( copro=feces phagy=to eat )

I am somewhat disappointed in my birds' behaviour of eating pigeon fecal material. Actually, the more I am looking into this practice, the more I notice it and the less I can pretend that it does not happen. I'd much rather report that the birds under my care eat from clean plates and use a bathroom. I am sure that Sigmund Freud would blame my mother's too harsh toilet training inflicted upon me.
Some pet lovers were confronted by the same dilemma and suggest that this behaviour is similar to the chewing of the cut in ruminants and it allows for further digestion of the fibrous feed. But one also sees this behaviour in dogs who eat feed that is quite concentrated. There are some who even advocate behaviour modification techniques to wean their pet of this "nasty habit".
Perhaps it would be more productive to find what the dog derives from its own feces rather than applying our biased disgust about this behavior:
  • It has been shown that rabbits derive important nutrients from their own soft droppings.
  • The same can be said about rats whose soft droppings constitute a very important source of cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12).
  • Investigators into caprophagy in horses recognize the essential nature of it as they watch the foal eat some fecal material of its mother. This is said to not only provide nutrients but also to help in establishing a normal intestinal microbial flora. The foal would be susceptible to enteritis without this "disgusting habit".
  • D. Sigler (1995)considers the ostrich a hindgut fermenter and looks upon its colon in a similar functional way as one can look upon the rumen in a different class of animals altogether because this flightless bird utilizes the microbial breakdown of insoluble carbohydrates into volatile fatty acids in its droppings by eating them after the microbes have finished their job.
  • Some vultures eat the droppings of ungulates and derive from them all the carotenoids they need to adorn themselves with bright pigments.
  • Tryptophan deficient broilers derive some additional tryptohan from the consumption of droppings. Furthermore, it appears that tryptophan deficiency is also responsible for some lesion between the maxillary nares, perhaps something similar to what I saw on the 31st of August, 2001 in an AC pigeon. The bird drew my attention by showing its obvious difficulty in breathing. I was amazed at the amount of material which was between the nares and the complete recovery of the bird after removing this jelly-like substance.

Like it or not, all of our birds do consume droppings regardless of how fanatical and vigilant we are in preventing any dropping from being available. We could spend all of our time in constant watch to be certain that we catch every dropping before it has a chance to land on the floor or the bottom of the nest box but sooner or later we need to let the birds out for exercise and we all know that there are droppings on every roof. Yes, even the landing board keeps some of these morsels ready for our birds. Some who have never seen this behaviour may not trust these images but proof for pigeons engaging in coprophagy is found when one considers that worms, coccidia and salmonella can only survive in nature if the pigeon eats droppings. If this would not happen, the life cycles of these parasites would come to an end.

    Dr. Leon F. Whitney said it this way:
    "Vitamin B12 (animal protein factor). Pigeons must have this vitamin to live and reproduce but they can live even if it is not supplied in their rations. How? By eating their droppings. If anyone does not believe that pigeons consume droppings, he should watch pigeons on a straight grain diet. He will see them picking at piles of droppings. ..."

We may be worried about some pathogenic organism exploiting this method of "redigestion" and rightly so. What are we to do?

Worms should NEVER be hosted by our pigeons and should be exterminated from our flock if present. There are a variety of products on the market to combat these parasites. Once in the flock, it will literally take months and years to get rid of this pest because our birds leave droppings on all the roofs they visit and in these droppings are the reproductive units of this menace. It is because of the behavior of coprophagy that the flock will need to be treated against worms periodically because worm eggs can survive for very long times (well over a year!) in feces in the environment. It is also important to alternate the classes of wormers used because resistance to various anthelmintics is quite prevalent.

While worms should never be present in ones birds, coccidia will always be present and should not raise any alarm bells. A prominent, very experienced British veterinarian, Frank DW Harper, considers the count of coccidial oocysts less important than a change in the count. His views in more detail can be seen at It seems that as long as we provide a good environment for our birds the stress levels will be low and this in turn will prevent coccidia from increasing in numbers and doing much damage.

