from all over Canada and the United States, with visitors hailing from as far away as Saudi Arabia and judges from Germany, where pigeon-showing events attract enormous crowds.

But interest in pigeon breeding is waning in Canada, he added. Young entrants into the sport are few and far between, a trend he blames on the soaring popularity of other pursuits such as computer games among youth.

“But I think if kids got involved with stuff like this, there would be a lot less graffiti and all that kind of stuff going on,” he said.

Cycle of life

“It gives a kid a sense of the cycle of life and how all that works, as well as a sense of duty because you have to clean, feed and water the birds.”

Pigeons are a good fit for acreage owners and urbanites where bylaws don’t create undue hardships, he added.

“You can have the worst day at work, and then come home and these guys will put a smile on your face,” said Pilchar.

The failure of Ontario-based Arlan Galbraith’s pigeon empire which sparked headlines last year was no surprise to Pilchar. The birds sold to investors by Galbraith’s company to farmers and acreage owners across the United States and Canada were of no particular pedigree and too small for the squab market, he said.

“It was a joke,” said Pilchar, adding that he had received many inquiries from would-be investors, and advised them all to stay clear of the Pigeon King.

Rico Sebastianelli, a poultry breeder from Bon Accord, Alberta, noted that he is one of only a handful of active poultry judges left in Canada as raising alternative breeds of chickens falls out of favour. His occupation takes him to poultry shows all over Canada, and the United States.

Interest in poultry breeding has plummeted in recent decades, he said. At the Brandon show, only a couple of rows of cages held poultry, with the vast majority containing pigeons.

That’s mainly because the success of industrial poultry genetics has left slower-growing and less prolific laying breeds in the dust, he noted. Now, when people want to buy layer or broiler chicks, they go to their local farm supply store.

Diversity declining

The trouble is, he said, the chicks they get are derived from very narrow breeding lines that are likely to become even less diverse in the future, and he believes the industry may be painting itself into a corner.

If a new disease were to sweep through the population, or animal welfare legislation calls for drastically different husbandry requirements, those same highly specialized traits and near total uniformity might prove to be a major problem, he said.

“That’s why people like myself are trying to keep the old breeds going as purebred birds,” he said.

Although the traditional dual-purpose chickens aren’t as fast growing or as efficient as layers, their hardiness makes them attractive for free range or less intensive production systems.

Sebastianelli pointed to the Malay breed, a tall, bandy-legged bird still very popular in Southeast Asia as fighting cocks. Tough as nails, the birds are excellent layers and are able to forage on their own all summer long.

“You could turn them loose in the spring, and never have to worry about feeding them,” he said. “As long as they have water, they can fend for themselves.”

Less meat, more flavour

The non-industrial breeds yield less meat, but have more flavour. They are often more appealing to ethnic markets, he said. Chinese buyers prize the Silkie breed, characterized by its fluffy plumage and dark-blue skin, for the medicinal qualities of its meat.

Less economic breeds have been vanishing at a shocking rate, said Sebastianelli.

The Partridge Chantecler, a dual-purpose breed developed by a breeder in Alberta in the 1940s that reached about eight pounds at maturity and offered excellent laying characteristics, has now more or less vanished.

“That bird was made for the Alberta climate, lots of feather, very hardy, laid well even during the winter. But they didn’t distribute the bird far enough out so everybody had them,” he said. “The guy who produced them passed on and the birds died off.”

One glimmer of hope for endangered poultry breeds is the growing trend of small farms and acreages that carve out marketing niches using alternative livestock breeds where sheer volume of meat and eggs isn’t driving the production model.

“I think it’s slowly coming back,” he said, noting that interest in goats, sheep and small frame cattle is also growing.

Although most teenagers are more interested in computers, his own nieces and nephews love to come out from the city, look after his chickens and gather fresh eggs for breakfast.

“They say, ‘I want to be a farmer when I grow up!’ I don’t know if it will wear off,” he said.

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