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See a sample issue of The Irish Garden!

March 2013

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Cooing wood pigeons

Cooing wood pigeons

Dick Warner tells the
story of a familiar bird.

A generation ago woodpigeons were almost exclusively birds of woodland
and farmland. But they are intelligent, and adaptable, and have learned the
benefits of living closer to humans. So today they're quite common in city
parks and suburban gardens. In fact, BirdWatch Ireland now lists them among the
twenty commonest garden birds. Urban and suburban life not only offers a wider
variety of food resources, it also offers safety - in the countryside they are
regularly shot for sport and for food, and to protect arable crops.

Having them in your garden can be a mixed blessing. A woman came up to
me in a garden centre the other day looking for advice. She enjoyed seeing the
pigeons in the garden but was annoyed that they ate all the purple sprouting
broccoli before she did. The answer is plastic netting. They are fond of
grazing young pea plants, any plants of the cabbage family and they take fruit
and berries. They can be greedy and dominant at bird tables too.

A plump bird, they seem to look well-fed, even when they aren't. Almost
all of what they eat is vegetable matter, though they have been known to take
the odd worm or grub. They tend to have a seasonal schedule of foods. At this
time of year they will be eating the last of the ivy berries, showing a remarkable
agility for such a big bird as they twist, crane and even hang upside down to
reach the hard-to-get ones. When the berries run out they'll switch to young
clover, pulling each leaf delicately off the stem and stuffing their crops. As
spring turns into summer things get easier, with a wide choice of young shoots
and buds, grasses and, eventually, elderberries, one of their favourite foods.

And, as spring arrives, a lot of courtship starts. There is plenty of
cooing from the tops of trees, mainly by the males. Then show-off flights -
launching themselves from a height, climbing steeply upwards, clapping their
wings together loudly and gliding back down in a graceful arc. This is usually
followed by a lot of cuddling and kissing, remarkably human.

Only two eggs are laid, on a minimalist platform of twigs in a low tree
or bush - they seem to have a preference for hawthorn, and like a site beside a
river, road or lawn that offers some clear space around the nesting tree. They
sit very tightly when they're incubating and you can often see the bird or the
eggs through the sparse nest. When they finally do flush and break cover, they
leave with a lot of noisy wing beats, flying through dense branches with great
skill before bursting out into the open at a speed faster than a pursuing hawk.

The reason for the small clutch size is that when the young squabs hatch
they are fed on 'crop milk'. This is a very nutritious white liquid that both
parents produce in their crops. They can only produce enough to feed two squabs.
But they make up for the small clutch size by having one of the longest
breeding seasons of any Irish bird. They start in spring and go on well into
autumn, producing brood after brood. In the late autumn or early winter, when
the breeding season is finally over, most woodpigeons form flocks, sometimes
with collared doves or stock doves, and these can be very large, containing
hundreds or even thousands of birds.

The size of these flocks led many ornithologists to conclude that the
resident population was augmented by large numbers of winter migrant birds from
Britain or the continent. But more recent research has thrown some doubt on
this conclusion. It seems woodpigeons are quite sedentary and only small
numbers of birds cross the Irish Sea.


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