Questions & Answer Archives
By Bob Sanders
Q. Just read your advice/FAQ page on doves, and have one question about your answer about using parakeets. You seem totally against it and say it's not possible to use them in conventional ways as you would a dove. Have you not seen Joseph Gabriel? Joseph is one of the best dove workers around and his trademark for quite a while has been his work with parakeets, so it's surely not impossible or even inadvisable. There was also a book published called Parakeet Magic, I can't recall the author but I believe Tannen's stocks it.
A. I agree that Joseph Gabriel is a very fine magician with birds. However, I still can't recommend parakeets as reliable stage birds. They are beautiful, small, inexpensive, and easy to get and care for. I have had experience with thousands of them. My wife and I raised them commercially until 1983. They make great pets. Like many other magicians and other entertainers, I have tried to use them in my act. As compared to doves, chickens, ducks, and pigeons they don't make the grade for reliability. On the road they have an additional problem in that they do not tolerate drafts and temperature changes like the other birds. The best way I have found to work with an unreliable stage animal is to keep it in the cage and do the trick with the entire cage. For a time I did magic for a restaurant chain that required me to produce and vanish live lobsters. I did it, but the smell was awful. Yet, I'll have to admit, if the decision were presented to work with live lobsters or parakeets on stage, I'll go with the lobsters.
Q. What makes an animal a good stage animal?
A. Good stage animals are not always easy to find. One of the first problems is finding animals that fit the script. My sister and her husband raise miniature jacks and mules. I have schemed for about two years looking for a way to use one spotted jack in particular for my magic act because he has ears like a rabbit, is very small, and the right color. However, I cannot lift him, he is unwelcome on airlines and in motel rooms, and, at the worst moments, makes a most awful noise. In short, he is a poor fit. Trainability is another factor. Some animals almost require no training. Doves and rabbits are in that category. Other animals can be almost impossible. In the movie Sheena, the decision was finally made, after too much effort was wasted, to give up on riding a zebra and paint a pony to look like a zebra. Zebras make terrible horses. Good stage animals really fit the script in every way.
Q. Aren't some animals special and become good stage animals under unusual circumstances?
A. Once in a rare while a special animal comes along. As a rodeo clown, I had a miniature mule named Mighty Martha that was such an exception. She thought she was a dog and was the funniest clown there ever was. However, using her broke a major rule of showmanship and working with stage animals and that never pays in the long run. Good stage animals must have good back ups for replacement. The show must go on. Joe Tex had a song "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show". Get real. It can happen. Don't lose a contract because your tiger comes in heat. The real purpose is the show. The animal is a prop. Backup animals are just as basic as a backup thumbtip. Otherwise you are a one-truck fire department. That makes you part-time when the truck is running.
Q. I want a special animal for my act and I want it trained by a special trainer. Where can I find them?
A. They do exist but are sometimes difficult to find. It has been years since I have been very involved. Good ones are not cheap. However, the good ones can train back up animals and that is priceless. My first choice is IQ Zoo in Arkansas. Birds are a specialty there. Due to unique connections to the famous psychologists B. F. Skinner (Yes, inventor of the Skinner Box.), animal training is a scientific business there. Arkansas is also home to the trainer of the talking horse, the Famous Mr. Ed. I don't know why, but Arkansas and Oklahoma seem to be animal trainer head quarters. Other sources are directories in show business published by Variety, Billboard, etc. Ask stage show producers at theme parks, the major casinos, and movie studios. Look for ads in animal specific trade literature (exotic animals, etc.). Pet Dealer magazine puts out a directory of very unique suppliers. The magazine is free but you must be a pet dealer to get it. Sometimes better ad agencies have "people directories" that identify commercial animal trainers and sources of unusual animals.
