Release to Trapping


Willem Mulder

When we hear, an airplane flying overhead or we see all those cars driving down the highway, most of us don’t reflect on the fact that for every movement, however small it may be, energy is required. An airplane that does not have enough fuel in its tank, will likely have to make an emergency landing. A farmer, driving a tractor, who doesn’t top up his fuel tank, will end up walking back to the farm to get a jerry can full of fuel. He will soon realize that this is a hard slog through the thick clay soil. And the car, have you ever pushed it, just a short mile or so, to the gas station because your fuel tank was empty?

All this pushing and carrying will end up in big muscular arms. Therefore, it may be quite useful to know how much fuel is needed to travel from point A to B by car. Fuel in our vehicles is something we often don’t pay a lot of attention to, but you could try leaving your money or your credit card at home next time you run out of fuel … I’ll bet you’ll check your fuel gauge regularly for quite a while afterwards.  If we want to take a 500 km trip and you know that your car needs 1 liter of fuel for every 10 km traveled, then you know that you need at least 50 liters of fuel in the tank. Otherwise, especially if you forgot your wallet at home, you will in a lot of trouble. 

The muscle cells of either a human or an animal can contract and provide labor. They get the energy they need from proteins, carbohydrates and fat. By oxidation (combustion with the intake of oxygen) the composition of these ingredients change and energy is released. This energy can be converted by a cell to another form such as heat or motion. You may ask, where does this energy originate? The short answer is that, sunlight, hydrogen, chlorophyll (the green pigment in plants) and carbon dioxide all interact and produce the material we and other animals use to provide us with energy.

The plants will, when hydrogen is available, convert carbon dioxide from the air into oxygen and high energy substances (carbohydrates). In the body, oxidation (combustion by the absorption of oxygen), of these high energy substances in the organs, will finally convert into heat, energy and carbon dioxide. That is how food becomes the raw material or the energy supplier for humans and animals.

Human sports
People doing sports, consume energy. If we want to perform at a high level, it is important to know how we should nourish ourselves and how to train to get peak performance. The fuels that supply the energy are carbohydrates (4.1 kcal per gram), proteins (4.1 kcal per gram) and fat (9.2 kcal per gram).
Burning these substances produces heat, energy, carbon dioxide and waste.  Only when burning fat, no harmful waste products are produced, in this case only water and carbon dioxide are produced. When working out, the muscles are being contracted and lactic acid is produced. This gets in the blood. During an intense workout, the acidity of the blood increases, which causes fatigue. You can control this process by training regularly. If the training is adapted to the person, the fatigue limits can increasingly be pushed higher. There is a clear link between the level of lactic acid, labor intensity and heart rate. It can be measured by the heart rate: for explosive sports such as sprinting or weight lifting, the final values are 9 times higher than those at the point of departure. For endurance athletes those values are 3 times higher on arrival. Top athletes “run” on approximately 60% carbohydrates.

Pigeon sport
When pigeons fly, almost no lactic acid is produced. Firstly, a pigeon determines its own pace, you can’t rush them, they don’t have jockeys urging them to fly faster. Secondly a pigeons’ metabolism is very different from that of humans and other mammals. Pigeons’ burn mainly fats and therefore, don’t produce any lactic acid.

Energy consumption

Now, we have arrived at the point where we can determine what pigeons actually use during flight. At the universities of Ghent (Belgium), Guelph (Canada) and Frankfurt (Germany), pigeons were taught to fly in a wind tunnel. They flew, but being tethered in a wind tunnel, they flew in place. This way they could be “connected” to technical equipment and measurements could be taken. With precision equipment, oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide levels and weight loss were measured. These measurements, in turn were used to determine how much oxygen the pigeon consumed and how much carbon dioxide it exhaled. When the amount of oxygen inhaled equals the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled, the pigeon is using glycogen as its main energy source. If only 7 parts carbon dioxide were exhaled for every 10 parts oxygen inhaled, the pigeon is using mainly fat as its energy source.

For the first 10 minutes of flight, pigeons fly exclusively on glycogen. That is enough time to leave the basket and attain the needed altitude and speed. After the initial take off, over the next 30 to 50 minutes, glucose and fatty acids present in the bloodstream and in the liver are consumed. It is during the first hour of flight that most of the pigeons’ weight loss occurs. This indicates that the energy provided by burning glycogen (4.1 kcal per gram) is half of that provided by burning fat (9.2 kcal per gram).

