Breeding Nuns

Breeding Nuns. By R S Henderson

So how do you breed good Nuns? That is the ultimate question we all ask, and there is no easy answer. Firstly, to breed good birds you need good stock to start off with. Not necessarily show winners, but sound, good quality birds with no major faults. Go to a breeder who consistently does well in top competition, and try to obtain the best pair of two they have available in the colour you fancy. If you can only get one top quality bird, try to make sure it is a hen. Although it should not matter, I have found progress is a lot quicker with a good hen to an average cock, as the foundation, than the other way round. This was the way I first started with my studs of the blacks and duns, and blues and silvers. The reds and yellows were of equal quality only average to look at but from top quality stock. Hens tend to be more dominant for type than cocks, whereas cocks rule colour so a good type hen is what is needed to start with. Don't expect good birds to come cheap, you will be paying for the breeders expertise and years of breeding, so be fair to the breeder and I'm sure he will be fair with you. One good pair is better than two average ones, also dont buy birds from lots of different breeders. One of two pairs from one or two breeders is much better than several pairs from all over the place. What is needed is a concentration of the birds gene pool or ancestry, to help form a closely related family that will produce birds of a similar appearance from where major improvements will come. From a wide gene pool progress will be much slower in the long run.

This type of breeding is called inbreeding, or to a certain degree line breeding. Inbreeding is the pairing up of closely related birds, ie; parent x offspring, half brother x half sister, grandparent x grandchild, etc; Whereas in line breeding you take a cock or hen and and pair it back to daughters or sons over a period of years. In time all the birds will become very closely related and similar in appearance. When inbreeding though, only fit birds must be bred off, with no physical defects or serious faults. Inbreeding is the quickest way to fix good points into a strain, but by the same means bad faults will be brought out and could become fixed. The idea is to eliminate all the bad faults and have an abundance of good feathers on sound, healthy birds.

The first breeding season is usually the easiest, take advice from who you bought your birds from, and pair the birds accordingly. The problems, or should I say interesting things start in the second breeding season. Pen up the youngsters from first years breeding and compare them to their parents and the Nun standard. Pick out the best young cock and hen, and pair them back to their parents, then space or quality permitting, pair the next best young cock and hen together or to the young of another pair if you originally bought two pairs. Dispose of any with obvious bad faults or, poor development. If the young are not as good as their parents don't be too disapointed. Improvement doesnt always happen every year, but the young will carry all their parents good points, sometimes it may take another year for these good points to be shown, also these birds often make good stock birds with careful pairing. With Nuns I have found that you shouldn't be too quick to judge any young until they have fully moulted, they can change dramatically in their first six months.

Many of my black and duns, because they are looser feathered, look very good in the nest, look ordinary after they have been weaned, then once again look good after their full moult. There have been several birds in the past that I have let go too soon, to my regret. Now I always hang on untill around September/October for earlier bred young, and for late breds, untill their yyearling moult, if they show promise in the nest or are from my best stock pairs.

Once the third breeding season and after comes along you should be learning more about your birds and developing a family. The best advice I can give is pair best to best, faults permitting. Take all cocks (or hens) of a colour group, pen up in order of quality, and pick the best mate for them that matches as much as, or extra good in a certain point you are trying to improve. Dont pair birds up to even points up, ie; 8 x 8 flighted to 12 x 12 flighted to get a 10 x 10 flight bird, it just doesnt happen. To take flighting as an expample, 10 x 10 coloured primary flights are perfect. The more times that you can breed birds with 10 coloured flights in at least one wing the better, or so you would think. It certainly does help, but it doesnt just end there. With the Nunbeing a pied breed the spread of white feathers is a big problem. Genetically white spreads (or increases) quicker than colour, so to consistently breed for 10 x 10 flighting means using some birds, or even the majority of your stock with more than 10 x 10 coloured flights. Along with this increase in colour could possibly be mismarking on the body feathering, although this is not too much of a problem. An increase in mismarking will also hopefully give rise to a largerbib marking, a breed characteristic that needs careful consideration when breeding. One improvement linked to another. The while idea being a gradual improvement in your stock, although a loft full of mismarks is not what is wanted, and several lower flighted birds would probably have to be bred from because they are likely to be extra good in other properties. It is the judicious pairing of the right birds with a good understanding of your birds that makes a top breeder.

