Pigeon breed all year-round in the UK and are as wary as any avian quarry
About wood pigeon
You may think that you are hearing pigeons heating up for the breeding season in April and May, seeing lots of wing-clapping display flights and hearing lots of their distinctive “don’t scold so, Susie” cooing. However perhaps the first thing about wood pigeon that will surprise you is that the main wood pigeon breeding season is much later. The vast majority of pigeon will struggle to raise a brood in spring. Peak reproduction actually comes in late summer and autumn, assisted by ample supplies of ripening corn and the spillage of the harvest. (Wondering if the pigeon is really a wood pigeon? Here’s how to tell pigeon types apart.)
Pigeon build a little stick nest, usually about 3-5m above the ground, in woods, hedges and gardens. This nest is often so thin that you can see the two eggs from underneath. Both parents take part in incubation which takes around 17 days and those keen on equal rights will be interested to learn that it is the male that takes the night shift. Once the chicks hatch both parents feed and brood the chicks, which fledge at just over four weeks old.
Pigeon and doves are unique among birds in that they produce “milk” to feed their young. This is stimulated by prolactin, the same hormone as in mammals, and is secreted into the adult birds’ crop before being regurgitated to feed the chicks. After a few days, the milk is supplemented with other foods. Woodpigeon can produce up to three broods each year, but most pairs are not as successful.
Wood pigeon predators
Adult pigeons are skilled at avoiding predators and survival is assessed at around 70% a year. So each pair only needs to raise one youngster successfully each breeding season. Their main predators are birds of prey such as peregrines and female sparrowhawks.
However eggs in nests are at risks from jays, magpies and crows as well as grey squirrels. The squabs are rather less vulnerable, but there are reports of rats, weasels and stoats climbing up to the relatively low nests.
Pigeon can suck and swallow at the same time, which is particularly important in summer and early autumn when they are likely to be feeding on a dry diet of ripening cereals or spilt grains.
Wood pigeon are successful – and so a big agricultural pest – because they can thrive on a diverse range of fruits, seeds and green shoots. Farmers get particularly annoyed by the bird’s knack of spotting food from far away. (Read how to get permission for pigeon shooting.)
Almost the moment that drillings are finished, the pigeon turn up and glean what has not been properly sown. These days, with superior equipment, there is no longer a three-day bonanza, and it is usually over in a few hours. Then, before we humans even notice the first tiny shoots popping through, they are back to do real damage to the germinating crop if it is something they find palatable, such as peas or beans. (Read more about pigeons and late spring drillings.)
Good at food storage
Another thing to know about wood pigeon is that the species has a large crop which allows it to go to roost after a big meal and quietly digest whilst sleeping. In summer, with long days and easy feeding, this is not needed, but the short winter days are quite different. By then, the birds are usually feeding on low-quality food such as rape shoots, and there are simply not enough hours in the day for them to eat sufficient food to keep up their bodily condition. If you watch carefully, you will discover that the birds’ feeding rate steps up a gear in the afternoon, as they fill their crops while continuing to digest at the normal rate.
It is hardly surprising that birds shot first thing in the morning have empty crops, but even those shot at midday or in the early afternoon are surprisingly empty. The reason is that there is no point in the bird pecking any faster than the digestive bottleneck allows at this time of day. In addition carrying a ball of grub would not help it make a rapid escape. The bird has plenty of time to step up the peck rate in the last two hours of daylight, before sneaking quietly off to bed.
A woodland bird
Pigeon were not as common before the agricultural revolution and were mainly a woodland bird. We see reflections of that today, when the birds’ crops are filled with ivy berries in late winter. Many other fruits and nuts are taken too, including haws, elderberries, acorns, beechmast and hazels. Green shoots from the woods include hawthorn, beech, oak and especially ash.
Wood pigeon may be a pest but they are also a major sporting quarry which we should show respect for.
My aim is not to try to see how far away I can shoot them from, but rather to draw them close enough to be as certain as I can of a dead bird when I squeeze the trigger. Being a pot hunter, I then expect to look after them well, and make sure that they are in the best possible condition for the table. (Read our tips here on hanging woodpigeon.)