These big birds are a familiar sight below our bird feeders - what garden would be complete without a wood pigeon ambling around! Wood pigeons were once considered shy and lived only in woodland areas, but they have come to feel at home in our urban environments and are now our most commonly seen species of pigeon. They belong to the Columbidae family along with doves and have enormous appetites, feeding on vegetables (and vegetable seedlings), seeds, nuts, acorns, leaves and grains and have a reputation for decimating entire fields of crops in a matter of hours. You can recognise a wood pigeons by their slate blue colouring, enhanced with touches of irredescent purple, pink and green. They have white patches on the neck and a distinctive “coo-cooo-coo coo-coo” call. The female Wood pigeon makes flat nests (often in impractical places) using twigs provided by the male. She lays as many as six clutches of two white eggs throughout the year to allow for the wood pigeon’s poor survival rates - chicks take a while to learn to fly and often fall out of the nest.
Even after fledging, piegons are clumsy fliers and frequently fall prey to hawks. Eggs are incubated for 17-19 days and hatchlings are fed for their first month on crop milk, a nutrient rich liquid made in a pouch in the pigeon’s digestive system - only pigeons, flamingos and penguins have evolved to produce this substance. Wood pigeons are gregarious and form huge flocks but are fiercely territorial when breeding - when chasing off a potential competitor doesn’t work, male wood pigeons will fight viciously to defend their patch. Pigeons are the oldest domesticated birds and have lived closely alongside us for thousands of years. They were employed as messengers by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, as well as being kept in specially built dovecotes for food. Dovecotes can be seen throughout Europe and the Middle East and North America and pigeon pie was a popular meal until the nineteenth century. Pigeons are able to fly long distances in the worst of conditions, and pigeon racing is a competitive sport. Two hundred thousand wood pigeons were enlisted to help the second world war effort by the British Armed Forces and thirty two were awarded the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross for their bravery.