Hand-rearing Doves and Pigeons using Harrison's Bird Food Products

Baby pigeons and doves are reared for the first few days of their life (1-5 normally) almost exclusively on a diet of ‘crop milk’. Crop milk is a white, semi-solid liquid with the appearance of soft cheese or curds, secreted, as the name suggests by the lining cells of the parent birds’ crop. Both the male and female pigeon produce crop milk and its production is stimulated by the hormone prolactin, the same hormone that causes milk production in mammals including humans.

As the chick gets older, the parent bird starts to regurgitate seed as well as the crop milk until the milk production stops and the growing chick is then fed on a more ‘normal’ pigeon diet of seeds and legumes.

The growth rate of baby pigeons and doves is extremely high (they are contenders for the fasted growing warm-blooded creature on the planet having a 22-fold increase in weight over the first 3 weeks of their lives) and this is due to the remarkable nutritive qualities of crop milk. On a dry matter basis crop milk when first produced is between 50-60% protein (although this level reduces over time), 30-40% fats, and is generally high in minerals, essential for good bone development given the high body weight gain. Crop milk differs from cow’s milk for example, in being much higher in proteins, fats and minerals but unlike cow’s milk that contains the sugar lactose, crop milk has no sugars. One other ‘secret’ ingredient of crop milk is that it contains a ‘growth factor’ which has not been fully identified but which, as well as giving baby pigeons a good start in life, has also been shown to stimulate the growth of cell cultures in laboratories.

Both aviculturists and wild bird rehabbers are often called upon, for a variety of reasons, to hand-rear baby doves and pigeons. One of the problems encountered is that, given the unique qualities of crop-milk particularly in the early stages of its production, it is difficult to emulate the nutritive value of crop-milk from a hand-rearing formula perspective. However, the author has had good success using the following products.

Recovery Formula: Protein 35% (mainly soya extract), Fats 19% (plant origin), Vitamins and Minerals, and of equal importance Recovery Formula is low in carbohydrates and fibre and does not include any complex sugars. (This is important in many species of birds as they are unable to digest these sugars and if ingested can cause digestive upsets such as fermentation predisposing to bacterial and yeast colonisation and diarrhoea leading to dehydration.)

Palmgloss: A blend of red palm oil, coconut oil, wheat germ oil and perilla oil. This increases the fat content of the food especially the essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6 levels and enhances the antioxidant level through the natural carotenes and vitamin E.

Fauna Flora: A naturally occurring high-potency nutritional digestive blend of organic live enzymes (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) designed to improve digestion, improve the breakdown of food and aid the absorption of nutrients and act as a probiotic.

Juvenile Hand-rearing Formula: This formulation has a lower fat and protein level but maintains the mineral and vitamin levels. There is also a higher fibre level more in keeping with the fibre content of the diet of adult pigeons.

Making the hand-rearing formula

Make up the Recovery Formula with warm water to a thick cream consistency slightly thicker than directed for general use for hand-rearing or critical care.

Mix into this Fauna Flora powder; a good pinch with every feed.

Add liquefied Palmgloss, (Palmgloss is usually solid at room temperature but will easily liquefy if immersed for a few minutes in warm water) stirring quickly to ensure though mixing. If Palmgloss is not available, then sunflower/vegetable cooking oil can be used instead. For every heaped teaspoon of Recovery formula used add approximately 10 - 15 drops of the liquid Palmgloss/oil to increase the fat content.

If the mixture is or becomes too dry then add some more warm (40oC) water and mix thoroughly. Do not over thin as this dilutes the ‘strength’ of the food reducing the nutritional intake. Always ensure that the food is fed at around 38oC-40oC. Never microwave hand-rearing formulas of any kind as this can produce ‘pockets’ of very hot food that if fed will cause crop burns.

Because the formula is quite concentrated it is particularly important that the baby pigeons do not become dehydrated. To try and prevent this, the administration of warm water in addition to the food should be given periodically, especially when the chicks are very young.

As the young pigeons grow, and to reflect the natural decrease of the protein and fat levels in the crop milk (for most species this would be from 8-10 days onward), the level of Recovery Formula – and thus the amount of oil - in the hand-rearing mix can be reduced and gradually substituted with Juvenile Formula food. The should be done incrementally each day, so on day 21 the mix should be 100% Juvenile Formula.

At the time of weaning and for a few days prior to the introduction of ‘solid foods’ the pigeon should be encouraged to swallow some (up to ½ teaspoon in total depending on the size of the adult bird) non-soluble grit. This is usually available for small cage birds and can be mixed into the hand-rearing food in small amounts over a few days. Once the pigeons are feeding on their own, grit should be made readily available.

Towards the end of hand-feeding Harrisons High Potency Superfine and Harrisons High Potency Fine organic pellets can be included in the mix and the fledgling pigeons encouraged to wean onto one of these formulas. Adult larger pigeons will quite happily swallow High Potency Coarse and Power Treats and these can be used as part of the adult diet. This will help ensure a good level of minerals and vitamins for continued bone and feather development.

(The author has not had any experience in hand-rearing fruit-eating doves and pigeons but believes that this protocol would be equally applicable to this group of Columbiformes.)

Written by Brian Stockdale MRCVS BVM&S