Alf Baker ? Part 2

November 1951 ? Alf Baker outside his loft with some of his trophies

Last week Alf Baker started the story of his life with pigeons and of what he has learnt over the years of success. This week he talks about his very first club win.
The first race could not come quick enough for me. Off I went with my 16 youngsters on a barrow, gently down the kerb and gently up the other side, you would think I had a new-born baby with me. The first man to look at them was ?Spratty?. He said they looked well and this pleased me very much coming from him. The next day I stood waiting hoping I would not be too far behind. Over came two birds straight out of the north, one for me I hoped. They dropped like stones when I called them and straight in for their titbit. As I was clocking them another dropped on the loft so I opened up the flap and he dropped straight in so I clocked him. I thought I could be nowhere with three quick ones like that.
When I got up to the club they were asking one another what time they had got. No one asked me but from what I heard I knew I was not far behind. Then old ?Spratty? saw me and asked ?What time did you get young Baker?? and when I told them they all looked round and ?Spratty? said ?That?s a good one?. I said I had two together and someone said ?he?s reading his clock wrong?. ?Spratty? took my clock to have a look and said ?You ? you have got three that will do the lot of us?, and so I did; First, 2nd & 3rd Wood Green HS. I could not believe it, I never slept a wink that night. I won five more, six out of nine young bird races. After a week or so they were waiting for me to ask my time ? this made me very proud so I was never really a novice.
The next year I was top prize winner and have been ever since. Among the 16 youngsters was a blue chequer hen W.G.337, typical Stassart, a lovely hen she won the LNR Fed four times and 10x1st prizes in three years racing. She would have won three 1st Feds in a row. After topping the Fed two weeks running, the next week, just as I was expecting my birds, my daughter, aged two, ran outside the garden and I went to fetch her and take her inside. I got in position again and over came a blue cock. As I was clocking him I saw the blue chequer hen 337 sitting tight on her eggs so I picked her up and clocked her. They were 2nd & 3rd Fed beaten by a decimal. It proves you cannot take your eyes off the loft for a second when you have them right. My good plum mealy cock was like that. He won 17x1sts, five times LNR Fed; he was never more than roof-top high or would come from nowhere and straight in. He was a grandson, bred 1940, of ?Baladin? the red hen I had kept in the attic. The Saturday afternoon when they bombed the London docks, we could see hundreds of planes, there was a dog-fight going on over my house. I stood waiting for my pigeons from Northallerton; my family were in the air raid shelter and my next door neighbour thought I was mad. Over came the plum mealy cock, 1st Fed.
He won all his races when paired to his mother; as a young bird he showed this keenness for her and just before the third young bird race I let her go in with him for about two hours and he won 3x1st prizes including 1st LNR Fed the same way. The next year after pairing him to two hens and transferring his eggs under feeders I paired him back to his mother to race to as she had now gone barren. He won 8x1stst prizes in the row in the WGHS. The first race I sent him driving and when I came back from the club I put two eggs under the hen, up he came 1st Club, 1st Fed. After timing him in he went straight on the eggs which I had put there the night previously. On the Wednesday I took the eggs away and he started to take notice of her again and when I came back from the club I repeated the same method; up he came again 1st Club, 2nd Fed. Again after timing him in he went straight on the eggs. I repeated this six more times that?s how he won eight successive 1sts as a yearling.

?Red Admiral? 4405, 6th Open London NR Combine Fraserburgh; 2nd Open London NR Combine Thurso. Winner of Lt Col Osman Memorial Trophy.

