Free-ranging Fantails - organic pigeons, strategies and tips for raising them in a enclosed garden.

There is nothing quite as beautiful as fantails flying in the open skies. They have a poetry of their own, made even more fascinating by the way they manoeuvre their 'peacock' tails. This freedom comes at a cost, because like all domestic and wild birds they are subject to predator attack from both above and on the ground below.

 Free as Air - Pigeon Pas de Deux or rather de Trois

 In the next series of blogposts I will be sharing how to create an environment in which they can freerange safely, discussing how to minimise predator risk and suggesting what to do when things go wrong.



I've been raising fantails for over fifteen years, it wasn't exactly a planned exercise. I was only going to collect a Frizzled hen from a smallholding/homestead, where the owner had sadly died and left a collection of animals and birds in need of rehoming. Somehow, whilst we were packing up the Frizzled hen, six white fantails segued themselves into the deal. Luckily someone was there to scoop up the goats, swans, geese, guinea pigs, ducks and peacocks... It was one of those situations where you couldn't say, "No".

These are my first  Fantails, one male and five females. All I knew about them at the time, was that they had lived in an aviary and never bred any young. All I knew about fantails, or pigeons in general, you could write on a postage stamp. I was and still am adverse to keeping creatures in cages unless there is no alternative.

I did a lot of research both in books and on the internet and came to the conclusion that fantails, would suit me very well as they would thrive in a non-aviary environment.  I believe I even read how they would neither breed nor even make nests if permanently enclosed. However, not wanting the fantails to be further stressed by a complete change of environment, they had already had to cope with being moved, I placed them in a decorative welded arbour Andy had made for the garden. A couple of days later, when they seemed settled in, I just left the door ajar and watched and waited to see what would happen. After half-an-hour the male led the five females to the door and in single-file the rest followed him out on a short trip into the garden. Their return after the first foray was, I guess, just to make sure the house hadn't vanished whilst they were away. Once this fact had been established, they went off out again, this time in another direction. After they had completed these few short trips and obviously now believing themselves to be safe, they settled down perching on and around the dovecote. One thing I had realised very quickly from initial observations, was that their whole lives were centred around their new home. In my researched I had indeed read that they were originally bred to adorn buildings and sacred sites. The experiment being successful, I then dismantled the arbour and they were free to come and go at will. Over the years I have only lost one fantail and he actually formed a pair with a wild pigeon and was seen afterwards in the local area. I bought him from a Paris show and had just let him out to be with the others. Instead of remaining with them, as I expected him to, he kept to the roof and finally flew away.

Early days  and observations

Once my original six were free, they started a flurry of nest building. I decided to add to my little group and bought a black and a blue male, each of which added their own style and savoir faire to the community. Over the years, left to their own devices, these new males have created various shades and patterns of fantail.
From the blue male, the group learned to forage for edible greenery, slightly to my chagrin with regards to our wallflowers, lemon balm and michaelmas daisies but much to the benefit of their health. The blue male also taught the rest to consume oyster shell. I actually observed them watching him intensely as he pecked at the provision I had left out for the hens
With the advent of both the blue and the black male, the fantails became more demonstrative in display and courtship. The blue one was more static in his penchant for 'showing-off', mostly perching, 'puffing up', leaning backwards and frequently losing his balance. The black pigeon was more elegant in display and quite fascinating to watch as he danced a flamenco around the astonished females. 

The black pigeon was also more adventurous than the rest. It was through him the fantails began to explore more areas of the garden, roof and the lane in front of the house. It was thus through him initially that I began to think more about how my future gardening design plans would impact upon their lives.

Fantails and Forest Gardening

The relationship between keeping poultry and planting a forest garden is a symbiotic one, the former provide a richer compost for trees, fruits and vegetables. They also carry out very valuable pest control. The garden provides them with shelter and food and most importantly, a safe environment below a canopy of trees and bushes, which is the very essence of the forest garden. You can arrange your garden in such a way as to provide clearings, in which the poultry can sunbathe and in the case of pigeons add a bird bath. 

Bathing is an integral part of a pigeon's life and it is one of the times at which it is at its most vulnerable, as logically with its feathers dampened, it can't easily escape by flight. There is also a social side to a bird bath, I call it the "pigeon lido", and preening, courtship and sunbathing are all part of the activity. It's something therefore you need to provide for but you should equally be aware of the dangers it entails to a freeranging flock.

So, although my pigeon lido is in the open it is lightly but adequately obscured by a Kiftsgate rose. This vigorous, sinuous climbing rose, prevents the ingress of a bird of prey by creating a thorny and complex barrier. I know from experience, as will be discussed in the next post, what happens when you block flight paths by the physical presence of thickly  and/or asymmetrically planted trees and bushes.
When freeranging fantails you can not protect against every eventuality. Dogs, cats, rats, birds of prey and martens are opportunists. Dogs can be restrained by physical barriers and the others, in my experience, prefer easy pickings. The more difficult you make it for them to succeed, the less you leave your pigeons open to attack.
One of the greatest problems we have had here, is that the  architecture of a longère both attracts the fantails and leaves them vulnerable to airbourne predators. A bird of prey attacks by flying at the pigeon and hurtling it to the ground. However, the Forest Garden still prevails, as the terrain is difficult to negotiate and the fantail, on its home territory, has every chance of escape.

