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Common Woodpigeon – Agricultural Nuisance Or Misunderstood Beauty?
Common woodpigeon

Common Woodpigeon – Agricultural Nuisance Or Misunderstood Beauty?

From the city parks of Europe to hidden-away valleys in the mountains of Arabia, you may be awoken by the repetitive deep rasping cooing of the five-note song – ‘COOO coo coo-coo coo’ of the ‘chubby’ Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus).

Many people associate the word pigeon with the Feral Pigeon, originally descended from the wild Rock Dove (Columba livia), but the woodpigeon has been a part of the modern avian landscape for just as long and is almost as well-known.

Everything You Need To Know About The Common Woodpigeon:

This species, perhaps more than any other wild land-bird in Europe, is hunted on migration and on its breeding and wintering grounds. This is due to its relative abundance, size and tastiness and has appeared on the menu of many rural farming communities of Europe and parts of Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East for millenia.

However, the Woodpigeon is more than just a staple species of the rural larder, it is a fascinating, even beautiful species on close inspection. Moreover, despite its rather comical waddling gait, do not be tricked into thinking it is a stupid bird. It is far from dumb and is an amazingly successful species, which has increased in numbers and inhabits even the emptiest agricultural landscapes thanks to its incredible adaptability and resilience.

Common woodpigeon adult
Adult Woodpigeon Close-Pp, Suffolk, UK (Photo By Sean Minns)

Quick Facts

  • Lifespan – 3 years on average, but can live to 17 years
  • Weight – 300-615 grams (0.35-0.42oz)
  • Length – 38-43 cm (15.1 – 17.1 inches)
  • Wingspan – 68-77 cm (27-30.6 inches)
  • Family – Columbidae (Pigeons and doves)
Drawing common woodpigeon
18th Century Engraving Of Ringed Dove (Woodpigeon) By Thomas Bewick

1. Etymology And Colloquial Names

The latin name ‘Columba palumbus’ first assigned to the Woodpigeon by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema naturae in 1758. The first part of the name ‘columba’ is the female form of the latin ‘columbus’ meaning dove and is used to describe several larger species of pigeon. The second part of the name ‘palumbus’ originates from the latin ‘palumbes’ meaning wood-pigeon.

Columba itself derives from the Greek ‘kolumbus’ meaning ‘diver’, a term used to describe the closely-related Rock Dove (Columba livia) in Ancient Greece because of its tumbling and diving action, that looked like it is swimming. This behavioural trait has come to be bred into many of the domestic versions of the Rock Dove, but is a trait that can be seen with even the larger bulkier Woodpigeon and its display flights.

As with such an abundant and conspicuous species, it unsurprisingly has several colloquial names. In English they were many and varied from ‘Ringed Dove’ to ‘Culver’, but the name Ringed Dove that comes from the large white ‘ring’ on the neck of the adult Woodpigeon was the most popular name for many years. This name remained popular until the late Victorian period when Woodpigeon pushed it out of common usage.

Common woodpigeon walks
Waddling Gait Of Woodpigeon, Suffolk, England (Photo By Sean Minns)

Other local names provide a rich lexicon and ancient origins. The name ‘Culver’ comes from the Old English word of ‘Culfre’ or ‘Culfer’ for Woodpigeon. The name survived into comparatively modern times and can still be seen in place names such as Culver Hill on the Isle of Wight, where large numbers of woodpigeon would have assembled to migrate across the English Channel.

Another equally common colloquial name ‘Cushat’, came via another equally historical route originating in the Anglo-Saxon word ‘cusceote’ or ‘cuscote’ for Woodpigeon. It was also in common usage until recent times, and can still be found in place names in Northern England and Scotland. The name ‘cushat’ also engendered other quirky names such as ‘Quist’ in England or perhaps my personal favourite ‘Cushy-doo’ in Scotland.

The origins of some of the other English names such as ‘Woody’, ‘Dow’ or ‘Ringdow’ appear quite straightforward and are likely shortenings of Woodpigeon or older forms or local pronunciations of ‘dove’. However, some others such as ‘Wood Pig’ in England or ‘Stoggies’ in North-East of England are perhaps a little more obscure, although given the waddling gait of the chunky Woodpigeon it is easy to see a comparison to a pig.

2. Distribution, Population And Status

A resident species and partial migrant across much of Europe, parts North Africa, Asia Minor, Central Asia, Arabia and parts of the Himalayas. It is also a summer visitor to most of Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe and European Russia with many of the Scandinavian birds heading over the Pyrenees to Spain, with birds from Eastern and Central Europe, as well as Russia also heading south to the Mediterranean, North Africa, Asia Minor or the Middle East. There are estimated to be around 51 and 73 million across their range. The population is stable and increasing and is considered as Least Concern by the IUCN.