The markings of a Nun for me are certainly a great attraction and make the breed stand out, but it's the structure that makes the bird. Look at any Nnun standard and one of the first things mentioned is type, short, cobby, and upright with eyes over feet, approximately 9 1/2 inches high, with a large chell crest. I think that the saying 'build your house before you paint it' certainly holds true when breeding top quality Nuns. Birds upright in stance definitely look far more attractive than crouched or squat birds, no matter what other qualities they have. Leg setting is they key to a good type. Aim for legs well set back, this pushes the chest upwards and forwards giving the cobby shape plus it gives a slight hollow between  the shoulders that improves the overall carriage of a bird.As well as legs set well back they need to be well set apart. This leads to broad shoulders and a broad chest and in turn gives rise to a strong thick neck which should gradually taper to the throat but still look quite powerful. More often than not a good strong neck will in turn lead to a broad head which should have a nicely rounded frontal when viewed in profile. With a broad head you then have the perfect base for, what to me makes a Nun, a large shell crest. By large I do mean large, but more imporatantly in proportion to the rest of the bird. A large shell i've found does seem to lead to longer flight and tail feathers, and we certainly dont want birds with the feathering of Jacobins.

So its all in proportion with no exaggerated points, for as you can see several important points are linked, so upsetting one upsets the whole bird. The same goes for massive heads, the Nun is not a Long Faced Tumbler with different markings, for one it has been around much longer and two because of its genetic make up and shell. Whenever I have seen Nuns with Tumbler put through them they have hideous eyebrows and the shell setting leaves a lot to be desired. This type of cross should certainly help improve the eye, beak and setting and type through, but care has to be taken. If fanciers want Long Faced Tumblers with Nun markings they should not call themselves Nun breeders. Going back to the shell, apart from its size, its setting is very important. When viewed from the front the shell should be as wide as it is high continuing equally on both sides of the head untill it merges in with the neck just below the level of the eye, but on the same level as the beak. In profile the shell should be set equally behind the eye as the beak is in front aserect as possible with the angle to the head ideally 90%. The feathers well packed in falling backwards to the back of the neck then the reverse way to form a small compact mane. The curve of the shell to be regular with no split.

The eye and beak are two other points that need careful attention. The eye to keep the full pearl colour with small black pupil. This is an often overlooked aspect of a Nun. I think it certainly makes a bird more attractive, especially in blacks and blues, to have a good eye on them. When birds have reddish or gravely eyes it tends to make them evil looking and detracts from the head. Beak meanwhile I think is one of the main faults on nearly all Nuns not just in the U.K, but all over the world. Some look like they have nice straight set beaks but take a closer look and you will notice that the shell is set at an angle backwards, if the shell is upright then the beak points down. Its certainly the hardest part of any Nun to put right and in my mind will take a long time because the jaw structure will need altering. I would tend to go through the domestic flight route rather than L.F Tumbler route. A it stands in the standard the shell setting is far more important than the beak so that takes priority to me. Length of beak should be easier to reduce, but here again I wouldnt like to see a beak as short as that of a Long Faced Tumbler there is just no need for it.

 So for me its structure and type first, markings and colour second.

Dont pair birds up just for the sake of it, to make a pair you must have a reason for pairing them together. Dont pair together two birds with the same bad faults as these will get worse. All birds do have faults but the idea is to make them as small as possible. Also dont continually feel you have to bring in new stock, give your own a reasonable chance to improve. Nuns have been hundreds of years in the making and considering the difference still between blacks and duns, and the other colours, its going to be a good while yet to get things right. Obviously there will come a time when you need a bird to improve a certain point lacking in your own stock, this is an outcross. Make sure that any outcross is extra good in that point you are trying to improve, and as good as possible in the points you already possess. Pair the putcross to your best bird and be extra critical in their young so as not to introduce any unwanted faults into your own strain of birds.

 Progress should follow, it may be only small, but little by little it should all come together with care, thought and a lot of patience. There will be times when it seems that you have taken a step backwards, but sometimes this will lead to two forward. Also everybody makes mistakes in pairing birds, it is nature we are up against, not a mathematical problem. The thing is to try to work back to where you went wrong and pair up differently noting your mistakes. If it were so easy everybody would have perfect pigeons by now. That is what makes pigeon breeding so rewarding, the challenge and expectations.

