The great ur­ban mi­gra­tion

Why are so many pi­geons now leav­ing ru­ral ar­eas for our towns and cities?

Shooting Gazette - - Pigeon Shooting - By Will Garfit.

There is an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­ena re­lat­ing to the wood­pi­geon pop­u­la­tion in Great Bri­tain. For some years most of my best bags have been when shoot­ing on farm­land near a town. I and my fel­low pi­geon fa­nat­ics, with whom I am reg­u­larly in touch, all ex­pe­ri­ence the same sit­u­a­tion. It was not that there were not good num­bers of pi­geons in the ru­ral land­scape liv­ing, nest­ing and roost­ing in woods and hedgerows, and so the dis­par­ity of town pi­geons to coun­try pi­geons was not as ex­treme as seems the sit­u­a­tion to­day. How­ever, over the past few years the den­sity of pi­geons in the coun­try­side seems to have sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced while the ur­ban pop­u­la­tion has grown ever greater.

This has be­come ap­par­ent and is il­lus­trated by the smaller bags shot on fields in ru­ral set­tings com­pared with fields on flight­lines out of towns. This au­tumn there was the chance to dwell on this sit­u­a­tion while en­joy­ing a day with pi­geons in the air all day from a nearby town. With more than 60 an hour for five hours of shoot­ing from my hide, and with two other friends strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned, we re­duced the pop­u­la­tion by 500. Those pi­geons will not be dev­as­tat­ing the farmer’s rape in the win­ter months. Look­ing at my game book this trend is well il­lus­trated with bags of 30 to 60 in the coun­try and 100 to 300, or more, when near a town.

The ur­ban, and par­tic­u­larly the sub­ur­ban, en­vi­ron­ment is ideal for our wood­pi­geons with a che­quer­board of per­fect habi­tat cre­ated by gar­dens, usu­ally lawns sur­rounded by shrubs and trees for nest­ing, feed­ers and bird baths for wa­ter. This mul­ti­ple pat­tern of 1,000s of the equiv­a­lent of wood­land glades is the op­ti­mum habi­tat for pairs of pi­geons to live and breed, though there are two lim­it­ing fac­tors to de­tract from a to­tal op­ti­mum. The first is that though there is ad­e­quate food for most of the year, there is a short­age at the end of the sum­mer when the res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion has dou­bled or tre­bled af­ter one or two suc­cess­ful broods be­tween July and Septem­ber. This is when so many then flight out of towns to feed on stub­bles and crops on sur­round­ing farms.

The other con­trol­ling fac­tor for ur­ban pi­geons is pre­da­tion by crows, mag­pies and squir­rels which abound with­out any form of preda­tor con­trol. How­ever, as the pop­u­la­tion of not only pi­geons but all gar­den birds is high, they can thrive in spite of pre­da­tion. The fact is il­lus­trated by the RSPB Gar­den Spring Bird Count which has seen, over the years, the wood­pi­geon creep­ing up the top 10 to now be in the top three an­nu­ally.

The big ques­tion in my mind is as to why the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion has di­min­ished com­pared with years gone by. There are won­der­ful woods and hedgerows in the coun­try­side – cer­tainly in game shoot­ing ar­eas – and keep­ers are con­trol­ling corvids and squir­rels, which should re­sult in coun­try pi­geons thriv­ing. Even in win­ter there are many woods that used to pro­vide good roost shoot­ing in Fe­bru­ary, af­ter the game sea­son, but I sus­pect that the num­ber of pi­geons shot roost shoot­ing na­tion­ally is much lower than in the past. Cer­tainly this is the case in my part of East An­glia.

So what has changed in the coun­try en­vi­ron­ment where it would ap­pear that the wood­land habi­tat is as good as ever? My the­ory is that the buz­zard, hith­erto not known in east­ern Eng­land is now com­mon and has colonised ev­ery wood in the land­scape. While they would not kill a healthy pi­geon and mainly eat car­rion and worms, it is pos­si­ble that just their pres­ence could spook pi­geons, a bird al­ways wary of rap­tors. Have buz­zards caused more pi­geons to move and colonise towns where buz­zards are rarely seen?

That is one pos­si­ble cause for the de­cline of the coun­try pi­geon but maybe there are other fac­tors I have not ob­served. From the shoot­ing per­spec­tive, it does not al­ter the fact there are prob­a­bly more pi­geons shot in this coun­try than ever be­fore but the de­mo­graph­ics of rel­a­tive pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties have changed. Maybe, like the hu­man, the pi­geon pop­u­la­tion has be­come ur­ban, though not to the ex­tra­or­di­nary sta­tis­ti­cal ex­tent I heard the other day, re­veal­ing that 82 per cent of peo­ple now live in towns. That fig­ure is wor­ry­ing enough for the re­main­ing 18 per cent of us who live in the coun­try and en­joy coun­try pur­suits that may be threat­ened.

Have buz­zards caused more pi­geons to move and colonise towns where buz­zards are rarely seen?

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