However, this is not the case with salmonella. Much like worms, Salmonella typhimurium var. copenhagen should never be found in our pigeons and like worms, these pathogens use the behaviour of coprophagy to travel from bird to bird and this infection can spread like wildfire.The birds will experience "wing boils" (absesses caused by the bacteria in the wing joints) or twist their necks due to absesses in their brains. Some Salmonella may infect the egg while it develops in the hen and lead later to the early death of the youngster inside, turning the egg black. The young one may also develop fully but fail to hatch or die after hatching. Infected adults may experience "going light" or die suddenly. Some may appear to live a normal life, seemingly unimpaired by the presence of Salmonella, but they are carriers defecating infected feces all over the place and thus being responsible for a never ending cycle of infection. Some fanciers will try to solve the problem by reaching for an antibiotic. The disadvantage of using an antibiotic is that it will not only kill the salmonella but most of the intestinal flora (essential for the bird's immune function) as well. It is therefore no wonder that some antibiotics and anticoccidials have been shown to significantly increase S. enteritidis cecal colonization rate and therefore add to the problem rather than solve it. The solution to keeping Salmonella typhimurium var. copenhagen, the usual culprit infecting pigeons, out of our birds can be found by using more natural methods: pre- and pro-biotics. The prebiotic lactose can be added to feed or the drinking water and has been shown to prevent the colonization of the intestine by Salmonella. I suspect that the addition of lactose to feed favors the lactic acid producing bacteria such as lactobacilli which produce not only the acid but also various agents toxic to Salmonella. Much success has also been claimed with the use of various probiotics. Although some success has been reported with the use of single bacterial species as a probiotic, more complex mixtures all the way to cecal cultures and adult feces are generally favored.
But what are we to do if we find our birds infected by Salmonella? Most veterinarians would suggest treatment with an antibiotic like Baytril® and I think that this recommendation should be followed but this is where many fanciers stop - and this is the problem. One needs to consider the behavior of coprophagy and needs to realize that one finds droppings with shedded Salmonella in the environment, even if one cleaned and disinfected the loft properly. It is from these old droppings that the birds will reinfect themselves. It is from the shipping crates where our birds will find droppings containing Salmonella. Treating with a suitable antibiotic is just the first step and needs to be followed by the administration of vitamins because the birds do no longer receive them from the intestinal flora which was destroyed by the antibiotic. The second step also includes the administration of pre- and pro-biotics to help with establishing a good intestinal flora, a process which takes many weeks - it is not a "one scoop affair". Furthermore, the daily use of pre- and pro-biotics may prevent our birds from becoming infected in the future and make any anti-biotic treatment unnecessary.

The above illustrates the importance of considering the behavior of coprophagy in our pigeons because it impacts on many decisions that need to be made in good husbandry.

This page was last up-dated on January 11, 2004

Below are your comments:
Wednesday March 17, 2004
Hal Hickton
Arkona, Ontario
Very interesting reading. Pigeons will always be out flying or in contact with other pigeons (show etc,.) Racing birds are at the most risk. Or are they really? Tough race they drop for water in a mud hole, drink the stuff and return home eventually. Usually no ill effects. Same when or if they go fielding. I assume, all else being equal, the birds will develop some natural resistance to the multitude of bacteria they are exposed to. Over time. Wether or not that limits their ability to race in peak condition I do not know. I see the barn pigeons around here, out all winter, alert as can be, no they do not have to race but just survive and wonder how they all stay alive? I have noticed one or two banded birds in the group of about 14. They do stand out more. The group of birds comes from a dairy farms' silos across the road. They do peck in the cow manure and come over here to peck in the dirt were I washed off a liquid (hog) manure tanker. I beleive there is a lot to learn yet in the most effective way to naturally give some solid immunity to racing pigeons. Also will read everything I can on the subject. It is a fascinating one!
Wednesday October 14, 2009
artem melikian MELIKIAN

To the top