In conclusion 

Our experiences over the years have proved to us that fantails love living in a forest garden environment. It gives them the freedom to express themselves in all aspects of their daily life whilst still protecting them from its hazards.

Now, if you'd like to, sit back and enjoy the film on how we set up a forest garden from an abandoned field in order to grow food for ourselves and create a safe haven for our birds.


Next time:

Beautiful but deadly and how I came to have a bird in the hand just because we had planted so many bushes.

Thanks for dropping by and if you enjoyed this article please share it and feel free to comment, ask questions or share your own knowledge of free-range fantails.
© 2013 Sue Cross


  1. How long did it take you to establish such a beautiful garden?

    1. Thank-you for your kind comment, I remembered I hadn't replied and I've been trying to find it on my youtube videos!!! Finally, today I put a 'search' on it and found it here, so, sorry for the delay. We moved here finally in 2000 but before this date we'd started to plant a couple of hedges. This was two-fold, to cut down the breezes from the sea and also to give some shade to what essentially was in Summer a dried up sun trap. If you want to see the stages this garden went through, Andy wrote a piece on our reroofing of the little house in the garden and it will give you an idea of a time-frame: . We actually bought the house in 1990 and used to come over from Scotland as often as possible, so over the first ten years we were just growing annual vegetables and flowers. It was when we arrived permanently, we started the major plantings, so the garden has really taken 12 years to get to this stage. However, we have a very strange mix of soil, viz., clay, which is fertile but cold and beaten down in wet weather and powdery and easily eroded in hot. This is coupled with a thick layer of shale at about a 30cm/1ft depth below the clay topsoil, which unless broken through, hampers initial growth by restricting root development. Interestingly enough a couple of years back we visited an organic farm down in the south with a similar soil but with an equally developed forest garden, which was only 6 years old. It was a bed and breakfast and camping ground and when the latter was having a reed bed sanitation system set up, they had simultaneously used the mini digger to excavate the planting holes for all the trees and shrubs. This had obviously given them a great start, so if we come across this soil again, we would definitely think of using this method, or a pick axe! All the best, Sue

  2. Do you know which variety of fantail you have or prefer? There seem to be so many different types.

    1. Hi there, I think these are what are referred to as 'English garden fantails' and as such they are eminently suitable for a forest garden as they seem able to navigate the terrain and live happily in it. They also do not have the huge and rather unmanageable tail that the exhibitions breeds seem to have. I did have one Indian fantail, a female I bought at exhibition some years ago, she was a gorgeous colour, white with splashes of dark chocolate, cream and chamois and a very peaceful seemingly contented bird. Unfortunately she was really heavy, as well as not terribly suited to outdoor living, being very 'showy' with huge plumed feet. However she did quickly find an adoring mate amongst my fantails and they did make a nest and she laid two very large eggs. Sadly this never came to anything, as in the hot weather she keeled over and died. Instead of continuing with the nest, my male was inconsolable, it was so sad. That sort of put me off Indian fantails as I thought they maybe were just exhibition birds but I really would like to try with them again, as 'Victoria' was such a lovely bird, just a little ungainly on the ground. As I wrote above, I did buy her at an exhibition which was probably a mistake, so next time I will try to find a more 'rustic' one. There is also a silky fantail sometimes called a laced, which I have seen only on the internet. There are also hundreds of colour combinations, although for show purposes here in France, there are only five! I don't show mine anyway and am always hoping for new colours. I have a grey and a coffee/chocolate colour, also some with stripes of colour around the tail. My fantails fit in really well with thehens, although sometimes there are mix ups, hens lay eggs in the dovecot and pigeons will sit them. Also hens will sit pigeon eggs and also adopt baby pigeons, which works out really well in cold weather, when the parent pigeons are out looking for food! If you are thinking of getting some I would start with the 'English garden' type, just be aware they can have 2 babies hatch per month! All the very best, Sue

  3. Hi - I found all your information so interesting, I wonder if you can EPL me? We have a house in southern France. A riverside site with a reasonable garden. We are in a small hameau, and hope to retire there permanently, but not for a year or so. Meanwhile, we go over for about a month at a time every six weeks or so. I want to keep pigeons, preferably fantails, in asnatural environment as possible. If we set up a dovecote, will we be able to leave them to fend for themselves, like wild birds? Or do I need to wait till we are in France full time?

    1. I am so sorry I only just found your comment! You will really need to be living in France to keep them. Fantails are very good at showing themselves off to predators. They do wonderful displays on our roof tops which is like writing 'restaurant open' for the birds of prey. Pigeons in general are very intelligent and do respond to vocalisations from other birds but it is better if they have either humans to look after them or are in a flock like ours so our cockerels and hens can warn them of danger. In fact I had a pair of fantails who nested in one of our chicken coop and the dominant Polish cockerel actually fought off a sparrow-hawk when it landed on the back of the female fantail. He actually kick boxed it, I knew the hawk was in the garden and was running to help and saw the whole thing happen! Also you will be there to feed them as they will forage quite well for greenery but if you are not around chances are they will look to someone else to feed them and may leave and form a colony somewhere else! Hope this helps and really good luck - we have never regretted starting up here 20 years ago, Sue
      P.S. If you need any more suggestions please get back to me. Normally I reply very quickly but we were getting ready for visitors in March and I was probably panicking!!