Every spring, I am infuriated by woodpigeon raiding the new shoots of crops, such as purple sprouting broccoli, on my allotment. The wind seems to blow the nets off at just the wrong moment, and the next morning there are skeletonised leaves all over. How satisfying, then, to plink one of the perpetrators off its perch, then stir-fry it in slivers and serve on a bed of buttery home-grown broccoli spears!

Woodpigeon — or cushats, cushie-doos or other local names — are remarkably adaptable and exceptionally good at sizing up a risk. Though there is nothing wilder than a saltmarsh mallard, pigeon are as wary as any avian quarry. Both, however, will need shooing away if they are feeding on scraps scattered by people on the paths of a town park.

All-year-round breeding

Pigeon biology is quite remarkable. Columba palumbus breeds all year round in the UK, and the main season is much later than most people realise. You may see lots of wing-clapping display flights and hear lots of their distinctive “take two cows taffy” cooing in March and April, but the vast majority of pigeon will struggle to raise a brood as early as this. In fact, peak reproduction comes in late summer and autumn, when the ample food of ripening corn, followed by the spillage of the harvest, mean food aplenty and easy living.

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. Incubation, which takes about 17 days, is by both parents, with the male doing the night shift. Once they hatch, both parents feed and brood the chicks, which fledge at a little more than 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, though it is probably true to say that few pairs are this successful.

Good survivors

Adult pigeon are remarkably good at avoiding predators, with survival calculated at around 70 per cent a year in most circumstances. This means that each pair only needs to raise one youngster successfully each breeding season. Their main predators — apart from Shooting Times readers! — are birds of prey such as peregrines and female sparrowhawks.

However, nests are susceptible to predation, with eggs particularly at risk from jays, magpies and crows, while grey squirrels have also been known to pick them off. The squabs are rather less vulnerable, but there are records of rats, weasels and stoats climbing up to the relatively low nests. There may also be losses to raptors and owls.

Thriving on diversity

The order Columbiformes, which comprises pigeon, doves, sandgrouse and, formerly, dodos, has another unique characteristic: drinking. While other birds can only take one sip at a time, and then need to tip their heads back to swallow, pigeon can suck and swallow at the same time. This is especially important in summer and early autumn, when the woodpigeon are likely to be feeding on a dry diet of ripening cereals or spilt grains.

The great success of the pigeon, and the thing that helps to make it such a huge agricultural pest, is its ability to thrive on such a diverse range of foods — it can take an enormous variety of fruits, seeds and green shoots. From the farmer’s point of view, it is also extremely irritating that these birds seem to have an uncanny knack of spotting what is ready to exploit from afar. Take drilling, for example, and the inevitable poorly covered seed. Almost the moment the fieldwork is 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.

Large food storage crop

The other thing that gives woodpigeon a real leg-up is a great big crop. This allows them to go to roost after a big meal and quietly digest as they sleep. 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, and if it needs to fly away from danger, carrying a fist-sized ball of grub with it wouldn’t be conducive to a rapid escape.

There will be plenty of time to step up the peck rate in the last two hours of daylight, before sneaking quietly off to bed.

Before the agricultural revolution, pigeon clearly were not as common as today, and they 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.

Woodpigeon may be a major pest, but as most of us who shoot would agree, they are also a major sporting quarry. We shoot them under the terms of open general licences, and we should not lose sight of that.

The terms of the licence require us to satisfy ourselves (but nobody else) that our actions are necessary to prevent serious damage. This does not mean we must be joyless about this — it is perfectly reasonable to enjoy shooting pigeon.

For me, this latter part implies a deep respect for a fine sporting quarry. 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.