The squab is a young pigeon that is marketed at 26 to 30 days of age when it reaches 15 to 17 oz dressed weight. The meat has a distinctive delicate and unique flavor. Squab is preferred over adult pigeon because the meat is tender and has more flavorful fat. Squab meat is very light in color because the young bird has never flown. The squab is fed by both parents with pigeon milk, a thick, high-protein liquid produced in the parents' crop and fed directly to the squab. During the first several days of life, this is the only food the young bird receives. Later the pigeon milk is mixed in the crop with regular plant origin feed and, occasionally, insects. The feeding process continues until the squab leaves the nest in the wild or is sent to market.
Due to the unique feeding process, a pair of pigeons can have no more than two squabs at a time. In many cases one squab will become dominant, taking over the feeding or pushing its counterpart out of the nest, which could result in the death of the weaker squab. In captivity a pair of pigeons can produce up to 20 squabs per year, and modern breeding techniques have helped to increase the vitality of the weaker individuals and successfully bring most of them to market.
Pigeons and squabs have been eaten around the globe since ancient times. Wild pigeons could live almost everywhere and can be found from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America, with the exception of Antarctica and the Hawaiian Islands. Pigeons and doves belong to the family Columbidae, which contains more than 300 species in the wild. The majority of the species nest in trees and bushes whereas other species reside in cavities in rocks or trees. Some of these species, such as the rock dove (Columbia livia), adapted to human surroundings and found shelter in barns, buildings, and the like. The rock dove, which originated in Europe, Africa, and Asia, is the bird most commonly seen in cities and towns around the world. This bird was domesticated and crossbred for many centuries, resulting in a variety of colors. The pure white dove became the symbol of purity and peace. Other breeds of this species were selected for racing, military and civil communication, and exhibitions. In searching for food, however, these birds became a pest in poultry farms and in food-processing plants. The birds can carry human pathogens such as Salmonella in their digestive systems and can recontaminate poultry feed and processed food with their feces. Another species, the mourning dove (Zenidura macroura), is found mainly in rural areas such as barns and is frequently seen sitting on telephone lines. Pigeons are good flyers, and some species migrate thousands of miles. The "homing" sense of certain species was used by humans for communication and racing. To support flying, the pigeon's breast muscles are large and dark and can reach up to one third of the bird's weight. A very large pigeon can weigh as much as 5 lb.
Pigeons are mentioned in early records of many nations from early biblical times (Noah and the ark), Greek mythology (the dove served ambrosia to Jupiter), and Roman records. Chinese records indicate that the Manchu emperors used to eat pigeons among five other game birds and their flesh had medicinal value. Until the twentieth century pigeons and squabs were hunted, not raised. As squabs became more popular, they were harvested from nests. As a result some species became extinct despite their initial huge numbers. One of the unlucky species was the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), which at the beginning of the nineteenth century was the most abundant bird in North America. A report by the famous bird artist and naturalist John James Audubon describes a huge flock, estimated at 1.1 billion birds, in Kentucky (1813). When the flock became airborne, it eclipsed the sun. Flying at 60 mph the flock took 3 hours to pass him by, with a flock width estimated at 1 mile. When the birds nested in trees, more than 100 nests per tree were counted. The passenger pigeon was killed in huge numbers for food and hauled by trainloads to urban centers. The surplus was fed to hogs or rendered for fat to make soap. The expanding agriculture and the shrinking forests added to the disaster, turning the passenger pigeon into the pest of grain fields, and the last known free bird was killed in 1899. The bobwhite pigeon (Colinus virginianus) was also an important food source for settlers and Native Americans in the eastern United States and still exists in relatively small numbers.
Commercial breeding of pigeons was conducted first in France and Belgium, which developed the varieties of Bordeaux pigeon. In years to come these pioneer breeds were replaced by the French Mondain and the White Swiss Mondain. The United States followed in step by developing the White King, which produces a large full-breasted squab, and larger-scale production started in 1936. England used to be the traditional main market for squabs and pigeons and imported them from the United States and from the European continent. There the bird was served mainly to the well-to-do in restaurants and at parties and specialty events. In contrast, in China pigeons are the food of the common person.
Since the early 1980s California has become the largest center of squab production (Fig. 5). The climate in the central valley, a long, warm, and dry summer followed by a cool winter, is perfect for the locally grown King variants. The squab has a phenomenal growth rate and reaches almost 1 lb dressed weight in 1 month. Each parent pair produces up to 20 squabs per year.
Squab production is a family operation conducted on a small to medium scale of 1,000 pairs on average. The pigeons are raised in a row of aviaries (pens), about 65 to 70 sq ft each, which hold 15 to 20 pairs in their individual nests. Management is relatively simple because the pigeons take care of each squab's needs. Feed and water are provided automatically; cleaning is conducted once an-ually. A pair's life span is about 5 years, and replacement of 20% of the flock annually is a management practice. In the United States about 1.6 to 2 million squabs are produced annually, mainly in California and South Carolina (about 1,000 short tons). Other major producers are France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and China, but accurate production numbers are hard to come by. Most producers, with the exception of China, export a significant portion of their production.
In the United States squabs are sold mainly to white tablecloth restaurants and to oriental markets as well as exported frozen to many countries. The time that pigeons were a staple food in the United States are long gone, and the industry challenge is to introduce this meat again to a large customer base. Squabs bring the highest revenue and profit per bird than any other avian species, in part due to a year-round steady supply, control of surpluses, and devoted customers.
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