It was also determined that pigeons require, after the initial 30 to 50 minutes of flight, 3 to 3.5 gram of fat per hour to maintain flight. That is a very interesting and certainly crucial piece of information. Fatty acids are stored in the red muscle fibers and most of these red muscle fibers are located in the breast muscles. The breast muscles are the main storage tank for the flight home. These red muscle fibers contain +/- 97 ½% unsaturated fatty acids. The glycogen used by the pigeon during the first 10 minutes of flight, is stored in the white muscles directly next to the sternum. These should be inflated substantially at the time the pigeon is basketed. The “light blood fats” in the body are produced by the carbohydrate and fat-rich grains which are fed at the last 3 feedings. Only after these are consumed will the pigeon switch to burning the fatty acids stored in the red muscle fibers. As we can determine how much fat is contained in the feed, we can calculate how much the pigeon needs to consume to meet the requirements of the upcoming race.


Suppose, you are planning on entering your pigeons in a 400 km race and you estimate that this flight will take at least 6 hours. During the first hour, only glycogen (collective name of various kinds of carbohydrates) will be used. This is also when the highest speed is achieved. During the last 5 hours, the reserves of fat (acids) are addressed. We assume 3 grams of fat is used per hour. So the pigeons need 5 x 3 grams = 15 grams of fat stored in its’ breast muscles in order to finish the race. If we know the fat content of our feed mix, we can calculate if this feed will provide enough energy for the upcoming race.

Energy from the feed.
Suppose we have a mix having a fat content of 5%. We feed an average of 200 grams of feed per pigeon per week. This mix will provide the pigeon with 10 grams of fat reserves. That is enough for a flight of 3 hours. Let us add the first hour during which the pigeon uses glycogen and blood fats, then we end up with a total of 4 hours. That’s not enough stored energy for this flight. If we now take a feed mixture with a fat content of 9% (= 18 grams fat), then this is more than sufficient for this flight. We must keep an eye on how many hours our pigeons are going to race home each week.

For the short distance flights of 2 hours, we need very little fat and the main part of the feed, should result in carbohydrates and light blood fats. For heavy long distance flights, this is a completely different story. Therefore, short- and middle distance race require a different feed than the long distance and overnight long distance players. It is paramount, to know what you’re buying. It is not necessarily the nicest mixture that gives the best results, but a mixture that enables the pigeons to do what is expected from them.

This is quite a different way of looking at feeds and feeding, then what most pigeon fanciers are used to. We usually feed the same mix the top fanciers feed, without considering whether this is the right choice for us. We feed the food that is being promoted in pigeon magazines, without further consideration ……. You get the picture. In the next articles, I will specifically address the short-, the middle-, the long distance, the overnight and the young pigeon races.  I considered it useful to explain the fundamentals of feeding first. We are going to start from that point and then we are going to have a specialized look at what is most important for you. A good feed for widowhood has all that is needed for an optimal performance.  For the program races (that is short to long distance), it becomes important that your feed has a relatively high fat content, a high metabolic energy content, and a relatively low legume content. If you cannot find the composition on the bag, then it is probably to be found in a manufactures brochure or you could simply make a telephone call.

Too much of a good thing
It is certainly not wise to feed a lot of fat. Even if you have the best of intentions, you need remember, that the pigeon, requirement to carry all that fat. With every wing beat, the pigeon must use more energy to push the extra weight. So, if you feed too much fuel week after week, the fat deposits may become overfilled and the pigeon will lose condition. This also means that you, as a fancier, should do some thinking of your own. If the plan was to race your pigeons from 400 km two weeks in a row, but they are brought back due to weather conditions and released from 100 km, their tank won’t empty. You have to take this into account by feeding lighter and less during the following week. Pigeon racing remains an art and he who makes the least mistakes, will win in the end.

If the carbohydrates and the fats are consumed during a tough race, then the pigeon still has a small reserve tank containing the long-chain carbohydrates (the Alfa 1.6 compounds). If these are also consumed, then the pigeon has no choice but to switch over to burning proteins. Proteins are the building blocks of muscles. This process is accompanied by massive muscle cramps. It feels as if the muscles are burning, this process also requires a lot of oxygen. Most pigeons don’t want to go through this ordeal and they go down. So, good bye pigeon (our own fault!!). The real go-getters, the character pigeons, will return home but in doing so become severely emaciated. These pigeons will usually never perform at a top level again 

Besides fuel, pigeons also require oxygen. Muscles cannot function without oxygen. The “carriers” of oxygen are the red blood cells. These should be widely available to provide for an optimal oxygen supply. Proteins are also consumed during a flight. That has been shown by measurements. The more demanding the flight, the more the proteins are addressed. You can compare this with the oil consumption of a car. If the car is heavily loaded and has to go over mountains on a long trip to reach the final destination, chances are that the oil consumed is greater than on a trip to the bakery to pick up a sandwich. Used proteins should always be like oil should always be topped up, the muscles must recover, otherwise the motor will stop working. This is also true for the pigeons.