Q. What should I expect to pay for magic doves and where can I get them?
A. You know the real answer is "all they can get". However, I can give you some guidelines. Nobody gets rich breeding doves because they only produce two babies at a time (at most) and it takes both parents. So most doves on the market are there for some other reason. Usually, that means from a hobbyist. Hobbyist usually take a lot of interest in their pets. They sell for a variety of reasons. They need money and cage space, have too many birds of one sex or age, give up the hobby, or just want to be helpful. The bad news is they seldom have many to sell. If you are a working dove magician, you will learn to think of birds in sets of 4, 6, 8, or whatever it takes to do your show. My shows usually require six birds. I like to keep sets together. Prices with hobbyist can be very erratic, as is the supply. Try to stay in the $10 to $25 range. When it was a total sell out, I have seen some great deals with one low price for birds, cages, and all. These deals usually include ring necks and other doves you may not want. I have seen ring necks sell for $1.00. However, it can still be a very good deal.
The other major source is surplus from zoos. The problem with the surplus from zoos is that often they are essentially wild. The offspring from those birds are usually more useful than the parents. From a zoo expect to pay $10-$25 each. Sometimes they are not allowed to sell them but accept donations. Zoo animals seem to come in two categories: swell and lousy. Good zoos are good news. Poorly run zoos are not healthy places for man or beast. Be careful. Zoos are not my first choice. They can be very difficult to deal with.
Pet shops sometimes have white doves. A price of $20-$30 is common there. Remember that pet shops usually give guarantees of some sort. With white doves, however, "what you see is what you get" normally works well. Feet and feathers usually tell the story.
My last choice of a supplier is one who
expects to make money raising doves. In addition to having made
a poor financial decision, they have losses to recover. Your
are their only prospect. Their doves are not worth more, and
sometimes less, than those from a hobbyist are. It is very likely
their birds have been crowded and limited on feed and personal
attention. They rarely handle their birds. Buying a dove that
is a proven breeder is of little value to a working magician.
To a breeder they are. They may have paid a lot for that dove
that looks like all the others to you. It's just not worth it
to a magician.
Q. A magician recently gave me his three
doves. The female lays
A. You have two hens. After the second
egg in a ten-day period more than one
Q. What should I feed my doves and where do I get it?
A. Doves are seed eaters by nature. They are more like chickens than anything else, with the exception that they feed their young. Because of the way their digestion works, they require grit to be in their crop (think stomach) to grind the surfaces off of their seed eaten. In nature, they pick up the grit while eating. In a cage, they depend on you to furnish that grit. Therefore, the feed I recommend is called game bird. Many feed mills make it under different brand names. There are several variations of the feed. I use game bird breeder. However, there is also game bird grower and game bird starter. I never use game bird starter. It is powdery fine and hard for adult birds to eat. Some simply won't try. Game bird feeds usually contain ground oyster shell as grit, which also adds calcium, needed for eggshells. The ration is a balanced feed for caged birds. It comes in both small pellets and crumbles. Crumbles are the better choice for doves. A 50-lb. bag should cost less than $10.00 from a farm feed store and lasts a long time. I recommend keeping it in a covered plastic bucket or box to keep it dry. That and plenty of fresh clean water are all that they must have.
Q. What food treats can I give my doves?
A. Doves lead a rather dull life by our standards. However, life has its ice cream shops even for doves. Caged birds are forced to eat what is available. Fortunately, well balanced diets for them are available in the form of game bird feeds. However, they still like to rough it sometimes. The cheapest treats are stems of seed from weeds, rye, oats, etc. Remember whatever seeds they don't eat stand a chance of being planted. Any seed for parakeets and wild birds are usually welcome to doves. (Yes, sunflower seeds too! Get the small black ones.) Do not forget that, by their very nature, doves are less than courageous. Don't get your feeling hurt if a treat is rejected the first few times. Bravery comes slowly for doves, but they like most treats once they try them. They also will eat crumbled up boiled eggs. Other items include raw oatmeal, grits, sesame seed, unpopped popcorn, corn bread, and tomato seeds. For training purposes, nothing is better than their regular everyday feed.
Q. Are there "Dove Toys" I can get my birds?
A. Doves lead a simple life and their toys are simple. However, they do prize them. You don't have to take out a loan for dove toys. Perches are just sticks but there is no place like home. For developmental reasons young birds especially need perches of different diameters. Doves don't seem to enjoy swings or mirrors. A handful of dry grass or cotton string with pieces over four inches long will set the whole population to building and advertising. Sometimes they just like to carry it around. (Pride of ownership I guess) Avoid nylon and plastics that deteriorate in light. Later a bird might eat small pieces causing death. Next time you trim the hedge or small limbs, put some leafy ones in the cage for entertainment. The poor birds will research every part of it like Grand Canyon.