Common woodpigeon distribution

Most birds in the United Kingdom are largely resident and seldom travel more than 10 miles from their natal area, though woodpigeons range over a greater area in the winter than the summer and especially in their first two winters. European birds though are far more migratory and more northerly and eastern populations are more migratory and hundreds of thousands move south and west to winter in warmer climes.

3. Habitat

This largely sedentary species breeds in a wide variety of natural and semi-natural habitats, including deciduous and mixed woodland, along hedgerows and scrub in farmland, well as parks and gardens even in quite large towns and cities. They are especially prevalent in deciduous oak woodland.

Outside of the breeding season this species can be found foraging in a wide variety of habitats, including woodland, parks, gardens and especially in agricultural areas.

4. Diet

The Common Woodpigeon feeds on a wide variety of food sources, related to the season, food availability and which habitat or geographic area they inhabit. They will feed young shoots, seedlings, as well as the fleshy leaves of a wide variety of green plant matter, especially cruciferous vegetables such as cabbages, brussels sprouts and increasingly a brassica species called oilseed rape.

They will also feed on winter cereals, seeds such as beech mast and acorns, berries and fruits, especially ivy berries and even insect larvae, ants or worms. In years with poor beech mast harvests they will feed more in gardens and on suitable winter crops.

In midwinter it can subsist entirely on clover leaves or oilseed rape leaves and spends 95 percent of the day collecting the leaf fragments at 60–100 pecks per minute. The pecking increases throughout the day from an average of 70 in the morning to 100 just before going to roost. By such intensive feeding, a single bird can collect 35,000 leaf fragments (45 grams or 1.6 ounces dry weight) per day. The capacity of the crop is incredible and a single crop can hold as much as 150 acorns, 1,000 grains of wheat or 200 beans. The food is stored in the crop during the day and then digested overnight.

Common woodpigeon diet
Woodpigeon Eating Seed During Snowy Weather, Suffolk, England (Photo By Sean Minns)

Woodpigeon also require a lot of water due to their rather dry diets. Unlike other garden birds, which scoop up water and fling back their heads to allow water to drip down the bill, the woodpigeon rather uniquely sucks up the water using their bill like a straw.

Rather unusually the adult woodpigeons will use their rich diet to produce a ‘crop-milk’ to feed their nestlings in the first few days of life. It is a substance rather similar to the milk produced by some mammals, and is rich in fat. However, unlike mammals it is produced in the bird’s crop (a kind of pouch in the oesophagus used to store excess food usually), coming from the formation of special cells lining the wall of the crop.

In the United Kingdom, the woodpigeon began to decline in numbers during the 1960’s when farming practices changed and clover was sown less into winter stubbles. The decline was halted by the increase in growing oilseed rape, the leaves forming an increasingly important winter food source from the 1980’s onwards.

5. Behavior And Breeding

Woodpigeons are often seen as quite boring birds, but their antics can be quite fun to watch in the garden. They are monogamous and preening each other (allopreening) is one rather cute way for a pair to maintain the bond. Such behavior is thought to reinforce the pair bond.

Males will also try to impress their mate, by adopting a rather puffed-up stance with their chest out and strut around the garden, though this may sometimes look like a Benny Hill skit as they chase the female around the lawn in an attempt to impress the female and make her think he is a suitably sexy partner to form a pair.

The male woodpigeon also has a rather acrobatic flight display, which is rather like a stooping World War Two fighter with a short steep climb, followed by a few loud wing claps and then a gradual glide downwards on stiff wings, with a spread tail all designed to attract the female.

Common woodpigeon nest
Woodpigeon On Stick Nest (Wikimedia Commons)

The woodpigeon has a very long breeding season. It can start as early as February and continue through until November or December. The season has likely become earlier in some areas where oilseed rape is grown, though the peak breeding season is still in the summer months.

Once they are paired, they build a rather flimsy nest of just a few sticks, often on an open branch, and usually lay two eggs, though sometimes just a single egg and very rarely three. The nest is so poorly constructed that the eggs are often visible from underneath. Due to the open nature of the nest, there are few parasites, as you get with other species with more enclosed nests.

The incubation period lasts around 17 days. Both birds take turns to incubate the eggs, the female sitting for roughly 17 hours per day, the male covering the rest until the chick or squabs as they are known are a week old. Both parents take turns to feed the squabs, initially on the rich crop milk, and usually it takes 30 to 34 days for the chicks to fledge.

