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4. Backspin Classic
~ Breeding and Flying Rollers~

I have attended a few gatherings in James Turner’s house over the years, and every time I was there, I learned something new. When I visited James in 2014 for an expedition fly/gathering at his house, he had two kits to fly. One of the kits he flew at that time was, according to James, a very dependable kit, and the other kit wasn’t. But when this second kit was “on,” it could win any competition. Although this kit was his better kit, last couple of times they were flown, they weren’t doing much. I arrived to the event a day before, and when James and I were talking, I asked him which kit he would fly if tomorrow was a competition day. He didn’t hesitate and said he would rather fly the second kit, and take a chance on them. He said the first kit will score good points but it may not be good enough to win a competition; he would rather take a chance to win instead of settling for a respectable score. When James flew these birds the next day, the first kit was good and respectable, just as expected, although James said they showed only 70% of what they could do. His second kit was much more fun to watch. He had to toss a bird up named Jaw Dropper (JD) after he let the others take off from their kit box. James said JD sometimes crashes when he is released directly from the kit box. These birds in the second kit were really deep and fast. Some were also very frequent but the whole kit wasn’t doing much overall. They had a few nice breaks, but it wasn’t consistent. As though this wasn’t bad enough, while they were flying on a nice height, a red tail hawk came by and distracted them; forced them to fly at a higher altitude. So, if it was a competition day, it would have been an unfortunate day for the second kit. However, as always, the visitors sure did see the quality of these birds. They saw what these birds could do if they had a better day. There was a black bird with white flights in this second kit, and she was absolutely a stunning performer. I know everyone wanted to go home with that bird that day. I, on the other hand, learned a valuable lesson on that day – go all in and take a chance on the title, if you have a kit that can do it. Personally, I would have flown the more dependable first kit, if I were competing. But the risk and reward concept must be at a different level for guys like James Turner. He made it very clear to me that for him it’s all or nothing, and I suppose that makes a difference between winning and losing. “You probably won’t remember, but there was a NASCAR driver by the name of Dale Earnhardt,” James told me. “One day a reporter asked him why he tried so hard to win, and he said the winner ain’t the one with the fastest car; it’s the one who refuses to lose. When a reporter insisted and asked what’s wrong with the second place, he looked at him and said, “Second place is the first loser,” laughed James. “Back in the day, even if my birds had a bad fly day, they would still get a decent score,” he added.

How do you select your breeders?

“Regardless of how good they perform in the air, birds that have problems with trap training, slow about kitting, flying above the kit, landing in trees, and having various other problems as young birds are never used as breeders. I have no scientific data to claim these would be inherited traits, but I decided early on not to breed from birds that have bad habits. I believe some habits are learned behaviors, but I simply don’t want to take a chance in these birds. I also never liked wild or untamed birds. By doing that, over the years I started to produce calmer and easy to handle birds. I think calmness of the birds has a lot to do with how well they perform and respond to their trainers. At the end of the day, though, all birds are selected from the air, not by band numbers or feather colors. Speed, quality, depth (25' to 35') kitting, and frequency are all factors in selecting breeders with speed being most important for me. I really like to use stable cocks, and hens being deeper and right on the edge for breeders. Because of the success I got from a roll-down hen bred to Rambo, I tried many different things in the breeding loft, but for some reason, I was never successful breeding out of roll-down cock birds. So, I never bred out of them again, after I tried and failed. As far as the hens, occasionally, I would breed out of certain roll-down hens, ones that flew with the kit and after rolling down, if uninjured, tried to go back and join the kit again. To me those kinds of birds have a heart, because they are trying to do the right thing, even if they crash after each roll. I would breed out of these hens, especially if they are fast and deep. As far as I am concerned they have everything I am looking for, including a big heart, but they just don’t have the breaks!” chuckled James. “Even though I expect my birds to perform well by the sixth month, ideally I’d like to fly a bird for two years before I choose them as breeders. But, I will stock an exceptional bird after a year because of the hawk problems, and after breeding my own family for so many years I now can evaluate them better, at a younger age,” said James. When I first went home with the birds that James gave me to breed, I asked him how should I choose my own breeders? He said: “They will identify themselves for you, when you fly them. Do you remember that black white flight hen that I flew in the second kit, and everyone was commenting on her? That is how you know your breeders. They will stand out in a kit, day after day, and show you who the best is in the air,” added James.

How did your breeding methods evolve over the years and what did you change to make breeding more successful?