To reiterate on inbreeding, it is important to remember tha main principles. When breeding off closely related birds, inbreeding birds, inbreeding or linebreeding, only use birds in top health with no visible problems or major faults. Inbreeding in itself will not produce weak, poor quality, unhealthy birds or reduce size, it just brings out the hidden faults and good points that the birds have locked up inside them. It will fix into a strain both good and bad points, get rid of the bad points and you will improve your birds, dont and you will always have problems. As long as your birds are fit it does not matter how close you breed. Full brother to sister I dont normally try as the genes are the same on the both sides. I do tend to prefer half brother x half sister and grandparent x grandchild. But as long as the birds match up for improvement that is all that matters. Linebreeding are essential to the improvement of a stud of birds. Outcrossing or pairing totally unrelated birds all the time fixes nothing and the so called extra vigour you get is only useful if both bords are of a pure strain and totally unrelated.

To help in my breeding program I keep a full breeding record of all pairings, young and ring numbers. If you are to succeed you must keep a pedigree of each bird, memory is no good. My records are very detailed and apart from parents, hatch dates, ring numbers etc, include colour, flighting, main faults and strong points. I also mark down if a youngster look promising when still in the nest. I use these records as well as looking at the actual birds when deciding what birds to breed from and pair together. Along with this a clear understanding of the Nun standard and what I am trying to improve is necessary to go along with my breeding records. I also keep a record of all show results.

Sexlinked mating that apply to all dominant and dilute colours.



