The rich taste of woodpigeon breasts works perfectly with strongly flavoured winter mushrooms such as blewits . . .
Until recently, if you wanted to get a good sighting of a wood pigeon, the best plan was to head for arable farmland in late autumn or winter. Normally shy and retiring, in the colder months this plump-breasted relatively solitary large dove abandons its normal woodland habitat to feast in company on the sweet seedlings of young crops. And these flocks can be huge, not least because Britain’s population of three million resident pairs is more than doubled by visitors fleeing from harsher Continental winters.
Or at least that was the case until about a decade ago, for the wood pigeon is nothing if not adaptable. So while this, the commonest of our five pigeons and doves, used to be almost exclusively rural, recently it has discovered the joys of urban living. In the early 1990s it didn’t even feature in the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden BirdWatch, but in 2000 it ranked 11 and today is in fourth place. As a result, you are now almost twice as likely to see a woodpigeon at a London, Manchester or Nottingham bird table as its feral cousin – and it’s four times more common in Bristol and York.
This is mainly due to changing agriculture. The woodpigeon is best described as an ‘omnivorous vegetarian’ which allows it to adapt readily to changing conditions. So while larks, yellowhammers and partridges struggle with autumn-sown crops, woodpigeons have easily shifted from foraging on stubble to the tender shoots of oilseed rape. Later they rear their young on the calorie-rich seeds. Indeed, this is reflected by a clear shift to earlier clutches to cash in on the new harvesting season of June rather than September.
They have also benefited from a decline in predation. Peregrines and goshawks apart, woodpigeons have relatively few natural enemies (they are generally too big for sparrowhawks). Until recently shooting large numbers over decoys was also common and rural pigeons invariably swerved around humans (gamekeepers used to track poachers by watching pigeon flight). Many are still shot, but this is now much less widespread – something reflected in a marked reduction in the tendency to deviate around walkers. Indeed, in towns they rapidly become remarkably tame, allowing pedestrians to approach within a few feet and now many are invading gardens where they scour for crumbs beneath feeding stations. They are also fond of bathing and it is worth watching them closely here for they are one of the few birds which can suck up water rather than having to drink by the beakful.
The final element in the population explosion, of course, is the reproductive cycle. Woodpigeons construct crude nests in almost any type of shrub or tree, so there is no problem with breeding sites. They can breed in any month, but a typical pair will rear two or three clutches annually, each of two squabs. The parents’ diet of grain and shoots is insufficiently nutritious, so instead the young are fed on ‘pigeon milk’ – actually a rich soup formed from the crop lining. As a result, it seems set to soar higher in the garden bird league table