Coming to a bird table near you – the wonderful woodpigeon is on the march
Twitchers barely turn their head for them. Amateur bird spotters have long since stopped listing them in their record books. Despite its smart morning-coat grey plumage, dusky pink neck and bright white collar and wing bars, the woodpigeon is the Ford Focus of the avian world and as such, barely worth a mention by naturalists, who are much more interested in spotting a genuine rarity as they scan the garden bird table.
Yet the common or garden woodpigeon, columba palumbus, is definitely worthy of a second glance and not just because it is now, officially, among the most common visitors, not just to our fields and copses, but to our urban and suburban gardens as well.
Farmers, of course, will not agree. The woodpigeon, together with the rabbit and the rook, make up the holy – or perhaps that should be devilish – trinity of agricultural pests.
Attempts have been made over the years to assess the damage pigeons do to agricultural crops. Serious scientific studies have found that on oilseed rape fields, a favourite pigeon food in spring when the young plants are just developing, pigeons can cost a farmer anything between £300 and £1,000 per field as they methodically peck their way through the leaves. On fields of barley a single pigeon will get through enough malting grain in a day to make 1.18 pints of ale or enough wheat over six days to make a loaf of bread. Multiply that by the number of pigeons in Britain – estimated at anything between eight and ten million – and you can see the scale of the problem.
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In the 1950s and 60s – before the large-scale planting of oilseed rape on our farms – pigeon numbers suffered during hard winters when there was little to eat through the coldest months. But since the 1980s and 90s winter-planted rape has provided perfect sustenance through the cold months. This has led to an explosion in woodpigeon numbers.
Now there are signs the birds are changing their habits once again, finding rich pickings and perfect nesting sites in the larger suburban and urban parks and gardens of our towns and cities, using bird tables for snacking, between visits to the surrounding farmland for main meals.
As a result, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has found that woodpigeons are fast becoming the nation's most-spotted garden bird.
Latest results from the year-round BTO Garden BirdWatch survey show that 87% of gardens have been visited by woodpigeons during a typical week this year – more than by robins, great tits or house sparrows.
Their march into gardens appears to be unstoppable. Nationally, only the blue tit (90%) and blackbird (95%) now stand in their way from taking top spot. In some areas, including Hertfordshire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands and West Sussex, it appears that woodpigeons are already at the top of the podium.
The BTO also found that woodpigeons are reaching deep into our towns and cities, now being seen more often in suburban than in rural gardens. Despite bringing a welcome sense of the countryside with them, their large appetites make woodpigeons divisive garden guests.
Dr Tim Harrison, of BTO Garden BirdWatch, said: "Woodpigeons cause ill-feeling among some garden bird enthusiasts – it's easy just to see a big stomach on legs! But there is so much more to this attractive bird.
"Did you know, for example, that woodpigeons are one of very few bird species that produce crop milk – which is similar to mammalian milk – to help them rear their young?"
"While most birds have stopped nesting for the year, woodpigeons will continue well into September and October. In fact, this species has been recorded nesting in every month of the year, although the majority of young birds will be fledging around now."
Dr Harrison added: "The surge of woodpigeons into gardens over recent years is likely to have been caused by several factors. In the countryside, increased production of oilseed rape has provided fresh 'greens' to eat throughout the winter. Their success appears to have spilt over into gardens, where plentiful food and nesting opportunities can be found."
Pigeons have another attraction for the countryman which bird lover Dr Harrison fails to mention. They are probably the most challenging birds to shoot and make for wonderful eating. Pigeons, like rabbits, have long been a staple of the rural poor, but are now sought out by smart chefs and served up to well-off diners in swanky restaurants.
Getting hold of them, however, is possible in only one way – and that is with a shotgun. A modicum of skill and a great deal of guile is required, however. Woodpigeons seem confident as they strut around the bird table or the garden lawn, hoovering up the scraps in their smart grey morning coats, white collars shining and white wing bars flashing as they take to the air. They are, however, supremely aware of danger, with brilliant eye-sight for movement – particularly the movement of a swinging shotgun barrel being raised to fire. But their downfall is their voracious appetite and their preference for dining in company.
Professional pigeon shooters, like the great Archie Coates, controlled columba palumbus across the arable fields of central southern England for decades. Utilising the pigeon's inability to resist joining a field of his mates for dinner, Maj Coates – like pigeon shooters everywhere – used decoys, including dead birds and imitation lookalikes, to lure the real birds within range. He once managed to shoot 550 in a single day – a rather grisly record that stood for years.
Pigeon shooting today is the most affordable form of shooting available because many arable farmers are happy to give permission to sensible, safe and polite guns. In addition, pigeon shooting clubs, set up to keep the birds' numbers under control, operate all over rural Britain with members going out into the woods – with the permission of the landowners – to intercept birds flying back from the fields to their roosts.
Despite all this control, massive flocks of woodpigeons are still widely seen, still consume vast quantities of agricultural crops and, as the BTO reports, numbers are probably still growing.
As autumn turns to winter, favoured fields can sometimes be turned "blue" as the pigeons gather in their thousands. They will take off, when disturbed, in a great blue-grey cloud with a tremendous clapping of wings. In fact, the distinctive clap a pigeon makes as it leaves its roost, caused by the powerful wings hitting together, is one of the easiest ways to identify the bird without seeing it – that and the lovely, lulling call it makes of five coos, a true sound of summer.
In winter many shooting men will attest there is nothing they would rather be doing than standing, partly hidden, beneath a gap in the leafless canopy of a wood, waiting for those fast-flying, wary and delicious birds to zoom over, offering the chance of a shot and, when carefully prepared, of a meal too.
Woodpigeons; beautiful to look at, challenging to shoot, and delicious to eat. What's not to like? Well, just ask a cereal farmer.