Part 2

Make sure that the corn you use is the best you can afford, clean, dry, free from dust and with no smell.  There are several very good corn mixtures for sale these days, with more readily available for fancy pigeons. I use Versele Laga Start Plus IC breeding mix and their fancy pigeon Show Plus IC mix with smaller peas and not too much maize mixed together. This mixture is used all year round, with during the breeding and moulting season about 15 % Gem G10 pigeon pellets added. These pellets have probiotics already in them and raise the total protein level of the feed slightly.  The protein level does not want to be too high and it is certainly not the case of the more protein the better, around 16.5 to 17 % protein is enough for both breeding and to get the birds through the moult, as their metabolism can not cope and their diet not balanced if more is given. The slightly extra protein in the pellets helps the growth of the young birds and production of new feathers, as does the addition of a condition seed mixture high in oil content. I give condition seeds once a week as a percentage of the main feed and sometimes twice a week during the moulting and show season, as I think it helps the bird’s plumage. My condition seed is usually a mixture of Versele Laga Sneaky mix and Bucktons Conditioner with added sesame seed and paddy rice as they are both very high in amino acids that aid feather production and condition. I cut out the pellets once the main body moult is over, through the show season and winter, and then reintroduce them to the feed mixture about 3 weeks before pairing up the birds. Other advantages of using the pellets are they can easily be made into a loose mixture for hand feeding and as well as the probiotics have vitamins and minerals added to them. Depending on if I think the birds are a bit fat after the show season I will add up to 20% barley to the feed mix. Other than cutting down the total food ration Barley certainly helps trim them down. Birds don’t particularly like it too much and when feeding will leave it till last, so it is a good indicator if you are feeding too much.
I hear a lot of fanciers who say that their birds won’t eat this or that type of corn. Make them, they will eat it if that is all they are going to get, obviously smaller beaked breeds and Croppers will need smaller sized seeds. Nuns and for that matter most breeds will eat any type of corn up to large tic beans and maize, mine have. Most birds tend to have their own favourite seed or corn they prefer and eat first, but given the correct amount of feed, they will get a good balanced diet. At the end of the day birds like all animals eat to survive, not for the pleasure of it.
Apart from the general feed mixture and the condition seed my birds get plenty of mixed grit, pickstones and mineral supplements.  There are now being sold mixtures of all these products with added small seeds and eggfoods in them. I use both Gem Matrix and Versele Laga All in One which the birds readily eat and cut out the need for several separate pots. My birds have a pot of this mixture in front of them all the time and especially so during the breeding season. I also give my birds Harkers Hormoform feed supplement all year round. Again it is given in a separate pot for them to eat at will, however during the moult and show seasons care has to be taken due to the possibility of it staining the bird’s white feathers. Once a week I give the birds brewers yeast added to the feed using oil. I use different oils at different times of the year depending on what I think the birds need. Generally it will be garlic oil, but I use wheatgerm oil in the lead up to breeding and every other week during the breeding season as I find this helps fertility, especially in the older cocks. Sometimes with these older cocks I will give them wheatgerm oil capsules once a day for about 2 weeks before pairing to help fertility, and in most cases it certainly works. During the moulting and show seasons I sometimes use Carr’s hemp or oregano oil ( adherb ) as I have found that they help the feathers to be soft and silky. Because of the pellets and Hormoform containing vitamins, I don’t give any extra vitamins via the drinking water. I do though use a good quality cider vinegar in the water about 4 days a week most weeks or oregano juice. Cider vinegar has many good properties for the bird’s general health and as it acidifies the water and the birds gut it helps deter diseases like Salmonella and E-Coli. The only other product I use is Gemthepax a probiotic. When birds are stressed it upsets their digestive system, and probiotics help put good bacteria into the gut to alleviate any problems. They are ideal to use before and after using medicines, after being at shows, when weaning youngsters and during breeding. Gemthepax can be given both in the drinking water or added to the feed even.
What ever is put in the birds drinkers it is changed daily or twice a day if the weather is very hot or when there are plenty of young in the nest. From when the birds are paired up to until after the main moult the birds are fed twice a day, the rest of the time they are fed in the morning only.
Through working in the pigeon and pet feed trade I know that there are a large amount of products available to help improve your bird’s health, and many birds may need them. Over the years I have tried lots of products, however many are similar and space does not permit me to go into detail. The products I use work for my birds and they do well on them, but there are dozens of ways of feeding and conditioning birds that work. If you use certain products and the birds are fit and healthy, don’t change just for the sake of it, but if your birds seem to be lacking that certain “ spark “, have dullish plumage, grey wattles or don’t breed as freely as you think they should, my advice would be to make sure you feed a good quality mixture, use a broad spectrum multivitamin or feed supplement and a probiotic, before you treat for any ailment, that is unless something is obviously wrong with your birds. There are no miracle cures and nothing will change over night, but after a week or two their general condition should improve.
Ailments in pigeons are probably still one of the biggest mysteries to the average pigeon breeder. I wonder how many look at a poorly bird and kill it without giving it a chance. Then a similar thing happens again without getting to the root of the problem and doing something about it? More often than not it is the fanciers fault the bird became ill in the first place. I spend a lot of time, effort and money on my pigeons, so if something looks wrong with any of them, I want to know what it is, remedy the problem and hopefully stop it happening again. I’m by no means an expert on the different ailments pigeons get, but I do know quite a bit about the common ones, and would advise  everybody with the health of their birds at heart to invest in a good pigeon health book like “ The Flying Vets Pigeon Health & Management “ book by Dr Colin Walker. Fortunately there are now a few up to date pigeon health books for sale, but I have found none better than this book and it is well worth the investment.
As with most problems prevention is better than cure, and loft hygiene is the number one priority to start with for the general good health of the birds. A good feeding regime and a dry loft with proper ventilation will also help to keep the birds in top health. A regular cleaning routine of the loft is needed too, especially during the breeding and moulting seasons when extra droppings and feathers are about. I scrape up all the droppings from the nest boxes and under the perches twice a week, or sometimes daily if the birds are to be locked into their next boxes as when first being paired up, or if there is a build up of droppings around the nest pans. On this point about cleaning away the droppings from around the nest pans, it is only done if the droppings are on the loose side. Firm droppings I leave in place until the young are hatched, as I think with a certain amount of the birds bacteria around them the youngsters will build up immunity to disease better. The loose damper droppings though can become smelly and more of a problem with disease and need to be removed. On the floor of each of my loft compartments is a layer of cat litter. This is very good for drying off any droppings, suppressing any smells and for keeping the birds feet clean. This is raked over weekly with any build up of droppings removed and fresh litter put down. I regularly sprinkle Johnsons louse powder and Harkers floor white onto the litter and usually replace it totally once the main moult is over, therefore removing all feathers and feather dust, and it will be much cleaner for the birds to go through the show season with. Floor white is also sprinkled on perches or in the nest boxes, as it helps dry the bird’s droppings, deter bacteria and acts as a mild disinfectant. Fortunately my lofts are on the whole very dry and I don’t regularly have the need to use a liquid disinfectant to spray them out. I usually though disinfect all the floors when I fully replace the cat litter in each compartment, if I have had to treat for a more serious disease, and the main passageway and entrance to the loft.
