This is the first time in many years when I have spent most of the winter and spring at home. My bird feeders are now reliably filled, and I have enjoyed re-discovering which birds frequent my overgrown yard. A couple months ago early one morning, before looking outside, I let my dog out the front door. She tore around the side of the house towards the feeders. Afraid she was after a foraging skunk I was relieved when I heard a loud whooshing and flapping of wings and saw 20 band-tailed pigeons disappear into the redwoods. Now, daily, small flocks of the pigeons visit my feeders inhaling whatever seed is offered. Having the opportunity to study the birds at such close range has made me realize again how lovely they are, with their crisp white nuchal patch (on the back of the head), iridescent nape and rich, cadmium yellow cere and legs.
Growing up in New England, the only dove or pigeon I knew was the mourning dove, so when I first came to California I was impressed and thrilled to see the large, wild band-tailed pigeon. There was a spot along Bolinas Lagoon, near where I lived, where, early in the morning or in the late afternoon, small flocks would come to drink. And then I sort of forgot about them.
Band-tailed pigeons are our only common forest pigeon (red-billed pigeon being an uncommon resident of southern Texas). They are found in the western U.S. from sea level to 14,000 feet, occurring most commonly in coniferous and mixed coniferous hardwood forests. Their range extends from Alaska to northern Argentina, (although depending on one’s taxonomic preference, birds from Costa Rica south are considered a different species, white-naped pigeon, P. allbilinea). The Pacific Coast subspecies of band-tailed pigeon breeds from Southern Alaska to Northern Baja and winters from north central California to Baja. Somewhat nomadic, they range widely, looking for food even during the breeding season. In winter, they are at times encountered feeding in flocks of 100 or more in coastal agricultural fields but prefer their native foods. The latter consists of the buds, seeds and berries of plants such as oaks (acorns), toyon (Christmas berry), elderberry, huckleberry and madrone, so when those wild crops are available, they return to the forest.
Quite shy, band-tailed pigeons can be difficult to see well unless at a feeder or with a scope when they forage or sun themselves at the tops of trees. (Perhaps some of this shyness is because they are still regularly hunted). Even when they are at my feeders, I have to sneak up to the window to get a good look in order not to disturb them. Any movement will cause them to erupt back into the treetops. In summer, they breed in the forest around my house: a single egg laid in a simple well-hidden nest in a redwood or Douglas fir. I have read they can have up to three successful nesting attempts in a single breeding season, depending on the latter’s length and the available fruit and seed crop. Throughout the spring and summer, when I walk through the redwoods, I hear the pigeons’ husky two note cooing. In the distance it can sound a bit like an owl or perhaps even a motmot. Although band-tailed pigeons are abundant, unfortunately like many common species, when one looks at the “big picture,” there is an overall yearly declining trend in their population.
I have had so much fun the past months watching and sketching these wild pigeons that I was surprised to find out how many people in my small town thought they were the same species as the feral pigeons seen in downtown Santa Cruz. Then when perusing the Internet, to my dismay, I came across several blogs where people complained about band-tailed pigeons eating all the seed at their feeders. My first thought was to suggest they plant an elderberry, or to recommend not putting out seed, but then I paused. This is the 100 year anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius. The band-tailed pigeon is thought to be its closest genetic relative. What would those people be saying if hundreds of thousands of birds descended on their feeders? An unrealistic notion, but it reminded me how a species one generation looks on as a blight, another values. So let’s appreciate what we have now even if the band-tailed pigeons do put a little pressure on our seed money.
About the Author
Sophie has travelled from the Antarctic to the Arctic and numerous places in between to both draw and study birds. She co-authored and illustrated a Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (Oxford University Press), a Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the Pacific Coast (University California Press) and written and illustrated three children’s books about research projects she has worked on (Houghton Mifflin Co). One of her favorite pastimes is to sketch wildlife in the field. She is a director of Oikonos: ecosystem knowledge, a research associate of Point Blue and an occasional employee of NOAA’s South West Fisheries Science Center.