The Realities about Artificial Insemination (AI) on Racing Pigeons

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I was fascinated by this extremely innovative field of racing pigeon AI with expectations such as;

  • Using the sperm of my top breeding cock on as many as 8 hens simultaneously, thus effectively fertilising all my hens with the sperm from one cock.
  • It would be possible to acquire semen from top fanciers abroad and locally and fertilise my best hens with sperm from their top male breeders.
  • Should I be so fortunate to acquire or perhaps breed a top producing bird, I would be able to sell at a high price.
  • I would practise semen cryopreservation and preserve the sperm for future inbreeding for 20 years and more.
  • I would provide and sell a service of AI and cryopreservationto the South African racing pigeon fanciers.

After researching this subject on the internet and discussing it with the famous Belgian fancier Mr Gaby Vandenabeele, who finally introduced me to a fellow Belgian by the name of Francois Bernar, whom I found to be an expert in the field of Avian AI.

Swa, as his friends and family called Mr Bernar, is a breeder of exotic Pheasants who regularly and very successfully provided a comprehensive cryopreservation service to Europe in fertilising pheasant hens and preserving Pheasant semen. He assured me that AI for racing pigeons is possible and agreed to train me in his field of expertise at a price €5000, provided that I could attended the classes over a 14 day period at his residence in Belgium in March 2010.

At the exchange rate of R13 to the Euro, R65,000 sounded extremely high, but taking cognisance of all the possibilities, I agreed and could not wait for March 2010 to arrive.

After a very strenuous and costly trip to Brussels we finally arrived early evening at the residence of Swa and Rit, 40km outside Brussels in a suburb named 3272 Messelbroek, part of the town Scherpenheuvel-Zichem. Within the first 30 min of our arrival, guided by torchlight Swa took me to the Pheasant-run outside where he kept a few Pigeons in a cage. With me holding the torch Swa demonstrated a sperm extraction from one of the Cocks. He made this look so easy that I thought this man could be extremely dangerous in a pigeon loft, he could steal the sperm from your champions within seconds and you would be none the wiser.

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He did however assure me that the bird from which he took the extraction is his favourite pet and is quite use to this pleasures treatment and that a bird needs lots of coaching and TLC before it will respond to your caresses and ejaculate.

The next 14 days I spent with Swa I realised that this is no easy task, however I eventually mastered the technique even though I sometimes extracted blood instead of semen. By the end of the first week the birds seemed exited when I arrived in the morning.

Whilst being trained in the “milking” process, Swa also demonstrated the difference between sperm strength of dissimilar male species. The effect of the stance of the moon was also obvious in effecting the sperm to be more active during full-moon even after being unfrozen from the -40.

Limitations and challenges of AI for racing pigeons.

It is simply not possible to take a male racing pigeon in your hand and extract semen the first time. You need time and lots of patience to master this technique and then regarding the birds they also need to be “in the mood” so to speak.

The testicales of the male bird is located on his back very near to his kidneys and needs to be stimulated by stroking the back with a follow through movement of your fingers towards the cloaca where the sperm will be excreted in a small “Foamy” substance The sperm will then be collect with a small laboratory pipet and mixed with an “extender” which is a special mixture only known by Mr Bernar, this mixture will then be examined under a  400 X magnification microscope to determine the following;

  1. The strength of the sperm by observing the strong or weak movement of the sperm tails.
  2. The high or low sperm count, by counting the sperm in a 1mm square and multiplying with the total surface. Much the same as you would with Coccidia.

One such a mixture can then be used to fertilise up to 8 females, but this is where the tricky part comes in.

  1. The 8 hens should all be in a state of “readiness” to receive the sperm i.e. they must be mated to “unfertile” cocks who has been driving them to become eggy.
  2. One must be sure that the driving cock is in fact unfertile, otherwise you will be none the wiser as to which male actually fertilised the hen.
  3. To castrate the “Koggel mannetjie” as he is called in Dutch is also not possible as such an operation would be very expensive and life threating to the bird, due to the danger of damaging the kidneys.
  4. The method recommended by Gaby Vandennabeele, to place the birds in such a small container that it is not possible for the cock to mount the hen, sounds to me to be a bit extreme.
  5. One could use old unfertile males but again, can you really be sure as to who the successful candidate was?

The hen must receive sperm daily for ten days, the same as in nature where the Cock mounts the hen multiple times daily. In other words the male will have to be milked daily or alternatively you must refrigerate the sperm in a normal fridge, or for periods longer than 24 Hours in a Nitrogen container at a temperature of -130°C.

Although scientists generally categorize refrigeration as 4°C, -20°C, and -80°C, for prolonged storage cryogenic temperatures are required, i.e., temperatures below the glass transition temperature of water. This is the temperature at which all biological activity ceases, and is generally accepted as -130°C. It is well known that “freezing” biological samples in itself is not adequate for preservation since profound changes can occur in frozen samples (e.g., freezer burn). Biological and chemical activity can persist as long as water activity exists, however below -130°C all activity ceases. These cryogenic temperatures can be achieved and maintained by both liquid nitrogen and mechanical refrigeration.

For decades liquid nitrogen storage vessels and freezers have been used for the preservation of tissue culture. Storage originally involved sealing actively growing cells in glass ampoules, controlling the rate of cell freezing down to approximately -80°C, and then immersing the ampoules in the liquid nitrogen. The only significant change to this method was the introduction of plastic cryogenic tubes which permits freezing with less effort. However these tubes do need to be sealed in order to avoid contamination.

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The following extract from THE JOURNAL OF APPLIED POULTRY RESEARCH highlights the problem that you need different extenders for different breeds of the avian specie

“Domestic fowl comprise a wide range of breeds and strains. The history of fowl domestication dates back to approximately 2000 BCE. Breeders worked to generate lines with features useful in production and beautiful, colourful, fancy amateur breeds within one species. Significant morphological and physiological differences among males originating from different breeds are known to exist. Sperm quality depends on many variable factors, including species and breed of the bird. Just as there are many different poultry breeds, there are also breed differences in the storability of fowl semen. Thus, sperm collected from roosters of different breeds requires different storage conditions to retain their viability. Therefore, a need exists to adjust extenders to individual breeds

This means that you would need a special extender for pigeons as well, this recipe Mr Bernar wanted to sell for another €5000. Money which I was not prepared to pay .I did expect that such an integral part of the AI and cryopreservation process such as the recipe of the extender would have been part and parcel of the initial selling price.

Due to the fact that should a breeder wish to sell any of the off spring from the AI mattings you would need to issue a DNA certificate for the parental correctness of the offspring. Provided you can supply a blood sample of the parents, parental DNA testing and certification is now possible in South Africa at a very reasonable fee. Readers that are interested can phone Alwyn Bester at 0828881703, the services and background work done by Alwyn has finally put South Africa and Pigeon AI on the world map.

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This new technology has thus reopened the possibilities of AI in South Africa and at long last we can move past the limitation of AI being used to only determine the state of a male species fertility by studying the sperm quality and to inseminate the hen to improve fertility of the eggs in the case of an aged male specie.

The freezing of sperm or cryopreservation as it is called, needs a lot more studying and testing by people who is prepared to share their knowledge with the pigeon fraternity.

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