Garden Birds: In Defence Of Pigeons
Feral Pigeons Feeding In An Urban Park
Sadly pigeons have a rather undeserved image problem; all too often they are loathed by the general public who write them off as boring, bullying and unacceptably greedy. On the other hand, robins, who bask in the glow of being Britain's national bird, and therefore are universally adored, can be utterly rotten to each other. Yet our pigeon species, who are largely inoffensive birds, are loathed by some to such an extent that they are instantly shooed away, as soon as they land on a bird table.
In the country, the loathing extends deeper, with many falling victim to shot guns. In busy urban and sub-urban centres we pressure councils to try to eradicate them from our roofs. Even their pleasing, gentle songs are an irritant to the more highly strung sections of our society; undoubtedly these are the same sort of people who complain about cows and cockerels making too much of a 'racket' near their second homes. But the reality is that these wonderful birds are severely underrated and are real gems to behold.
A Wild Rock Dove
Britain's Largest Pigeon
The Ultimate Colonist
More On Pigeons
Collared Dove Display Flight
The Pigeon Trio
Britain has three species of pigeons that regularly use our gardens. The best known of the three, is the one that packs into town squares and urban streets; the feral pigeon, a highly variable species, in terms of colour and plumage; remarkably, each individual is different. It originated from a creature called the rock dove, which still exists in the wild, albeit, only in far flung parts of the world, such as Atlantic sea-cliffs and Saharan rock formations. It's domestication began many centuries ago, and continues unabated today. White doves, carrier pigeons, racing pigeons and fantail pigeons are all descended from rock doves, and the versions that have escaped from pigeon lofts and dovecotes to live wild on man-made cliffs and concrete formations are birds of great adaptability and purpose. Carrier pigeons have fed armies and saved lives. Racing pigeons contain enough information in their tiny brains to take them across vast continents with street number accuracy. They are historically and scientifically remarkable, and yet we still despise them.
The woodpigeon is the big pigeon with the white patch on either side of its neck, and with the permanently astonished expression. It always looks plump and healthy, and hence especially ill-deserving of the food we put out on our bird tables. We see it everywhere, and know of its abundance. And it is, at various times according to vagaries of population, the most numerous bird in the country. But the question is: do we love a successful species? If we were neutral, then we would have no trouble in admiring this serial winner of our farms and streets.
The smallest of the trio is the fawn coloured collared dove (pigeons and doves are effectively the same thing). Of the three it has the longest tail and the slimmest frame and a signature black and white ring around its neck. It looks the least offensive, yet it holds the honour of being one of the most astonishing bird colonists of modern times. As recently as 1954 there were no collared doves in the British Isles at all, and yet by the end of the last century, just under fifty years later, there were an incredible 200,000 pairs. They spread explosively, one moment absent in a location, the next abundant; all of this achieved under their own steam, without any human interference at all. Like the feral pigeon, the collared dove has a hidden history.
These three characters, then, should really be appreciated more, and welcomed into the garden. They should be fed and pampered and spoken about over garden fences. People should write about them in local papers, as they do about robins. They are just as interesting and involving as any other garden birds after all.
Even if it were not for their remarkable histories and capabilities, we could still indulge a regard for pigeons on sole account of their very pleasing flight-displays. From the milder days of midwinter to the sultry days of July, pigeons take to the air to announce their ownership of our roofs, trees or gardens. These carefully choreographed advertising flights are as much a part of enjoying the spring as seeing the first swallow or delighting in the first bloom of crocus, and few bird displays are as easy to observe and enjoy. Each species follows a different aerial routine over and above the garden, making patterns in the sky. It's like one's own personal air-show, only cheaper and much quieter.
The collared dove launches its display from a rooftop or aerial, suddenly interrupting a bout of cooing to set off skywards and fly vertically with very fast and full flaps of its wings- so full in fact that they often make a clap or two. After a fast climb taking it up to 30 feet or so, it levels out, spreads its wings and tail, floats for a moment, then free-falls in a straight line or a gentle spiral. It lands upon the same or another high perch, utters a self-satisfied high-pitched purring (sounding a bit like a roll-up party trumpet) and looks around to challenge other males to do the same.
The Woodpigeon Call
A Fascinating Feature On The Feral Pigeon
Slaps And Claps
Woodpigeons also take to the air during long periods of territorial cooing, as if they had suddenly grown tired of perch-bound proclamation and decided that they needed a change. They set off from a tree and fly in a shallow arc upwards and straight ahead, like a plane taking off, their wing-beats increasing in speed until these, too, suddenly make sharp, slapping sounds. This is the signal for an instant stall, as if the performer had been shot by its very own wing-claps. With wings and tail spread, it begins to glide downwards again, accelerating towards the ground in a straight line. At an appropriate moment it flaps its wings again to level out and then, if the fancy takes it, it repeats its roller-coaster ride until the need to show off subsides.
Feral pigeons adopt a minimalist approach. They fly out from their nesting perches, on a window ledge or roof perhaps, and, in true pigeon style, clap their wings a few times. Thrilled by making such a sound, they then simply glide forward, with wings held upwards in a V, turn and come into land, perhaps adding a little flourish by rocking from side to side at the last moment. It's not a very impressive sight but, for feral pigeons, the real display business takes place on the ground. We've all seen it, in our local parks or on our roofs. A male sidles up to a female, ruffling his feathers and spreading his tail, uttering his stammering coo, bowing, circling around her to get her attention. As often as not the female treats this approach with indifferent disdain, eyeing him with a cold stare.
Pigeons are familiar of course, and perhaps over-familiar, which is why we struggle to appreciate them. But why not play this game: watch the pigeons flying their routines above your garden, and give each one a mark for artistic merit every time they try, as if you were the judge at a skating contest? Some will make better wing-claps, some will make better spirals or better forward dives; you'll soon spot the difference between individual efforts. As you do so, you'll realise what an asset a pigeon is to a garden. And you'll never see a robin performing a display like one of these.
© 2014 James Kenny