Common woodpigeon squab
A Squab Woodpigeon, Yorkshire, England (Photo By Sean Minns)

Outside of the breeding season woodpigeons can appear to be quite lazy at times as they tend to spend up to 50% of their time loafing around, resting between bouts of feeding or social activity. One rather odd behavior they adopt is to fluff up their plumage and draw their head in, making them appear to be ill or asleep, when in reality they are just resting. Old nests can also be used in winter to roost or loaf about on, so don’t always indicate early breeding in the winter months.

During the winter months though woodpigeons are more gregarious and can form flocks of hundreds, even thousands as they migrate over mountain ranges like the Pyrenees in Spain and France or coastal headlands like Portland Bill in the UK. They will also form large foraging flocks to feed on various crops on farmland or smaller flocks to feed on acorns, beech mast or ivy berries among other things.

6. Predators And Threats

The nests ate often not well-concealed, so may well be susceptible to predation from squirrels, corvids such as Jay, Carrion Crow or Magpie and even tree-climbing mustelids such as stoat and weasel.

Some young Woodpigeon in suburban and urban areas especially may fall prey to domestic cats, with their tendency to feed on the ground and be rather heavy meaning they may find it hard to escape if attacked. Indeed, most young Woodpigeon will die within their first 12 months, either through predation or shooting.

The woodpigeon is the main prey of several large birds of prey including Northern Goshawk and Peregrine Falcon. In his wonderfully evocative book ‘The Peregrine’ JA Baker recorded that the woodpigeon composed 38% of the Peregrine kills he found during ten winters from the 1950’s to 1960’s on the Dengie Peninsula a rather wild part of the Essex coastline, on the east side of the United Kingdom.

Peregrine Falcon with prey

Strangely despite being a major prey item for some birds of prey, woodpigeons have been found to nest close to the nests of Common Kestrel in Denmark, Northern Hobby in The Netherlands and Black Kite in Spain. This resulted in almost a doubling of nest success for the woodpigeons that nested close to the hobby nests compared to those that didn’t.

7. Identification

Males and females are identical and the plumage differences between the four extant races is minimal.

Adult

The largest pigeon or dove species within most of its range.

It can be distinguished from both Stock Dove (Columba oenas) and Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon by its larger size and the white neck patch and large white wing flashes on the upperwing. On the ground the tail extends well beyond the wings, giving it a slightly long-tailed look compared to Stock Dove or Rock Dove.

Common woodpigeon on grass

The basic plumage is a grey-blue, with a more bluish head, mauve breast and greenish-blue patch on the hindneck separating the two white neck patches. The tail has a thick black outer band, thinner pale grey inner band. The primaries and secondaries are black with some white edging to the primaries.

The bill is yellow with a red base and a white over the nostrils, the legs are coral pink, and the irides a pale yellow (dark in Stock Dove and reddish-brown in Rock Dove) when adult.

Juvenile

As adult, but juveniles lack the white neck ring and eyes and bill greyish. The ring takes some 16 weeks to develop.

Common woodpigeon juvenile
Juvenile Woodpigeon, Suffolk, England (Photo By Barry Woodhouse)

Vocalisations

The repetitive 5-note song, though superficially similar to the Collared Dove call of ‘u-ni-ted’ and Stock Dove’ ooh-uh’ call, can be remembered using the phrase ‘take two cows taf-fy’,

There is also another simpler call used in the breeding season, a rather raspy ‘Hoo-hroo-hoo’. The call is used to establish territory and may be reinforced by their rather dapper display flight, though the call is more frequently used than the display flight to establish territory.

8. Interactions With Humans And The Environment

The woodpigeon is so highly successful in the agricultural heartlands of many European countries that it is considered a major pest species. They are shot by hunters and farmer alike in their thousands for sport, food and to try and control their numbers to limit damage to crops.

Common woodpigeon painting
19th Century Painting Of Dead Woodpigeon By JMW Turner

It is estimated in the United Kingdom alone that woodpigeons cause at least £3 million pounds of damage to crops, namely oilseed rape, cabbage, peas and kale among other crops.

Despite large numbers being shot every year, the population is stable, if not still increasing in many areas of Europe. Shooting will likely continue, as long as numbers remain stable and there is a demand for their organic sustainable meat.

9. Fun Facts

  • The longest-lived Woodpigeon was 17 years old.
  • The white eggs contain two pigments porphyrin and biliverdin, which are also both found only in certain species of penguin.