I knew inbreeding was inevitable in order to keep the desired performance and colors. However, I also knew I couldn’t keep inbreeding full brothers to full sisters for too long. Although this was totally accidental, I realized half-sister, half-brother mating produced better percentages of good performers for me. This mating also helped me a lot from inbreeding too closely. I also decided to try creating sub-families within my own family. Once again, the original idea was not to inbreed too much. After a few generations, these sub-family birds would be slightly different genetically from another sub-family. This way, I could use a bird out of one sub-family, mate it to a bird from another sub-family, and get the benefit of hybrid vigor with never leaving the main family. So, when I was trying to get a really good looking reduced birds, I kept mating the reduced birds to really good black birds. Once I established a good marking and the performance together, I called that a reduced family. Off course I have my old Rambo line mostly with blue check colors. I have indigo/andalusian sub-family that goes back to Double O Seven. I also have a dilute sub-family. So, it’s fair to say that my breeding methods evolved over the years, especially when I accidently start using Rambo as a breeder. Rambo was a cull bird. He was a good spinner in the beginning; he performed really well, but as the time went on, he became too frequent and wasn’t able to keep up with the kit. Back in the ’80s this was a cull bird, and you did not breed out of cull birds. Up until that time, I used to read articles written by roller guys in American Pigeon Journal (APJ). Any bird that didn’t kit was considered to be a cull, according to those articles, so I stopped flying Rambo and started to use him as a foster parent. I mated him to this double factor tort grizzle hen. Although this hen also used to be a good performer and flown in competitions before, she became a roll-down after a year, so she also became a cull. While they were fostering eggs for me, this one time, I forget to change the eggs under them and their babies hatched; so I decided to fly their babies and see what they can do. These babies became unbelievably good spinners. I couldn’t believe how good these babies performed, out of two cull birds. So, I decided to keep the pair together and made more babies out of them. I could not believe what a super star breeder these cull birds had become. After that, I created a new line using Rambo. I mated Rambo to every color hen I could find. He became the speed behind every color project I ever started in my backyard. He was just a superstar in the breeding loft. If I could asked to go back in time and re-own one bird again, I would ask for Rambo. He was the best breeder I ever owned. Rambo was the reason I changed my whole look on breeding. From that point on, I decided to challenge everything I was told or read. I tried pretty much everything over the years with regards to breeding, feeding, and flying but, mostly failed on my attempts,” chuckles James. “But, ever since Rambo, I wasn’t afraid to try different things to see if there was a better way to breed and fly Rollers,” James admitted.

How do you determine if the pairing was a success or a failure?

“It all comes down to basic math and percentages. Let’s say I raised six babies from a pair, I would expect couple of them to be pretty darn good spinners. So, I guess if I get one or two respectable birds, by that I mean reasonably good performers, I can deal with that pair. Now, this does not mean I would consider their good spinning babies to be future breeding birds. I look for far more superior qualities than “respectable” when I choose a bird for breeding. But, if a pair produces at least two out of six or eight birds, I would breed them again next year. Sometimes, I get four or five really good birds from a pair. When that happens, in the following year I use the same breeding pair and I try to raise 10 or 12 youngsters out of them by way of foster parenting. At the end of the day though, there is no formula. You just try to breed best to best to increase your chances of breeding higher percentage of good spinners.

When you put a breeding pair together, you will never get a 100% success rate from any pair; assuming your expectation of a spinner is similar to mine. Some pairings simply will not be successful, regardless of how good they performed in the air. So, when you put a pair together for the first time, you are simply taking a chance. Just because a bird is a super star in the air, it doesn’t mean it will be a good breeder or they will be so-called a click pair. Now one thing I have to tell you is that I only focus on the positive results when I consider if the pairing is a success or a failure. First of all, if you are not breeding occasional roll-downs, then in my opinion you are not really breeding. If your goal is to breed champions, then you need to understand that there is a fine line between a champion and a roll-down. Sometimes, I ask people if they would breed out of a pair that statistically produces 20% roll-downs. Their initial response is obviously a no. Then I ask them if they would breed out of a pair that produces 60% champions, and they immediately say yes. Then I tell them well, we are talking about the same breeding pair. Now, would you or would you not breed out of this pair,” chuckled James. “So I don’t look at the numbers of cull birds I raise out of breeding pair to determine if I should keep them together or not. I look at the percentage of respectable, and better yet, percentage of champions produced by a pair,” said James with confidence in his voice, “and champions are hard to raise,” he added.

