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How did the hot weather affect pigeon behaviour?

Peter Theobald on how hot weather over the summer has affected pigeon behaviour and farmers’ plans

Peter Theobald searches in vain for pigeon, who appear to have been spirited away

While writing this in the last week of August, we in the south-east are still ‘enjoying’ unprecedented levels of sunshine, with daytime temperatures rarely dipping below 25°C. Here in Essex, we have had no rain for six weeks, and the effect it has had on local pigeon behaviour has been remarkable. 

Last month, I described how Paul and I managed to scrape together a 100-bird bag from a situation that promised much more, purely because the majority of pigeons I had watched the day before simply failed to appear on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year. Since that day, harvest has been completed, with any number of stubbles that are rich in food and in prime locations for the birds to choose from.

Because the ground is baked hard, farmers have held back from cultivating for fear of damaging their machines and, because of the lack of rain, the loose seeds have not chitted (started to germinate). 


Vanishing act

Pigeon nirvana, you would have thought, but both Paul and I are experiencing an almost complete lack of pigeon movement on nearly all of our permissions. Usually at this time of the year, we are juggling up to half a dozen situations, all capable of producing 200-plus bags, but at the moment we are struggling to identify a situation worth trying at all. Yes, we’ve had one or two good days, after many hours of reconnaissance, and gallons of diesel, but it is as though the birds have been spirited away.

As with all species of birds and mammals, there will always be a reason for their behaviour, even though that may not be obvious to us humans. It is what makes hunting them so challenging, trying to assess what they might do next. There are many possible reasons why pigeons change their habits during extremes of weather, be it excessive heat in the summer or extreme cold in the winter. 

I will concentrate on the hot weather we are experiencing and have experienced over the past few months, and try to work out why pigeons are not congregating on fields, as they normally do at this time of year. The obvious reason we are not seeing the birds at the usual time of day is because they are feeding later. Indeed, Paul had a couple of small shoots where he did not set up until 4.30pm and stuck it out until 8pm. But each time, only a small number turned up. Maybe the pigeons are popping out at first light to feed, something they used to do much more in my youth than they do now. But I am often out and about before 7am and have seen no evidence of pigeons heading out to feed.

Crops seem to have zero moisture content and seeds are bullet hard

I am beginning to reach the conclusion that pigeons do not need to feed every day. In other words, if the effort to fly out to a field to eat is nullified by the energy expended, why bother? Grain is nutritious, so pigeons can get by with little, which is why, in this extreme heat, we seldom find more than a few grains in the crops of shot birds.

Unlike in the winter when birds face the triple whammy of cold weather, short daylight hours and poor-quality food. Also, as I alluded to last month, the birds you saw on a field yesterday are not necessarily the same birds that turn up today. This explains on days that have gone well how you can make a bag of more than 100 when you have not seen more than 200 at any one time. 


More on pigeon shooting


Hard going

What we also do not know is how difficult it is to digest grains that have zero moisture content. I was recently picking up loose beans from a stubble and you could easily have mistaken them for pebbles, so hard were they. Even on wheat stubbles, the grains are shrivelled and bullet hard. 

I cannot believe that pigeons have vacated all of our permissions and I am confident that a period of rain will return things to normal, although there is evidence that they have not bred well yet. Presumably they need a fair bit of moisture in their diet to produce the pigeon milk they feed to their young while on the nest. There is still plenty of time for things to change over the next few months, and this period of weather will be but a memory.

That said, it will still have an effect on the decisions farmers make with their cropping plans. Already, rape that should have been planted a month ago remains in the bag. For the few who went ahead and drilled, they watched it lie in desert-like seedbeds. Talking of seedbeds, they are likely to be cloddy in this part of Essex, unless we get serious rain. The saving grace for rape growers is that there is a bumper acorn crop, so, assuming farmers can get their crop above ground, it is unlikely to be bothered by pigeons until at least Christmas. If a cloud does appear in the near future, I’m sure farmers will be inspecting it for a silver lining. 

Peter is struggling to identify situations worth trying