The next year I went into the Army but before doing so I was asked which branch of the service I wanted. I said the Royal Corps of Signals, Pigeon Service, but to my amazement when my papers arrived it was the Royal Fusiliers. After six weeks? training I asked for an interview with the CO, asking for a transfer to the Pigeon Service. After a few weeks I was told I was going to Aldershot on a three-day course on the subject. The following day we went to the lecture room and after listening to the sergeant giving a lot of drivel on racing pigeons I thought I had come to the wrong place. I remember one of his questions was: How would you select a pigeon to fly 400 miles in a head wind? Up went the hands ? see that the flights were well up, see that he was firm and hard, see the eyes were bright and wattles white. Then he asked have you all done with the question. I had not spoken before so I said, ?Sergeant, if I wanted a pigeon to do what you wanted I would not handle him at all, I would watch his action outside the loft and he would tell me whether he could fly four hundred miles?. As we left the hall he called me to one side and said quietly ?You will not get in, you know too much?, and he was right.
This was typical of the services, if you were a mechanic you were put in the cook-house, if you were a pastry cook you became a mechanic. I remember seeing a sergeant in the Pigeon Service ? he worked in our local butcher?s shop and the only pigeons he ever saw before he went into the services were dead wood pigeons sold over the counter. I don?t say they were all non-pigeon men that were in the service as I know of some good fanciers in our local club that did a good job in that branch of the services. While in hospital after losing my right eye my captain visited me and told me my papers had come through for the Pigeon Service. I hesitated for a moment then he said ?or it would mean your ticket?. I replied I would have my ticket and look after my own pigeons.
During all this time my wife was keeping them alive on boiled potatoes, baked bread, a little rice and lentils when she could get them. After a few weeks in hospital I was allowed out and to my amazement spotted in the corn shop window maple peas 3d a pound. Inside the shop I went, and asked how much could I have. He said a hundredweight if I required them. As you were on half pay when in hospital a hundredweight was out of the question and I went back to the hospital thinking how could I get enough money to purchase a hundredweight to send home.
That night the usual game of cards was in process and I joined in. My luck was in and when I had won enough to buy a hundredweight I pulled out. The next morning straight to the shop and purchased the peas. They offered to take it to the railway station for me so I labelled it up and sent it to my home address, also a letter to my wife telling her to expect it. A few days later my wife wrote back to say she had received the peas but they preferred the boiled potatoes, rice and lentils. They must have forgotten what peas looked like.
The day I was discharged the doctor told me after losing an eye I would become very depressed and that I would have to take up a hobby of some kind. When I told him I kept racing pigeons he put his hand on my shoulder and said ?Thank God, I am sure you will be all right?, and sure enough when I got home I had too much to do as the breeding season had just started. The birds looked a picture, neighbours told me my wife used to scrub the loft once a week and clean out once a day. I soon forgot my disability, I still had one good eye and a good healthy lot of pigeons and the main thing, I was home with my wife and three children.

?Champion Marguerite?, blue chequer hen, winner of eight club 1sts; 8th Open London NR Combine Fraserburgh; 4th Open London Nr Fed Lerwick.