Q. Are there special treats I can do for my doves?
A. Sure there are. Two things doves enjoy playing in are water and sand. Not exactly the beach, but who cares. An old pie plate (glass or metal) makes the perfect resort for doves. Just fill it full of water or sand and watch the party begin. Don't worry about the temperature. If the water doesn't freeze, it's warm enough. Mine also like playing in the lawn sprinkler when they can. Just remember to keep the eggs and food dry. They will make a mess so you can't just leave the "resorts" in the cage all the time.
Q. Which is harder on doves outside, hot weather or cold weather?
A. In my opinion, based just on the last twenty years, water is the key to how well doves survive weather. The need for water in hot weather is obvious. I lose more doves in the winter when the water freezes and they can't drink. Doves that survive the winter do well in the summer. Common sense should dictate that doves need both shade from the sun and protection from the coldest wind. I never use anything but unpainted wood for perches. Other perches conduct heat and cold. Wood does not conduct heat and cold. Birds on plain wire are at more risks in the winter. If a dove survives his first winter, odds are he will make it a dozen or more years. It is not unusual to lose twenty per cent of new birds their first winter.
Q. Is it OK to feed my doves chicken feed?
A. Maybe. If the chicken feed is a processed product containing grit, grain, and other supplements, or called a complete ration, it may be OK. Remember that doves are not meat and insect eaters. Chickens are. Read the tags on the bag of feed. Doves will eventually die on a diet of pure grains. They must have grit. In the short run (two weeks) the best chicken feed to feed doves is scratch feed available at grocery stores. It is all grain but cheap. Pet stores are rarely the right place to buy game bird feed. Yet some sell doves. On the other hand, some sporting stores carry feed and items for raising quail. Therefore, they have game bird feed. Aside from dying, a good sign the feed is wrong is when birds that lay eggs frequently, quit laying.
Q. I keep finding injured birds and dead doves with heads missing in my cage. Are the doves killing each other?
A. No, they are too dumb. You have a cat that can rake a live bird to the edge of the cage and chew the head off. The cat can't get the rest of the bird through the wire. You need a dog that hates cats or smaller openings in the cage wire. The better cages have wire with openings 1" x 1/2" and the cats can't reach into the cage. Doves won't warn you or try very hard to defend themselves from danger. They will simply watch another dove in trouble. Remember that the purpose of the cage is more to protect the dove than to keep him in. They make very poor escape artists and watch dogs.
Q. Will snakes get into outdoor cages with doves?
A. They have and they do. However, snakes are usually after eggs or very small baby birds. Sometimes a snake will be trapped in the cage after eating because he is too big around to get out. I live in Alabama and have never had the problem here. Out west, we did. The easy way to avoid the situation, if you live where snakes are a problem (Florida, Texas, etc.), is to hang the cage from the top rather putting it on legs. Old swing sets work great. and make it easy to mow grass and clean up.
Q. I've been told that doves attract mice. Is that true?
A. Are you willing to believe that? Mice are sometimes found around aviaries (places where birds are raised). They aren't there for the birds. They are there for the bird feed. Don't make it easy for them. Keep the feed stored in a covered container and throw the paper bags away. Rubbermaid and other companies sell loads of good feed keepers. Plastic buckets with tops work well too. You can get them from bakeries for less than a dollar. Don't give mice a route to get into the birdcage. Keep the cages high off the ground. And keep the area around the cages clean of spilled feed. We have a cat, but he would only eat microwaved mice. Having mice is not required.
Q. After a while, if I turn my white doves loose outside, will they stay home?
A. Did you? The white birds rented to moviemakers, shopping centers, etc. are not doves. They are pigeons. Pigeons can find their way home. Doves wake up in a new world every day. They could not find the back yard from the back porch. Out of sight is the same as lost forever. So it depends on how far they go a day. Life is hard in the wilds for a white dove. They are the worst possible color for survival. The most colorblind predator isn't confused by a white dove's protective coloration. Owls and hawks as well as house cats think white doves are delicious and easy to catch. Don't turn your birds out, if you want them back.
