Try to walk carefully through the woods in Suffolk in the hope of encountering wildlife close up, and before too long it is likely one bird will break the spell.
There it is again, a wood pigeon taking off in a loud clatter and flap of its wings, signalling to all creatures that an intruder is in the vicinity. It is a sentinel, a watcher in the woods, high up in the branches, so it can spot danger below.
Wood pigeons are despised in some quarters, regarded as a pest and faintly ridiculous. They are also so common that it is easy to take them for granted. But for me, without them our countryside would be poorer for it.
In the depth of winter, their numbers swelled by migrants from Scandinavia, wood pigeons add a dynamism to the bleak landscape as they motor through the air with a high tempo wing beat and flashes of their white wing chevrons.
While wood pigeons are renowned for their speed in flight, they also perform aerial acrobatics. In spring when males are looking for a mate, they will soar steeply upwards, sometimes clapping their wings, before gliding down with their tail feathers spread. They look like they are having a wonderful time.
In summer, the unmistakeable five note croon (some say it sounds like ‘take two cows taffy’) of the wood pigeon adds a mellow cooing to the symphony of birdsong; a soothing melody as the sun goes down. On a recent Radio 4 programme nature writer Hugh Thomson talked about his love for this “brooding liquid call” – something that had developed during childhood holidays in Suffolk. He described the soft murmur of wood pigeons as “one of the greatest pleasures Britain can provide.”
But it is not just the song that makes the wood pigeon stand out. They have a considerable presence and are much larger than their relatives, collared doves and feral pigeons. Looked at closely, there is much to admire in their colouring – from their white neck-collar and shimmering patch of turquoise to the pinkish shades on the breast. Painter Donald Watson likened the colour of pigeons among beech leaves as “rose grey like china in a cool room.”
Meal on legs
The wood pigeon is certainly impressive in flight but on the ground they are less majestic. It is on foot, their head bobbing as they peck away at whatever comes their way, that their waddling plumpness becomes apparent. They certainly represent a meal on legs, especially for the sparrowhawk, which has turned the killing and digestion of a wood pigeon into a work or art.
From time to time, I used to come across a neat circle of pigeon feathers – obviously, the scene of a gruesome killing – and not know what had happened. Had a cat jumped the bird? A fox snuck up from behind? A raptor swooped in? I know now that this tidy feathery display is almost certainly always the work of a female sparrowhawk, who is larger than the male of the species, and able to tackle a bird the size of a wood pigeon.
One time, I glanced out of my kitchen window and saw a grey bird on the lawn. It was the size of a wood pigeon but even out of the corner of my eye I knew it was something more sinister. The black bar markings across its chest and the long yellow legs told me it was a sparrowhawk. It was tearing at the dead pigeon pinned to the ground under its talons, with each mouthful looking furtively around with its terrifying and piercing yellow eyes.
I looked away and when I looked back it was gone – all that was left was one pigeon leg and that tell-tale circle of plucked feathers. I was stunned by the ruthless efficiency in the way the spar had gone about its work.
Wood pigeons are very adaptable and can find nourishment in woods, in suburban gardens where they are unpopular for bullying other species, and on agricultural fields where they are regarded as pests to be shot.
On a winter walk earlier this year, I came across a farmer who was shooting pigeons in an attempt to protect his crop of peas and beans. Around 40 birds were laid out on the ground.
But despite being targeted by farmers, the wood pigeon is incredibly plentiful, According to statistics from 2016, there were more than 5 million pairs of woodpigeons in Britain. One reason for the wood pigeon’s success, is its ability to feed its young on crop-milk. Both mum and dad produce it from cells in their crop – a pouch in the throat used to store food. It is this fat-rich substance that gives the squabs (as young pigeons are called) such a good start in life, especially at times when food is scarce.
According to the Thetford-based British Trust of Ornithology, only a few species of birds beyond doves and pigeons produce crop milk including emperor penguins and greater flamingos. It is a great piece of trivia to share with a companion the next time you get spotted by wood pigeons whilst walking quietly in the woods.