The great urban migration
Why are so many pigeons now leaving rural areas for our towns and cities?
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?