Q. How do I get my doves to come to me, if I raise them?
A. The easiest method is to start working with the bird before he can fly. For a while I started birds I used, by carrying them around in a coffee can while feeding the other birds. At that age, they were too young to perch. As they got old enough to perch, they sat on my finger while I feed or watered the other birds. When they started eating on their own, they were the first fed upon perching on my finger. After being moved to the youngsters' cage, I brought them into the house. We would go into the bathroom (because it was small and I could reach all possible perching spots) and I would turn the bird loose or throw it into the air and would not allow it to land anywhere except on the wand or me. Once landed, food was available and the spot was safe. It sounds slow but that only gives you about two weeks from baby to the youngsters' cage. Once imprinted it is forever. Those make great birds to use at the mall or in children's shows. When thrown out to the audience, they tend to land on the highest still hand. Then your assistant can transfer the bird to a wand, which can be passed around without touching the dove.
Q. How do I get an older bird to come to me?
A. It would seem that older birds would be impossible to train. Not true. It takes about the same amount of time to train an older bird as a younger one. And it's worth it because an adult bird can be used immediately. It will never be as imprinted as the young bird, but your audience will never know the difference. With an older bird, there is no way to just carry the bird around as you would a baby before it can fly. But it has another advantage: it can eat for itself. Start with hand feeding the bird. This may take a week to make work. In the beginning, don't even try to hold the bird. Just offer feed in the palm of your hand. If you will take the feed out of the cage each night, you don't look so scary the next morning when you are the only feed in town. After offering the feed, feed the bird anyway. If the bird eats a tablespoon of feed from your hand the second or third day, you are winning. The next step is to take the bird to a small room where you can reach all possible perching places. Feed the bird from your hand, then turn the bird loose. Do not let him land anywhere except on you (anywhere on you but on you). Once landed be still and offer feed when possible without upsetting the bird. By nature the bird will go where there is the most light and the highest perch. Fifteen minutes is a long training session for a dove. In about a dozen sessions over an eight-day period, you should have a bird with a plan. Then fine-tune him to land only on your hand, wand, head, or whatever his job is.
Q. Does anyone use parakeets in magic?
A. Many people have tried to use parakeets in magic. The magic catalogs, long ago, had rubber parakeets to be used as gimmicks. In the last twenty years Lance Burton even tried using them on television. Unfortunately, with the aid of the VCR it simply exposed a good trick. My experience in trying to use parakeets was no better. My wife commercially raised parakeets in the 1970's and 1980's and we had hundreds to choose from. I never found two good ones. They have the wrong disposition for a reliable stage animal. The movie makers had to learn this same lesson about zebras and ended up painting horses to look like zebras. Looking back, I might rather try rattlesnakes and black widow spiders. But, I don't recommend them either.
There is one trick with parakeets that lasted, at least a century, at carnivals and sideshows. That was with a vanishing birdcage that usually killed the bird. Thus, it is not used today before a knowledgeable audience. Readers' Digest exposed the trick back in the 1950's. The trick sells today with a fake bird.
Q. Why not use parakeets in magic?
A. There are a lot of reasons to use parakeets in magic. They are very small, colorful, animated, inexpensive, and easily obtained. They also make good pets. However, I would never recommend using parakeets uncaged in magic. Simply put; never take them out of the cage in a show.
Unlike doves, parakeets are climbing birds, they don't go to sleep in the dark and make noise instead, and they will gladly do bodily harm to the performer and audience. Since they are climbing birds, there seems to be no position you can put them in that they are willing to accept for long. They must explore. They seem to feed on noise. Parakeets have to see what is going on. They can cut through most fabrics, and do, when the mood strikes. Parakeets use their beaks for climbing, holding, and exploring. They can hurt you and members of the audience. Lastly, white doves all look alike. That gives the magician wide latitude in vanishes, transpositions, and productions. Another basic difference is that parakeets seem too susceptible to respiratory problems and do not travel as well as doves.