According to James, he produces much better percentage of youngsters from half sibling mating. In fact, his favorite mating is half-sister, half-brother mating. So, I gave James the following scenario: Let’s say you have a pair of champion half-sister, half-brother spinners and they are absolutely champions in air. However, in their first year of mating, out of six to eight youngsters, none of them were good spinners. These youngsters simply did not make the cut. Would you give this pair another chance? “No!” said James sounded calm but sturdy. “Had they produced maybe one, then maybe, I mean maybe, I would have try them again. But I don’t have another year to waste on a pair that produced nothing. I would try them with different mates, but I would not try the same pair again next year based on their statistical success rate. There are simply some birds that just don’t click, and you are better off not pushing your luck with them. Now, you will learn this as you breed birds and become an experienced breeder. I also hope you will learn from your mistakes, and won’t repeat your mistakes. But I think what’s really better is to learn this from somebody else’s mistakes; this way you don’t waste any valuable time when you are pursuing to breed better birds,” said James.

When do you put the breeding pairs together?

I used to put my 18 breeding pairs together on Thanksgiving weekend, and migration of the hawks was the reason. Out of the 18 pairs 3 to 4 of them would be projects. Some of these project birds would be in different stages or generations and some of them might be getting close to be really good. But the other 14 pairs would be strictly what I expect them to be quality spinners. I start flying the first clutch of youngster around February. Where I live, hawks are really bad starting last of the August till about first of October. Although, I don’t have a number of birds I want to breed in one year, I have an idea of how many I would like to get from certain pairs. But sometimes things don’t go well as planned, when we had a hard cold winter. My breeding stops around June.

When do you start trap training and flying?

I got a training cage where the youngsters not only can go up the roof of the kit box, but there is also a landing board for them to get back into the kit box, inside the cage. When they are out on top, I normally whistle before I feed them to train them to come in when I want them to come in. This takes about 2 weeks. But before I remove the training cage I cut down the feed just a little bit, and when I open the trap door the next day for the first time, some of them just get on the roof, some start flying a little bit. Occasionally, I lose a young bird or two in first day of training, but I normally get them back the next day. I never flag them or force them to fly. By 3rd day of training, they usually all come in together. Usually, within a week they are able to go out, take a short fly and land on top of the kit box, and when I whistle they are trained to trap in. Then they start taking longer flies but if the hawks or the crows don’t bother them, within a month they are out flying and kitting on their own. I try to fly the young birds every day if I can, but very seldom I fly them twice a day. If I had one kit or two, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with flying them twice a day. More you fly them better off you are. But again, once they develop into good spinners and work hard in the air, they need to be rested.

James Turner's baby birds in training cages.

What do you feed them during training?

When I ween the birds, I give them good quality mix until they get 3 to 4 months old. When they are starting spin, I try to cut back on peas and slowly introduce them to wheat and milo diet. But I never give them wheat and milo all the time. So, around 6 months old, their diet is mainly wheat and milo and this ration depends on what I call the feed and read method. But it needs to be understood that this is the way I feed my birds, so this may not be best for other people. All I can tell you is that there is no magical formula that you give your birds and expect miracles. You just have to observe what they did in the air and how long they flew that day. Based on how they performed that day, determines what I feed them, how much I feed them, and when I should fly them again. This cannot be taught; a flier needs to learn how to properly feed their own family of birds. Generally, the birds will tell you what they need, if you just pay attention. You have to react to what they do in the air, and also find out how they react to what you feed them. It’s that simple. Another advice I can give to others based on my years of experience is that when it comes to feeding regiments, more complicated methods you will try, more you will setup yourself for failure. Why? Because any given day before a major competitions, there are many variables including wind, temperature, air pressure, molting, or how well they flew the day before, etc. You just can’t prep them with a written formula of how many peas they need to eat 14 days prior to fly day. You just have to feed them, read them, react to what they did, so that they would react to your feeding adjustments.

What is the earliest age a bird is considered to be cull for various bad habits?

If I see a bird with bad habits like landing on trees or not trapping on time, and if it does that repeatedly, it’s time to cull that bird. Most learned habits are hard to get rid of. I usually don’t waste my time with birds like those no matter what their band number says, or how well they perform when flown. I cull birds as early as 4 months old. So, I don’t have an age in my mind when to cull them or how many times I can tolerate their unacceptable behavior. My philosophy is that if a bird is not doing something really good, he better not do something really bad. Those birds won’t get second or third chances. But I might cut a bird a little slack if it is doing really good in the air; otherwise, I don’t waste my time trying to correct a bad habit or expect their habit to change. It is very hard to cull a bird, especially if you really like its color. But you know it is not doing anything respectable. If you keep that bird, you are setting yourself back, from moving forward. It’s very hard to find faults in your own birds; it’s hard to be objective at times, but you have to be very careful what you are saving. Sometimes people call and ask me what they should do with their birds. They would say they have some really good ones, some mediocre ones and some not doing anything. What should they do to improve the quality of their birds? I told them to get rid of half of their birds. Only keep the best ones, and if you want to really improve them, get rid of half of them again. It’s hard to do…I know, but you can’t keep birds that have faults in them; otherwise, you will never improve. I have never seen a perfect Roller and that’s why after so many years of breeding and flying Rollers, I never stop trying to improve my birds.