I then joined the National Pigeon Service which meant you were allowed 14lb of corn a week plus 1cwt for breeding eight youngsters for the service. I remember them writing for eight youngsters to be ready by the 1st February. As I was getting started I could not see what good youngsters would be bred at that time of the year for use on service or for breeding so I ignored their request and made do with the 14lb of corn plus the diet prepared by my wife while away.
This was 1944: the two local clubs had amalgamated ? the Wood Green and Alexandra Palace HS as half the members of each club were in the services. I had eight pairs and they had been off the road for two years so I started training much earlier ? a month before racing. Starting them at ten miles and keeping them at that point for two weeks. Then the next week 25 miles; the week before racing 35 miles. I had the plum mealy cock that was not four years old plus two sons I bred from him the year I went in the services. By this time I had run ?Plum? to three different hens. We had had three races and were a little behind. Then the fourth race I won and was asked if it was with the plum mealy and replied with his son. Someone said the plum cock was finished and it set me thinking as he was very fit and well. On the Sunday morning I stood looking at my birds from outside the loft and I saw ?Plum? leave his eggs for his hen to take over and his mother came off the eggs at the same time paired to another cock and they started showing up to each other and were soon parted by the original cock. So on the Wednesday I took the hen ?Plum? was paired to and likewise the cock paired to his mother out of the loft. By Friday he was just following her about as he did as a yearling. The race was from Northallerton, 200 miles, 1st Club 1st LNR Fed and he went on to win six more 1st prizes making a total of 17x1sts, 5x1st LNR Fed only when paired to his mother.
I learnt a lot from this; as you can see this was a true love match. The same thing applied with my good hen ?Scottish Lass?, she had a flair for her son so I re-paired her to him three weeks before the Fraserburgh Combine, which she won so easily she must have flown it solo. So I could go on with the amount of winning I have done with love-matches.
When I pair my yearlings up I let them go together and pick their own mates, unless I have a pair of yearlings I want to pair together to breed from. I use the others as feeders for my matched pairs and I have never shut two birds up in a nest box to pair up. I let them outside the loft on their own for a couple of hours each morning. When I think they are mated I let them in the racing loft on their own. Then the cock will take her to his nest box then I open the loft front and there is no more trouble. When I visit lofts where birds are shut up in nest boxes I am disgusted. I have seen hens nearly scalped, to me they are poor fanciers just a little time and patience is needed and common sense.
I pair my yearlings up at the end of February, rear one pair of youngsters, then pot eggs and at the end of racing I let them rear another pair of youngsters. This helps to keep them quiet and retard the moult, and also lets them know they are not all pot eggs. I think I must add I never use china eggs ? I use real eggs boiled as I am sure they know the difference. At least I like to think so, just another one of my fads, and most of my winning is with yearlings in the early races. I like driving yearlings, you often read don?t send yearlings driving. I have won most of my first club and first Federation prizes this way but there are times when you can lose this way. I never send a yearling driving till he has had five races sitting and if he is driving during the first five races I don?t send him. I wait for the next time he is driving and nine times out of ten they win and are hard to beat.
When you first start to keep pigeons your one thought is to get the best pigeons your pocket will allow you to obtain. First study the different types and make your mind up which type you wish to keep. Study the head, length and size and make sure they are well balanced. I myself do not like big pigeons; I like medium-size cocks, and hens on the small side. These I have found do not need so much exercise to get fit and do not eat so much corn, and fly long races just as well as the big pigeons, in fact they fly better when the weather is hot.
Having made your mind up on the type of pigeon you wish to keep, write to the fancier for six late breds, four hens and two cocks, not too closely related. Stick to one man?s pigeons and do not get some from different fanciers. I am sure you will never get a family of pigeons that way, as they will be of different shape and type and I am sure that different types and shapes won?t hit. Starting with one fancier?s pigeons you will have the same type and the following year get some more late breds to put with the others.
Having obtained your youngsters feed them well and watch them grow. I use 60 per cent Tasmanian or New Zealand peas and 40 per cent American maize. I like the American maize because it is easy to digest but I will leave my feeding processes to a later date. Never let youngsters go hungry. I have always hopper fed my pigeons, not a mixture as I find they pick it about and it gets dirty, just peas and maize. Ignore the rumours that maize can cause canker; I have never heard such a lot of tommy rot. There is no better food for giving energy than maize.
The same time as you purchase your young birds get some good feeders to take the first round of eggs so you can run the two cocks to each hen for one nest. This way you will find which pairs hit together. Do not take any notice about the fad about youngsters reared by other than their true parents being no good. This is a question I am often asked. For years I had a pair of show birds for feeders and they always reared the eggs from my number one pair which were breeding winners. Only quite recently I had two pairs of African Owls, fancy pigeons, as feeders.
I only wish all my racers were as good; you could not get near their nest box when they were sitting and not once could I tempt them off their eggs. The youngsters you have purchased must be kept for stock and must not be let out. I can assure you it makes no difference for breeding winners when birds are kept in captivity. I have a seven year old blue hen that has not been out and has bred winners each year. She bred my Dalston Open race winner, also 14th Open London North Road Combine Young Birds. In 1969 she bred my 1st London North Road Championship Club winner, this at seven years old. There is nothing more disappointing than when you start up to find you have a pair that have hit together and bred winners, and then find you cannot reproduce them because you have lost the cock or the hen from that pair. I like to see my money inside the loft.
In the spring if you find the hens are on the fat side cut the amount of corn down and give them a tablespoonful of glauber salts in three pints of water. Dissolve the salts in hot water before adding to the drinker. Make sure you have taken the drinkers away the night before so they will have a good drink in the morning. Repeat a week later, this should get rid of the surplus fat and you will have no trouble in getting your hens to lay in eight days. Pair your feeders up about two days before your stock birds to make sure they have laid a day or so before them.
This is most essential as I do not like stock birds eggs to hatch before the feeders. I would like them to lay exactly at the same time but this is sometimes not possible. I do not mind putting eggs under feeders that have been sitting two or three days as they will always sit four or five days overdue and will have the soft food when the youngsters hatch out.
When you have transferred the eggs under the feeders leave the stock birds together for one day without the eggs. Then take the two hens out of the loft. This way she will not try hard to get back to them. In three days time put the other two hens with the two cocks.
It does not matter which hens go to which cocks; in the first place the breeder will have let you have the right hens for the two cocks. At the same time put down your feeders to take the next round of eggs from the two new pairs. I always put down a pair of feeders more than I require in case one pair are a long time laying and it helps you to box your eggs around accordingly. When you have transferred your second round of eggs from the two cocks leave them spare for about ten days then bring back the first two hens they were paired to.
I always give my hens three weeks break before re-pairing them up, especially in the early months as the egg flow is not as frequent as in the summer. You must try and get for racing two pairs of youngsters from each hen from the two cocks, to find out which pairs hit. Use the same food mentioned but 75 per cent peas and 25 per cent maize. There is nothing better for breeding youngsters than peas for the main diet. Many years ago I tried rearing youngsters on tic beans; they were the worst lot of youngsters I have ever bred. The droppings around the nest bowl were all wet and sloppy. I had to kill them all and have never again used tic beans for rearing youngsters.
When one reads of well-matured corn this means nothing to me. The only corn which needs maturing is English corn and this can lay about and get contaminated with vermin, I like Tasmanian or New Zealand peas straight from threshing when they are well matured by the climate they are grown under. Do not worry about them being polished; this costs you extra and takes the bloom off, but I am sure it is good for them. If English peas were half the price of Tasmanian peas I would still not buy them as I have had my success with Tasmanian peas and no one will make me change.
The year I tried to rear my youngsters on tic beans I was always filling up the drinkers and I came to the conclusion they were giving too much water to the youngsters, thus making the droppings as mentioned. I found most of the beans for the youngsters in the nest bowl as tic beans when put in water will grow two and a half times the size, and must be hard to feed to the youngsters. I do not suppose I have used 10cwt of tic beans ever since I have kept pigeons and those I made sure were well matured and were at least a year old. But I am not a bean feeder; put maize, peas and tic beans in a hopper and they will eat them in that order. I like to give my pigeons what they like best but as I have said I will deal with that at a later date.