I also use a blow torch mainly to burn off the dust and very small feathers that seem to get attracted to the walls and wire on the compartment dividers. It also is very good for helping to kill off mites, lice and moths that can hide in the loft joints, etc and worm eggs and some diseases. Care has to be taken though as the last thing you want is to set fire to the loft.
In the loft I have mice traps as a precaution, especially through the colder winter months. Mainly I use a couple of humane traps baited with the pigeons feed, but sometimes I will also use the standard traps baited with maize. Proper mouse or rat bait is only used out side of the loft and covered over so that wild birds can not get to it. I have never had a problem with rats, but mice can get through the smallest of holes and can be a major source of spreading salmonella to the birds so they need to be eliminated.
An anti louse powder is regularly sprinkled around the floor, nest pans and nest boxes to kill and deter lice and mites. I also regularly use Versele Laga lice spray around the whole loft and on the birds themselves. Every time I handle a bird I will check for feather lice on it, especially under the wings and in the case of the Nuns at the sides of the shell, and if I see any lice I will spray the bird to keep on top of things. I also use the Ivemectin drops that are now readily available from Travipharma or Harkers. These also help deter lice and also worms. I use 2 to 3 drops per bird when I pair them up, when I split them up after breeding, when I wean any youngster, after any bird has been to a show and before and after the main body moult.
However careful you are, at some time or other more serious ailments and ill health may arise – picked up at a show, carried by the wind, via vermin, through newly purchased stock or due to stress. Most stresses are avoidable, or at least can be reduced, like overcrowding, poor loft design, breeding, showing, moulting and a poor feeding and cleaning regime and are usually easier and cheaper to remedy than other problems. When problems occur from any of these, common sense really should prevail, as they are all caused by the fanciers themselves. With newly purchased birds I keep them away from the other birds for a couple of weeks to see if any ailments develop. With bought birds I always give them a Harkers 3 in 1 anti canker, cocci and worms tablet and multi vitamins in their water for a few days, before introducing them to the other birds. Birds that have been to a show get put back in their compartments, but I do keep an eye on them to make sure there are no problems.
The first sign of any problems with disease and ill health usually can be seen in either the bird’s droppings or its general appearance. Loose and slimy  droppings usually means something is wrong, however don’t be alarmed at every loose or watery dropping though, as excitement, nerves, returning from a show and drinking a lot can all make this happen. The use of floor white can also lead to loose droppings for a while. Through any of these and the droppings will usually firm up in a few hours. Fit, healthy pigeons have firm round droppings that you can easily pick up, usually with the odd downy vent feather with them. Other symptoms are listlessness, dull eyes and plumage, grey greasy wattles, loss of chest flesh, vomiting and sitting huddled up unwilling to move. The most common ailments are canker, worms and coccidiosis, with salmonella (paratyphoid ), e-coli, ornithosis, catarrh, pigeon pox and paramyxo virus less common but a much more serious threat to the birds health. Preventative treatments and cures are readily available for the common ailments from all good pigeon product retailers. For the more serious ailments antibiotics or vaccines are needed, so it is best to visit your nearest vet or preferably one who has a good knowledge of pigeons. I use the Nigel Horrox Vetenary Group situated on Kellythorpe industrial estate near Driffield in East Yorkshire. They are very helpful and knowledgeable, but there are others around the country. I use these vets when I think I may have a more serious problem, I then take dropping samples from either individual birds or from the different compartments to be tested and birds I think may be affected to have throat swaps tested. The results only take a few days at most, and I then know exactly what disease I have to treat for, saving me unnecessarily treating for something they might not have even if the symptoms are similar.  Where at all possible I don’t like using antibiotics, and only use them if that is the only and best way to treat a disease. It is absolutely no point giving a bird antibiotics as a preventative, or for the wrong disease and will often do more harm than good, because as well as killing the bad bacteria they also kill the good bacteria in a birds gut and digestive system, and this can weaken their immune system more leading to further health problems. If I have to give a course of antibiotics or any medicine for that matter to my birds for what ever problem, I make sure they get a few days probiotics both before and especially after the treatment. The reason why I give my bird’s natural products like brewers yeast, cider vinegar, oregano and garlic oils as well as the probiotics is to build up a high immunity and resistance in the birds against the more serious diseases that they might come in to contact with. Considering how few times I have had to give my birds antibiotics over the past 30 years I think my system works. Also because my birds are not regularly given them, they have had no chance to build up immunity to the antibiotics which can happen, then if you have a problem you would need to use even stronger drugs to cure the illness.
I have actually just bought myself a microscope so that I can test the birds at home more regularly for worms, canker and cocci. Fortunately I have not had to treat my birds for cocci for many years. All birds have small levels of cocci in them and can live with it perfectly OK, however under periods of strees and often in damp humid loft conditions the cocci levels increase to cause problems especially in young birds. The first symtoms are loss of body flesh, dark green loose droppings and the birds sitting hunched up.  It is though easily treated if caught early with products like Harkers coxi tablets or Coxoid liquid. I worm my birds using the Ivermectin drops, but don’t treat specifically for them. The garlic oil on the corn I use probably helps in that respect. One time though never to worm the birds is during the main moult because the drugs in the worming medicines can cause fret marks on the bird’s feathers. Birds with worms tend to lack body muscle even though they eat quite normally. It can be quite surprising how many worms a bird can have in them before they become really ill. I usually though treat quite regularly for canker every couple of months or so. Fortunately the canker medicines are such that they don’t knock the bird’s health in any other way.  I do though alternate with different canker treatments so as to cut down with the chances of immunity to the medicines. The normal symptoms for canker are the yellowy cheese like deposits in the throat, however there are many other types of canker as well, especially stomach and navel canker which are more difficult to detect and treat for, and cancerous growths which often can be cut out with no lasting ill effect. With the microscope I can test the droppings weekly if necessary and only then treat when I have to. It will also detect rising levels of canker before a major problem occurs.
At present I don’t vaccinate my birds against paramyxo virus, however I used to do when my birds were located in the same garden as my fathers racing pigeons. I am not against it and if I felt the necessity through outbreaks of the disease locally or throughout the hobby I certainly would vaccinate.
If you have any doubts about your bird’s health and are unsure, don’t treat blind, contact a good vet, have some dropping samples tested or take a bird. Dropping samples will show up if worms, coccidiosis, e-coli or salmonella are present, whilst throat swabs will show up if canker and catarrh are present.
All the products mentioned that I give to my birds are available from B.Leefe & Sons Ltd.