Q. Is there something I can use to practice
that will simulate working
A. Yes! The best item used by many who do dove magic is a pair of gym socks rolled into a ball. They are about the right weight. That is critical, because you must learn to handle a dove as if he were weightless. You must also learn that a load on a string will swing. You have to control the swing to do what you want it to do. Fortunately, also socks fit perfectly in most harnesses and give a little more bulge than a real dove. Plus they are soft and won't relieve themselves on your clothes. This is safer for doves too. Beginners take a while to learn to keep the bird's head up. At first, beginners are a little rough on the dove lifting it from the pocket too. This also helps the magician learn where to position the pocket for his comfort. In real life, he may spend forty-five minutes with doves aboard. I remember doing shows at a Hilton once where I had to change floors between shows four times a day with loaded birds and a bottle of champagne.
Q. How much should I feed the birds everyday? I give them about 2 tablespoons and sometimes there is a lot left over, sometimes not. Can you over feed this way?
A. I never worry about over feeding doves. They seem to do best when fed free choice to eat what they will. My doves, kept in cages of two, eat about a cup of feed a day. The feed I use is game bird breeder crumbles. Here in the South it is about $9.50 for a fifty pound bag. Care has to be taken to keep the feed from getting down to a fine powder that the birds have difficulty both picking up and digesting. When it gets to that stage, I throw it out. Adult birds (two years and older) eat less than younger birds. Babies put a great load on the feeding parents and may eat twice what an adult eats in a day. Remember that doves eat all day long when it is light. Longer light hours require more feed. Doves also drink a lot when they eat a lot. Poor water supply is probably the number one killer of caged doves. If doves can get into their feed with their feet, most will waste more feed by throwing it out than they eat.
Q. I don't want my birds to raise babies. I need them for my act. How do I stop them?
A. Nothing will stop doves from starting a successful nest like over population of the cage. It becomes nearly impossible. Four doves in a cage 24" x 18" and 18" high are enough to usually stop successful nest building. I don't like to see them in a smaller cage for long. Six birds will do fine in a cage that size, if you will watch the feed and water closely. The next choice is to remove eggs as they appear. The only sure solution is to use all male birds. Unless you actually let the birds set the eggs, no harm is done. Laying eggs is no real obstacle, if you remove them. I personally believe pairs take care of each other better than singles do. Looking good for the show is very important to me.
Q. Where can I buy "silky" doves?
A. It seems as if the answer is nowhere
when you're trying. I have looked for you for about a month with
no luck. Usually, they are fairly common. The first place I would
try is where I saw them. If that fails, I would call the nearest
local zoo. Yes, zoos do sell surplus birds. I give our surplus
birds to our zoo because they trade them with other zoos for
what they want. Another source is your state agriculture department's
newspaper or newsletter. Ads are usually free and go to the right
people. Sometimes they will already be listed for sale. Your
state agriculture department should know of shows in your state
for caged birds. People there sell birds. You might also try
calling feed stores in your area. They know who buys game bird
feed. If all else fails, buy an ad in a statewide newspaper's
classified section. Once you no longer need them, you'll find
them everywhere. They are beautiful birds, easy to raise, but
hard to keep in full feather for magicians. They are also harder
to keep clean.
Q. Do doves have to be a certain age before
they lay eggs?
Q. Do female doves always lay eggs? I have
had 7 doves for about 2 months and there have been no eggs.
Q. How far back can I trim the tail feathers?
Some load chambers seem small.
Q. I see my birds sometimes peck at each
other's back and wing areas. Is this normal or are they fighting.
There can be another reason. If you add birds to a male's cage, at times he will try to drive them away regardless of sex. When mating new pairs, I find it best to put both birds into new surroundings so no one has the home advantage. Over feed and water a few days and give plenty of perching space. Usually, within two weeks they will start perching together at night. From there on, you are the intruder. You can move them together wherever you need to. Over crowded birds will definitely peck each other. Some doves simply don't like each other.
Q. What is the most common mistake people
make in taking care of doves?
Q. Do doves eat insects?
Q. In a real emergency, what can I feed
Q. How do I keep doves from taking care
of business during a magic show?
Q. Do you clip the flight wing feathers
to keep your doves from flying away?
Q. Do you ever clip a dove's feathers?
Q. How long can I use the same doves for
Q. Can I keep my doves in cages outdoors?
Q. My doves' feathers are stained and dirty.
Is there a way to make them white for the show?
Q. How can I tell the sex of my doves?