?Champion Mick?, photograph taken in 1962. Blue cock NU60L10570, winner of 17x1st Clubs and 4x1st Feds etc.

Perhaps I have put the cart before the horse so I would now like to deal with the loft which is of as much importance as purchasing good pigeons. Not so much the tailor-made ones or a new loft; the lofts built by the loft makers look very nice, but not for me. I would have to chop it about and alter it to suit, so it would pay me to build my own to my own design. I have built five lofts since 1926 and with each one, except the last one, I have found the mistakes when finished.
Pigeons must be made happy when inside. My own loft is 16ft long, 6ft wide, 6ft 6in at the front, 6ft at the back in two 8ft compartments one for old and one for young birds with a door at one end. Make sure the door is wide enough to get your basket through. The front of the loft has a ?veranda? running right along the length of it, 3ft high 2ft wide. You can see it in the photograph in the January issue. On the top is sheet asbestos, 4in hanging over the front, this stops the rain from dripping in. The front is in five panels, one is very small mesh wire, the next one plate glass and so consists of three wire and two plate glass panels each about 30in wide.
This veranda is fixed on the front 18in from the top of the loft. In this space I have two long trapping doors 15in high running the length of both sections. These open inwards and through these I let my birds out and return from a race. It is most important never to let your birds fly out through an opening where they can fly straight out, as not only will they hurt themselves by flying into one another but they can hit the sides and damage their wings.
At each end of the loft I have another small veranda, 2ft wide and the width of the loft, 30in high from inside the loft, 2ft high at the front. This is the one that appeared on the January front cover. The top is wire-cast glass, the front and side is very small mesh wire, the back also is quarter wire-cast glass. You may ask why the small mesh wire. This is most important to keep the sparrows out as I am sure they are germ carriers and will peck about the corn in your hoppers and drink from the drinkers. If someone nearby has chickens where they have pecked about in the run they will bring disease to your loft as roup is very common among them. So do your utmost to keep them out.
Never have your drinkers on the floor; the dust from the floor will lay on the top and will put them off form. To me there is no sense in putting down clean water and then in half an hour, with the birds flying about in the loft, it becomes dirty. My drinkers are hung outside where no dust can reach them and are much easier to change. They are boxed in so the sparrows cannot drink from them.
The loft is 2ft off the ground with a concrete base. Make sure your lawn is about 8ft from your loft to stop the rising damp as this is harmful to pigeons. The back of the loft is covered with roofing felt and is tarred every year. Do not put roofing felt on the top, this is inclined to cockle when the sun shines on it and then when it rains it leaves a pool of water. This the birds will readily drink and it does them more harm than good as pigeons love dirty water. There is nothing better than corrugated asbestos on top of wood. Make sure it is 6in hanging over the back for obvious reasons.
Make the inside of the loft as comfortable as possible, as boredom among pigeons is wrong. You will have helped this with the side veranda which they can fly into and sit in front of the glass when the sun shines. Here I have a few box perches, and this is where my drinkers are and grit box. Again these are off the floor for the same reason mentioned.