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All about woodpigeon: Columba palumbus in detail

Woodies are arguably the most prevalent of birds to appear on these pages, but their familiarity should not detract from their desirability, says Charles Smith-Jones

Woodpigeon feeding young

Once fledged, only about half survive their first year

There is probably not much need to give a full description about woodpigeon, though it may sometimes be necessary to distinguish it from the closely related rock and stock doves or feral pigeons. (Read pigeon types – how to tell them apart.)   The woodpigeon, however, is noticeably larger and the white wing bars, band across the underside of the tail feathers and neck ring contrast strongly against its grey plumage and immediately identify it.

Its call – a husky cooing, is one of our most evocative summer sounds.

About woodpigeon distribution

Although we tend to associate the woodpigeon with Europe, its distribution extends considerably further and it might be encountered in places as far afield as the foothills of the Himalayas or the Atlas mountains of north Africa. In northern and eastern Europe it tends to be mainly migratory, though the rest of Europe consists of both resident and migratory birds. There are thought to be almost five-and-a-half million breeding pairs in the UK alone. (Read do woodpigeon migrate?)

Breeding usually takes place between April and September but can occur all year round when food is abundant. The squabs grow quickly, nourished in their first few days by “pigeon milk”, a rich cheese-like fluid produced in the crops of both the parent birds. One old country practice that has now fallen out of use was, having discovered a pigeon’s nest, to restrain the squabs with string tied to a leg and then to take them for the table once about to fledge.

Mortality is high among young woodpigeons and only around half, once successfully fledged, survive their first year. Thereafter, three years is the average lifespan, although some more fortunate ones can go on for much longer; one ringed bird recovered in Orkney was found to have lived for an astonishing 17 years and 8 months.

The woodpigeon is fast-flying and agile, and enough to challenge the best of Shots. It is also a notoriously wary quarry – the appearance of an unshaded face two or three fields away often being enough to put a flock to flight – and serious fieldcraft is needed to ensure regular success. A well-located and constructed hide and decoy pattern can provide a morning or afternoon of frantic shooting action if everything comes together. Identifying flightlines, those invisible roads in the sky that vary according to factors including wind direction, time of year and feeding areas, can also put the shooter in the right place.

About woodpigeon

Control is needed to protect prized crops

Flighting the birds

Another potentially productive approach is flighting the birds at their regular roosting haunts, easily identified by the profusion of white droppings spattered over the undergrowth below. As there is no need for hides or decoys, just some unobtrusive clothing and a pocketful of cartridges, this can be one of the most uncomplicated forms of pigeon control.

We are not, of course, meant to enjoy shooting woodpigeons but their control under the general licence is essential to protect crops against their depredations.  (Read the law on shooting woodpigeon.) A large flock can cause significant damage in a very short period of time. In late summer and autumn, cereals can constitute more than three-quarters of a pigeon’s diet and a single bird’s crop might hold well over 70g of food matter. Multiply this across a flock of several hundred descending on a field and you start to get an idea of the scale of the problems faced by farmers.

There are many ways to prepare a woodpigeon for the table and many shooters consider it far superior fare even to the likes of pheasant or grouse. Plucking is quick and easy, though it can be messy with lots of downy feathers and is best done outside. (Read our recipes for woodpigeon here.)

One or two cleanly shot birds make a first-class roast supper for one person. If you want to save time, simply remove the breast meat and fry in butter with a sprinkling of herbs to produce a dish fit for a king, perhaps served with mash and seasonal vegetables. If you have large numbers to deal with, why not try making pigeon burgers or sausages?

Facts about woodpigeon

  • Distribution: Widespread across the western Palearctic as far as Pakistan, Oman and northern parts of Africa.
  • UK distribution: Likely to be encountered in any location apart from the more extreme uplands. Large migratory flocks from the Continent swell the numbers of resident birds during the winter.
  • IUCN Red List status: Least Concern, numbers increasing.
  • Habitat: Highly adaptable, preferring anywhere that offers ready feeding opportunities such as cultivated agricultural land and woodland. Frequently encountered in towns and cities.
  • Food: Buds, shoots, seeds, seedlings, nuts and berries; also crops including peas, cereals and brassicas. Can also take ants, larvae and small worms.
  • Breeding: Territories are established following aerial displays which often involve wing clapping, and fights between rival males sometimes lead to the death of one participant. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the brood once hatched. Woodpigeons regularly breed twice, or even three times, during the course of a season.
  • Nesting: The nest is usually a flimsy stick construction built on the open branches of trees some two metres or so above the ground. Building ledges, thick undergrowth or hedges may also be used. Very often the close proximity of rivers and roads seem to be preferred. The exposed nature of some nests can leave them open to predation, especially by crows.
  • Clutch size: Two eggs are typical.
  • Incubation time: 17–19 days.
  • Length (average): 40–42cm.
  • Wingspan (average): 70–80 cm.
  • Weight (average):  480–550g.
  • Lifespan (average):  Typically around three years.
  • Flight speed: Around 40mph is average but over 80mph has been claimed.
  • Shooting seasons: May be killed or taken throughout the year under the terms and conditions of specific general licences to protect feedstuffs and prevent the spread of disease, or to protect crops, fruit and vegetables.