Raising squab for the homestead table.
Squab is a very rich, all dark meat food item which has figured prominently in such cuisines as classic French and Chinese. Still, pigeons are not held in high regard in this country where urban dwellers consider street pigeons little more than rats with wings and farmers fear that barn pigeons harbor and spread livestock diseases. In this country, most domestic pigeons are kept by hobbyists and fanciers for racing or show.
As well as being a food for home consumption, the renewed interest in gourmet cooking as a recreational pursuit, the increased role of poultry in the American diet, the trend to alternate agricultural production, and consumer interest in trying different food items could make squab production an attractive homestead pursuit.
Squab are ready for the kitchen, freezer or sale at just four weeks of age when they are just starting to leave the nest. Each squab produces several ounces of meat, usually considered a single serving, but they can be raised out of the nest for several additional weeks to produce a larger size squab.
In a good year a pair of squabbing pigeons can produce as many as 20 birds, although 14 to 16 may be more realistic. The young are tended by both parents and fed a "milk " of regurgitated feed. Pigeons are monogamous and mated pairs will start a second clutch of eggs while tending to the squabs from an earlier clutch. A clutch of eggs is typically two and the squabs may hatch out a day or two apart.
A squab production facility need not be expansive or expensive. A separate structure or corner of a building 8' by 10' is enough room for 32 pairs of breeders (for production of up to 450 640 squabs a year). The area, called a loft regardless of location, will need to be accompanied by a flypen comparable in size to the loft itself. The flypen can be inside or outside a structure, or split between the two.
It is advisable to face the loft south to take advantage of sunlight in mid-winter. If building a loft from scratch, you should put it in an area where the birds will not be subjected to damp ground. You can build the loft on brick pillars about 18" off the ground, and then put down a wood floor covered with sawdust, ground corncobs, or similar material to absorb droppings.
If you choose a dirt floor, it is necessary to first lay on the ground quarter-inch mesh wire, secured to the sideboards, to keep mice, rats and weasels from entering the loft and harming the breeders. The flypen, too, should be floored with mesh and covered with about six inches of gravel. A flypen roof of transparent corrugated sheeting will provide both rain protection and light. The wall mesh should be small enough to keep out small birds.
The loft must remain dry and properly ventilated; screened vents at the rear and front of the loft will help this situation. Side windows will help control temperature by raising or lowering them, as well as providing internal lighting.
Individual double nest boxes (to allow the pair two nest bowls, one to raise hatchlings and one in which to lay another pair of eggs) should be about 15 " deep, 24 " wide and 12 " high. The nest boxes can be stacked shelflike. The bottom nest should be at least 24 " off the ground. Separate feeding and watering bowls for each breeding pair should be provided.
An area of the loft needs to be used for perches. A simple perch can be built with 1 " x 4 " boards with 6 " long cross-pieces every 12 ". Hang perches in both the loft and flypen.
The height of the loft and flypen should not be higher than seven feet to prevent the pigeons from becoming flighty or reverting to wild behavior.
Pigeon feed can be purchased at regular feed outlets, although it may have to be special ordered, or you can mix your own. Pigeon grit can also be purchased or mixed. Pigeon grit is a different mixture from chicken grit, so the latter should not be used. Pigeons should be fed twice a day, normally about 7-8 A.M. and 4-5 P.M.
Pigeons raised in the proper environment are hardy. However, due to the close confinement, a health problem can quickly spread through a flock. Early detection and treatment and regular preventive medication can work to keep a flock healthy.
After about 30 days, when the young squabs are roughly 16-20 ounces and the feathers on the underside of the wing are opening, it is time to slaughter. Slaughter and dressing procedures are essentially the same as with a chicken, just performed on a much smaller carcass. After plucking and gutting, the squab should be placed in a bucket of ice water to reduce the body temperature quickly. Remove the squab, dry it off, wrap and freeze if for home storage. Squab for immediate use or delivery needs to be kept properly refrigerated.
Mail order squab sell for $8-$9 per pound or more and a squab dinner for two in a fancy restaurant costs considerably more. While mall order is not practical for a small-scale producer, area restaurants, particularly those with French or Chinese cuisines, may be a ready market.
Squab production may be a viable alternative for those in the suburbs since a properly designed and maintained loft and flypen take up little space and produce little noise or odor. Thus, objections from neighbors should be minimal, particularly if you give them squab for their own table from time to time. After all, pigeons have been raised on city rooftops for years.
As Jd Belanger cautions in his book The Homesteader's Handbook to Raising Small Livestock, "...confined birds and purchased feed will make this squab) one of the more expensive homestead meats." In this book Jd also notes one option to lower production costs for squab intended for home use is to use common barnyard pigeons and to allow them, once trained to the loft, to roam free, foraging for much of their own feed, grit and water.
For further information on raising squab, contact the National Pigeon Ass'n, P.O. Box 8705, Riverton, UT 84065. Pigeon supplies are available from most suppliers of poultry accessories. A specific mail order source is Foy's Pigeon Supplies, P.O. Box27166, Goljen Valley, MN 55427. In addition to their catalog, this outlet also produces a periodical on pigeon raising. Also contact your local county extension agent who may have access to government publications on pigeon or squab production.