“ Packing of the shell “ is the feathers at the back of the shell which would correspond to the mane in a Jacobin. There should be no gap at the back, where some of the feathers turn up and others turn down, but an unbroken line from the top of the shell to the bottom of the neck. A “ cappy shell “ is when it turns down over the head instead of standing upright. This is a very serious fault, and very hard to breed out. I am afraid there are a good many cappy shells caused by novices over trimming their birds. They take away too many feathers in front of the shell, and this causes it to bend forward over the head, completely spoiling the appearance of the bird. “ Setting of the shell “. The shell should be placed as high as possible on top of the head not down the neck. Some of these low set birds, it you look at them full face, you cannot see any shell as it is set down their necks at the back. Good “ finish to shell “ is when the sides come well round to the eye on each side, thereby forming quite a semi-circle. “ Spread of shell “ is really the width from side to side, which should be as broad as possible. Therefore to get this the skull should go out as broad as possible behind the eye but in front it should be just like a black self Tumbler. “ Snipey “, “ pinched “, “ mean “  and “ drawn “ in the face are all used to describe those long narrow headed birds, which in no way resemble the Tumbler head. A Nun should have ten primary flights in each wing coloured.
James Y.Baldwin.
This article was published in Pigeons magazine in early 1909, and after 103 years is still totally relevant for Nuns bred today as if it were written this year.