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The rise of the woodie

One of my earliest birdwatching experiences involved woodpigeon. It wasn?t birdwatching as such, it was more accompanying my grandad on a shooting-for-the-pot day. Grandad would shoot his woodpigeon and then place it on the ground in the open with its head propped up by a small forked stick. We would hide in nearby cover and wait for others to join our bird. It always worked, and I was enthralled as more pigeon arrived, flashing the white bars on their wings. What really struck me was how beautiful they were ? a fantastic mix of soft blues, greys and wonderful deep pinks, set off with a brilliant bright yellow eye, white collar and those flashing white wing bars.

The woodpigeon has always been a common bird across its breeding range, which encompasses most of Europe north to Scandinavia ? where there is estimated to be around a million pairs ? through central Europe (around another three to four million pairs), and south to north Africa. The total population for Europe is estimated at around five million pairs. This is a very rough estimate as the figures are sketchy for the eastern part of its range, but there is evidence of a decline there.

The most recent estimate for the UK is a breeding population of slightly more than three million breeding pairs. Thus we have the highest density of woodpigeon in Europe. Over the past 25 years, data from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) shows that the woodpigeon population has increased in the UK by 79 per cent. It is not only in the wider countryside that the species is doing well; we have also seen an increase in the use of gardens by woodpigeon. In 1995, woodpigeon could be found in around half of all the gardens of the British Trust for Ornithology Garden Bird Watchers (GBW). At the beginning of 2011, it was reported in 90 per cent of GBW gardens.

Key to success

Clearly the woodpigeon is doing well, but why? The spread of intensive arable cultivation, especially of oilseed rape, which has been shown to promote over-winter survival, may explain the rise in numbers, but the increase in towns and cities and especially gardens, is almost certainly linked to the increase in garden bird feeding. We are a nation of garden bird feeders and it is estimated that we spend around £300 million on bird food every year, and when times are tough, woodpigeon can find plenty of their favourite seed food in our gardens. Woodpigeon also have the ability to breed in any month of the year. The female produces a crop-milk that is fed to the young and, as a result, woodpigeon aren?t tied to invertebrate abundance when feeding young in the nest.

Once in our gardens they can often be perceived as pests ? they invariably descend in small flocks and have the ability to hoover up food at an alarming rate. However, providing more expensive seed mixes that are not bulked out with cereal grains, seems to reduce the number of woodpigeon visiting a garden. It is cereal grains such as wheat that they favour. Providing food in hanging feeders can also help to reduce the number of woodpigeon as they find it difficult to access the food. In my urban garden, I put food out on a ground feeder for the woodpigeon. I still thrill at their beauty, and they bring a taste of the countryside to my home. I also put other food in hanging feeders that the smaller species use. Though woodpigeon are bullies, there seems to be no effect on other birds that feed in gardens with the majority of these either stable or increasing in number. Moreover, in the countryside too, there is no indication that they are negatively impacting on smaller birds as they tend to take food other birds do not eat such as ivy berries and acorns as well as cereal crops.

As far as other species of pigeon are concerned, they don?t interbreed. There have been a few records of woodpigeon/stock dove hybrids but this is rare. The increasing woodpigeon population has had little effect on the other pigeon and dove species, the only one showing serious decline being the turtle dove. As an African migrant, it is declining along with a host of other African migrants and the problem seems to be specifically with migration from this continent. Woodpigeon are, however, the most numerous by far. The UK population figures for other pigeon species are as follows: feral pigeon ? 250,000 pairs; rock dove ? 100,000 pairs; collared dove ? 280,000 pairs; turtle dove ? 44,000 pairs; stock dove ? 300,000 pairs.

An unequal distribution

It is interesting to look at the woodpigeon distribution across the UK. Though we have experienced an increase nationally, that increase hasn?t been an equal one. The BTO/Joint Nature Conservation Committee/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey shows that since 1995, the biggest increase at 71 per cent has been in Northern Ireland. Conversely, woodpigeon in Scotland experienced a decline of two per cent over the same period, while the figure in England and Wales show increases of 43 per cent and 32 per cent respectively. Breaking it down even further, looking at English Government Office Regions over the same period, 1995- 2008, the biggest increases have been in Yorkshire and London at 84 per cent and 72 per cent respectively, and while all English regions have shown increases, they vary considerably. Woodpigeon in the North-East and the West Midlands increased by 22 per cent and 24 per cent, those in the North-West and the East Midlands by 44 per cent and 34 per cent, and the South-West and the South-East showing increases of 37 per cent and 38 per cent. The east of England numbers went up by 57 per cent. Interestingly, feral pigeon declined in the London area by 22 per cent over the same period.

Our breeding population appears to be largely sedentary, though they are known to move in large numbers during prolonged freezing conditions to the south-west of the country. Outside of these conditions they don?t move very far at all. Ringing recoveries all come from no more than 4km from where the birds were ringed. However, during early November, particularly during clear, crisp conditions with light winds, thousands of woodpigeon can be seen on the move, flying across the country from the North-East to the South-West in flocks often numbering tens of thousands. It is thought that these could be British birds moving to the South-West for the winter months, or that they could be northern European migrants crossing the UK on their way to spend the winter in the cork oak forests of Iberia. As the birds from Europe are identical to the British birds it is difficult to identify specifically these birds as European woodpigeon. But one thing?s for sure ? we still have a lot
to learn about one of our most common birds.