BTO Garden Bird of the Month – September: Woodpigeon

Woodpigeons are visiting a record number of gardens this year – and they have insatiable appetites!

© Mike Toms/BTO
© Mike Toms/BTO

Woodpigeons are visiting a record number of gardens this year  and they have insatiable appetites!

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People of a certain age, chiefly those who were toddlers or the parents of toddlers during the 1980s, may be familiar with a cartoon called Pigeon Street.

During the cheery opening credits, round-stomached residents are surrounded by feral pigeons dropping in and out of view. No other birds are in sight and there are certainly no woodpigeons.

The show’s creators had got things about right. Back in 1981, when Pigeon Street was first aired on the BBC, feral pigeons outnumbered woodpigeons in gardens.

However, now the tables have turned. Welcome to Woodpigeon ​Street.

Record breakers

Woodpigeons have visited a record percentage of gardens this year, BTO Garden BirdWatch data have shown. 

During a typical week, 87 per cent of British and Irish householders have reported this species in their garden. The figures for woodpigeons exceed figures for robins (83 per cent) and great tits (78 per cent).

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Average percentage of gardens visited per week (January to mid-August). Data from BTO Garden BirdWatch. 

Only blue tits (90 per cent) and blackbirds (95 per cent) now stand in the way of woodpigeons reaching the number 1 spot.

In some areas, including Hertfordshire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands and West Sussex, there are strong indications that woodpigeons are already the leading garden visitor. 

The point is this: under our very noses, a gentle giant of a bird has been moving in and it is now, essentially, seen everywhere.

Fuelled by changes in agricultural practices, such as increased production of oil-seed rape, and supported by feeding and nesting opportunities in gardens, woodpigeons have found a happy niche.

A welcome guest?

Woodpigeons are not always popular with all garden bird enthusiasts due to their large appetites. They can be considered by some twitterers to overshadow the joy of watching smaller garden birds.

But there is much to love.

For example, while most species have to tilt their heads back to swallow when drinking, woodpigeons suck water through their beaks like a straw. 

Your local woodpigeon also belongs to one of only a few species around the world that can produce crop milk, which is similar to mammalian milk and is delivered beak to beak from parents to their growing young.

Woodpigeons can enrich, as well as impress.

They bring sights and sounds of the countryside into the hearts of our towns and cities. Despite their bucolic roots, woodpigeons are now seen more often in suburban than rural gardens. 

Feeding tips

Woodpigeons favour grains and larger seeds, so you can attract them with seed mixes that have high cereal content.

Though they will occasionally try to use hanging feeders, woodpigeons are most at home feeding on the ground or from bird tables.

To prevent woodpigeons and other large birds from plundering too much food, feeder sanctuaries (metal cages through which small but not large birds can access food provided within) are useful.

How to spot a woodpigeon

Woodpigeons are considerably larger than collared doves and feral pigeons.

Adults sport a white neck-collar, above which is a turquoise patch. The white collar is absent in recently fledged young, which is something to be aware of at this time of year.

The breast is a soft blend of purple, pink and grey, while the woodpigeon’s body is predominantly grey, black and white.

In flight, the white neck collar and white wing patches are noticeable, which aids identification. 

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The BTO has produced a free Woodpigeon Factsheet. For a hard copy please email gbw@bto.org or telephone 01842 750050.

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 30,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.

Among the surveys that we coordinate is our popular Garden BirdWatch, the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

For more information about Garden BirdWatch or to speak to the Garden Ecology Team please email gbw@bto.org