Can you describe the development of your birds?

“I don’t like my birds to come out to perform too early because I want them to develop some strength first. Having said that, I expect them to start doing something in two to three months. By late fourth month, I would want them to start spinning and I want to see some performance out of them. By the sixth month, they should be showing me what they are capable of doing in the air. At about sixth month, I know if I made a mistake or made the right choice about the breeder selections. Because by that time, I am already thinking and planning about next year’s breeding pairs. If you have a family that takes two years to fully develop that is not a good thing in Rollers, in my opinion. I’d like to be able to breed from the last year’s babies, if I need to. I don’t want to wait two years to see what they are made out of to consider them as breeders. I really try very hard to raise good Rollers and I try to notice every detail about my birds. Off course, that doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes along the way, but I try to learn from my mistakes. I am probably more qualified to advise people what NOT to do, because I have made a lot of mistakes throughout the years of breeding and flying Rollers. But, we shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes as long as we are able to learn from our mistakes,” admits James.

James realized from the get-go that if he wasn’t prepared to make mistakes he would never come up with anything original. As he gained more knowledge and experience, he became fearless of making mistakes even if people stigmatized him for trying new things, especially when he started to experiment with color genes. But, once he realized he wasn’t afraid of being wrong, he became more successful both in breeding and in flying his Rollers. James believes new guys in the hobby most likely will make the new discoveries because they haven’t yet learned to be frightened of being wrong. Mistakes are part of learning. But, over time they are forced to believe that the mistakes are the worst thing they could make; and the net result is, in time, they will become cultivated out of their creative capacities. If you think of it, the whole system, in the minds of many people, around the world is to win the World Cup or a major competition like NBRC Championship Fly. Unfortunately, the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they are not worthy of anything since they have not won a competition to earn any recognition. But because they are scared to try anything new, they are forced to make the same mistakes repeatedly, year after year, and somehow expect different results.

“When I was flying in competitions, I tried to notice everything about my birds,” continued James. “It starts with handling your birds often. How strong do they feel in your hands, and if they feel too heavy or not heavy enough, etc. Back when I was really serious about competitions, in order to truly evaluate the performance of my birds, I would fly them in smaller numbers like four to six birds at a time to really watch them closely. I would have a small notebook and I would take notes on individual birds. I would look at their overall performance and select them for certain qualities. I realized early on that you have to select birds that will work together instead of those that are solo performers. I focused on the chemistry of the kit instead of trying to fly individual super stars. I wrote down what I liked and didn’t like about each bird’s frequency, quality, depth, and how well they flew with the rest. Within three to four weeks of observing them, I would have a general idea of how reliable each bird would be if flown in competitions. There are no questions in my mind that as young birds are developing up to a year, they improve their quality. But there are some days they lose their quality; you can notice that each bird has a pattern for performance style even though they would not perform the same every time you flew them or every time they rolled. So, you can’t judge them or penalize them based on few poor performance days. But you can still see a consistent pattern in their overall performance and you must select the ones that will work with the kit and not on their own. Those deep, fast, and very frequent birds are fun to watch but if they don’t stay with the kit or work with the kit, they should not be flown in the competition kit. It takes time and effort to evaluate your birds, and you must try to do it objectively which can be hard when you are trying to find faults in your own birds. I must admit I worked hard to improve the quality of my birds from the very beginning, and as the time went on, it became easier, and easier for me because I only bred out of the birds that would work together. With regards to breeding animals, whatever behavior or performance you desired to select in your breeders, it will show up in future generations. With the new generations, I still had to work hard and observe each bird’s performance closely, but it became easier over the years when I routinely selected them for my expected behavior of them. The easier the evaluation process became, harder it was for my birds to be considered to be flown in competitions. Because I’ve always expected more from them,” said James.

