Woodpigeon

Bird of the Month March 2024: Woodpigeon

Ah, the woodpigeon…That dumpy, comical plodder of field and, increasingly, garden. Many people probably dismiss them as dim, boring and ubiquitous. They have also had something of a bad rap over the years from farmers and vegetable growers. And with the species found just about everywhere across the UK, there is every chance you see them on an almost daily basis. But take more than a cursory glance at your next woodpigeon and you’ll see they are actually a subtly beautiful bird with an endearing character. They also have more interesting and mysterious lives than we perhaps give them credit for. So, join me in sending some love to this common but always entertaining species.

A Subtle Beauty

Woodpigeons, also sometimes written wood pigeons, are instantly recognisable. Significantly larger than feral pigeons, they also lack the plumage variation that urban pigeons show. Instead, all woodpigeons are the same lovely mix of subtle colouring. The wings and back are a soft blue grey colour while the breast is a beautiful pinky mauve. Adults have a fairly broad white patch on either side of the neck. There is also a faint greenish area just above each of these. These green areas are much less iridescent, however, than in their relatives the feral pigeon and stock dove. Males and females are more or less identical. In flight, a single white bar is visible on each wing. When fanned, the tail displays a whitish grey bar followed by a black one. Pink legs and feet, a yellow eye and a yellow and red beak complete the picture. Juvenile woodpigeons, called squabs (although surely ‘smidgen’ is a better name?), can be distinguished by the pale bill, dark eye and lack of white neck patches.

Woodpigeon
An adult woodpigeon with its white and green neck markings on show

The male woodpigeon’s song is sometimes mistaken for that of the collared dove. To tell them apart, listen for a five-syllable, fairly low and monotone song. Collared doves, meanwhile, have a three-syllable song, sounding almost as if they are at a football match singing ‘u-ni-ted, u-ni-ted’. Apart from their songs, one of the commonest sounds associated with woodpigeons is the loud crash and clatter they make as they panic their way off through the trees if you get too close. Males will also clap their wings together during territorial display flights. These consist of an arced flight upwards followed by a glide down. They are commonest in spring, and now is a great time to watch for them. Display flights can occur all year around, however.

Woodpigeon squab
Woodpigeon squabs lack the white neck patches of the adults

Pigeon Particulars

Woodpigeons are unusual in that they are able to breed pretty much all year round. Most will do so between April and October. But a particular characteristic means they are able to breed outside these months, even when there is little food in the wider countryside. In common with all other doves and pigeons, woodpigeons produce a substance called crop milk in part of their digestive tract. Both males and females produce the milk. The high levels of fat and protein it contains can sustain the chicks even if food is short elsewhere. The only other birds bar pigeons and doves who can produce milk in this way are flamingos and emperor penguins, who likely evolved the ability independently. Woodpigeon young are vulnerable in another way, however. The species’ nests are surely one of the flimsiest of all UK birds. They seemingly arrange the bare minimum number of sticks haphazardly in the chosen tree. How any squabs survive to fledging from one is a wonder.

Woodpigeon nest
This nest is actually fairly substantial by woodpigeon standards

Although Continental woodpigeons migrate south to the Iberian Peninsula in autumn, birds here in the UK are largely sedentary. For such a visible and common bird, there is still a migration related mystery surrounding UK woodpigeons, however. In late autumn, there are often large movements of up to 150,000 birds south across the Severn Estuary and along Devon and Dorset coastal areas. No one really knows where these birds come from or where they are going. It may be that they are local birds moving about following the breeding season. Research hasn’t proved this either way yet. The general consensus seems to be that they aren’t birds from Scandinavia moving about. This is despite the commonly held, but erroneous, belief amongst some farmers that masses of European birds turn up here each autumn to eat their crops.

Woodpigeon feather
The subtle beauty of a woodpigeon feather

Life in Town and Country

Our relationship with woodpigeons has changed dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years. Not so long ago, woodpigeons were almost exclusively shy, rural birds. Now, however, they are seemingly ubiquitous features of our urban wildlife, found in towns and even city centres, but especially suburbia, across the UK. In fact, the results of 2023’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch show that they were the fourth commonest bird seen by participants that year. Fifty years ago, that would have been unthinkable. There are a number of reasons that birds may have made this move to towns. One is that there are simply more woodpigeons. The increase in oilseed rape crops in the UK, one of their favourite winter foods, has probably partly driven this. More birds mean they have had to spread into towns as rural territories are already taken. That the UK population grew by 153% between 1967 and 2020 supports this theory. There are currently around five million pairs in the UK.

Woodpigeon
Woodpigeons were once shy birds but not any longer

The huge increase in garden bird feeding over the last few decades has also probably played a small part in the move. Food is simply too easy to access in our gardens not to exploit. Less likely is the theory that they have moved out of the country to escape persecution by farmers. Woodpigeons eat a variety of nuts, seeds, berries, buds and leaves and in the winter often gather in large feeding flocks. These can cause significant damage to oilseed rape and brassica crops. Consequently, farmers and landowners are permitted to humanely kill woodpigeons under what is called a general bird licence. This means as long as they fulfil certain criteria, they can kill a number of named species if they are a threat to crops. Shooting enthusiasts almost certainly also kill them illegally for sport. That there are still plenty of woodpigeons in rural areas suggests that legal or illegal shooting isn’t a major factor in their change in lifestyle, however.

Woodpigeon
Woodpigeons are now a common visitor to garden bird tables

Learning to Love the Woodpigeon

Hated by some, ignored by many, there is actually a lot to love about the woodpigeon. From its beautiful plumage to its endearing waddle, they are a joy to watch whether in your garden, a local park or in more rural areas. For such a ubiquitous bird, one that we might assume we know everything about, there are still a few mysteries and surprises surrounding its lifestyle, too. And in the UK, we have more than 20% of the European population of woodpigeons. This is an internationally important proportion and one that means they are now Amber listed, despite their success here. So, next time you bump into one of these beautiful and entertaining birds, make sure you take a longer look and appreciate the wonderful woodpigeon.

Woodpigeon

Thanks for reading! If you like my writing and would like to leave me a tip, you can do so below.

Leave a Comment