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The past few years have produced an evolution in young bird racing. The large amounts of prize money and the instant fame a top young bird season produces have forced changes in the methods used.
Not to many years ago, young birds were raced to the perch. If we wanted to send young birds to the races in full feather we had very few options available. We could try to pair them. While they were brooding and raising youngsters the moult would stop. But not all young birds mated easily, many were not yet sexually mature. Young birds were sent with bare heads and covert feathers missing over the wings, not very aerodynamic. When they are moulting there are hormonal changes in the bird. These changes resulted in birds that were reluctant to leave the loft for exercise, making it difficult to keep them in top condition for the races.
About ten years ago several lofts in Europe started to show unbelievable race results with their young bird teams. They were dominating the races, sometimes getting large drops of birds well ahead of the competition. In the second half of the young bird season when their competitors birds were going into the heavy moult, they became unstoppable.
With these record breaking results came accusations of drugging and doping. It is human nature to suspect the worst in people. "Whatís going on ?", " What hit us ?". Everyone was dumfounded and couldnít understand what had happened to them.
What had happened?.These young bird specialists had developed a system that allowed them to control the moult on their race team. They had observed that the young birds born early in the winter moulted their head and covert feathers but did not moult their primary feathers. These birds had an almost full complement of feathers during the racing season. Knowing that day length causes hormonal changes that stimulate the moult, they put two and two together and said, " why not keep all our youngsters, spring and winter, in artificial day length and see what happens". The predictable happened. The birds under artificially shortened days moulted their head and covert feathers but their primaries either did not drop or dropped very slowly.
While these specialists were developing their darkening system there were other flyers who had noticed that while they were treating their birds for conjunctivitis with some of the steroid preparations commonly available, the birds stopped moulting completely. No head feathers, no covert feathers and no primaries. This seemed to be an easy solution to the moult problem in young birds and was readily adapted by many flyers. It was learned very quickly that these steroid containing products created serious problems for the birds. The kidneys , sex organs and the birds resistance to disease were all adversely affected. The ruling bodies in several countries have now ruled against the use of these products and many others are in the process of developing rules and testing procedures . Hopefully this will eliminate the few who were abusing the use of these products. It is to bad because the original purpose of these products was to help the birds, to heal them.
Now that we have some background on the darkening system weíll try to explain how to use it. First let me say that I believe we should keep our birds as naturally as possible. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding out there about the day length and what it accomplishes. Many flyers are under the impression that by shortening the day down to eight or ten hours the birds will moult faster. Not so. The moult will proceed at a rapid rate if we use the amount of daylight of our shortest day in the winter. This is about twelve hours. This amount of day length for ten days in the spring will start the moult.
The length of day is what is important, not when the curtains are dropped or when they are raised. Personally I darken from seven thirty to seven thirty because this is what is most convenient for me. For someone working to a different schedule perhaps nine to nine or from noon to midnight by providing lights after dark till midnight. All of them work, as long as the length of day light is right and we do it everyday at the same time. Donít darken one day from nine to nine and the next from seven thirty to seven thirty, the times must be consistent.
Go back to natural day length about four weeks before the young bird schedule starts. They seem to reach top form about six weeks after darkening has stopped. They will start to drop a few flights but very slowly, the body feathers stay tight. When the day length gets down to sixteen hours, around the first of August here, I put my lights on timers so that the birds receive sixteen hours of light right to the end of the season. In the past I didnít do this and had a hard time holding the body feathers in Sept. when our big races took place. Giving them a sixteen hour day held the feathers.
You will notice that youngsters that are darkened donít take their exercise well in the spring and early summer. This is only natural. Remember there are hormonal changes in birds that are moulting, donít force them to exercise at this time, be patient. Shortly after they receive natural day length you will see them blossom. They will begin to exercise freely and range for hours. This is the time to begin their education.
How dark do we keep them. Pitch black is not necessary, think how dark it is on a moonlit night. You can still see. When you darken your loft and you no longer have birds moving around, if it is quite, it is probably dark enough. Remember we are attempting to imitate nature.
There is no point in putting winter born youngsters in the dark. The day length at that time of year is short enough and the birds will moult their body feathers naturally. Shortening days at this time of year accomplishes nothing. With these youngsters you donít have to start till some time in March. Youngsters born in Feb. and later can be put on the system when they are weaned.
When the racing season is over turn of the lights and let the birds go back to natural day length. In no time they will start a second body moult. The primaries keep moulting, sometimes two and three at a time. Last season I had several birds moult all twelve tail feathers in a matter of a few days. Ninety nine percent of the birds will moult completely. Some drop their last primaries in Jan. and Feb. but, moult them they will.
Having your youngsters on the dark system in no way affects them as old birds. The yearlings can not be used for early breeding because they are in a heavy moult early in the winter. These birds are raced into Oct. and having just completed a heavy race schedule they need rest and lots of food till later in the spring before breeding should be attempted. If these birds are treated with care and patience they race well in their yearling year. My best old bird last year was a yearling who had been on the dark system the year before, he won two firsts a second and a fifth in a eleven week schedule and raced every week.
When you drop the curtains and try to keep the light out of your loft be careful, watch that you do not stop or hinder your ventilation. I have seen lofts that were closed up so tight that the birds were getting little or no fresh air. Look over your situation and see if perhaps a few modifications will ensure the birds get lots of fresh air.
With a little thought and planning anyone can adjust this system to suit them. By flying youngsters in full feather you should be more competitive. You will give them a chance to show their worth.
Nick Oud
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