When asked to elaborate what he meant when he said, “chemistry of the kit” James responded:

“Every kit is a little different than one another. You can pick 11 individual birds that are super stars, but super stars don’t necessarily make a good team. There is a chemistry within every kit of Rollers. To establish a good kit of birds, you need to start adding one bird in or take couple out until you find a team of birds that want to work together. Once I established a good kit, instead of separating them and start working on a brand new kit, I continually added or removed birds from that working kit to make them better. I also try to do this with all hens, as I believe they are more reliable in the air. I would try to get about 12 to 15 birds in a kit which were all good. Then, I would cut the number down to 12 and leave one for spare. I would then decide which 11 that I would want to fly on the competition day. If you remove only one bird, it won’t affect the chemistry of the kit. However, if you have to add a bird to an existing kit, then it could cause problems since the newly added bird might not fit in. I was very hard to beat using this method because you cannot win a competition with a kit of super stars, you can only win with a kit of birds that want to work together. So, I didn’t win because I fed them different or train them different, I just knew how my kit would react with the amount of food, or with the amount of rest I would provide for them. I won flies because I knew what my birds needed in order to perform. Most importantly, I won because I studied and paid attention to what my birds would do under any given conditions,” admits James. “I did not do anything complicated; what I’ve done was very simple — I just paid attention to details. So, there is no formula or magic for this, because if it was magic, I couldn’t do it,” says James. “I am not a magician,” he added with a laugher.

When asked how he knew which 11 to fly out of a 12 bird kit, he said:

“First of all, it is very important that you pick a number of birds and you try to keep that same number; I prefer 12. The reason being is that you get used to managing that many birds, while you are feeding them and while you are watching them. It will make your life a lot easier if you keep that same number. Once you establish a good kit, you continue to watch their performance. A bird, even in a good kit, will not and cannot perform well every time you fly it. So, I just watched them very closely, and did not fly the ones that were not doing well or lacking a good performance in that period of time. Now, just because I did not fly those birds in that particular competition, that did not mean they were not good birds. Which 11 I flew was dependent on which 11 was on top of their game at that particular competition time. That’s the reason why I generally kept 12 in a kit and picked the best 11 a day before. It’s sort of like managing a sports team. You have your starters and you have your backups, and depending on who was on top of their game that month, they would be the ones that would be flown in the competition. You would be really surprised how much one or two birds can affect the chemistry of a kit. You can’t take a chance on one bird just because it is generally a good performer. If a bird has not been flying or performing good lately, you should not take a chance on that bird when you fly in a competition. The weak links can be very visible to a trained eye. I also realized early on that average age difference within a kit made a lot of difference in the kit’s overall performance. If they are mostly two years and older, they were fine. If they are mostly young birds, they are fine too, but when you mix adult birds with young birds, the chemistry changes.

“Even noticing the smallest details can make a huge difference,” continued James. “I still notice this even today, even though I don’t compete anymore. But if you look closely, in some young kits there will be a bird that would want to fly above the kit. If it is only one bird doing this, it generally doesn’t became a problem. It will eventually will learn to stay with the kit. However, if more than one bird wants to fly above the kit, then it could become a problem, if they start taking few others to fly high with them. And when that happens, you would realize that your whole kit would fly high and that’s not a good thing. So you got to be careful - if some of them want to take the whole kit too high - remove them from the kit, especially if they do it consistently. Once you remove them from the kit, you would notice the rest of the kit would get back to their ideal height, unless you made a mistake and kept the high flying birds with them for too long. But anyway, these little things can make a huge difference to create a good chemistry, which is an essential part of flying a winning kit,” says James.

“Another thing that I did not do was to use a flag to prevent them from landing, because I never believed they need to be forced to fly. Forcing them to circle in the air for 5 more minutes is not training, it’s teaching them bad habits of landing elsewhere. But you see, none of this was a rocket science for me. I guess until you learn the ropes and experiment with things, even the basic things can be complicated for all of us in the beginning. But many of us tend to think there is more than just basics to flying Rollers. When I tell people these simple things that I have done to win, most people get surprised, and some don’t believe me thinking I am not telling them the whole story. But in all honesty, I believe I won a lot of competitions simply because I paid attention to every detail of my birds and mainly stuck with basics. Don’t get me wrong, I did challenge the old wives’ tales about breeding, especially putting color into spin. I always expected more from my birds; I still do. I think we can never stop learning and improving the breed. I have paid close attention to even to smallest details, but I did not invent the roll. I have tried different things and failed most of the time, but I never gave up, because I like challenges. I also learned from my mistakes. But I think anyone can win flies with any families of Rollers; all they need to do is pay attention to their birds, and stick with the basics,” proclaimed James Turner.


All rights reserved (c) February, 2019 by Arif Mümtaz.


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