Girton Birdwatch - April 2008
I was reading the correspondence section of a national bird watching magazine the other day and started to feel extremely sorry for the Wood pigeon. One correspondent wanted to know how to attract birds to his garden and how to get rid of Wood pigeons. It was clear what he meant by this apparent contradiction: he wanted to entice the smaller garden birds onto his property and rid himself of his larger visitors. Intrigued, I 'googled' 'Woodpigeon' and unearthed a welter of antagonism towards what is, after all, a rather handsome-looking bird. One detractor, taking anthropomorphism rather far I thought, referred to the Woodpigeon as being 'greedy' and also wanted to rid his garden of these 'pests'. Muttering to myself that birds/animals, unlike humans, have physical not social constraints on appetite, I felt myself wanting to champion this apparently much-maligned bird.
We have five members of the Pigeon and Dove family in Britain: the Rock Dove (Pigeon); the Stock Dove; the Common Wood Pigeon; the Eurasian Collared Dove and the European Turtle Dove. The 'pigeons' which congregate in many peoples' gardens are very often Collared doves. More often than not they turn out to be the most numerous birds in our garden for RSPB 'garden bird count' purposes. Unfortunately the Turtle dove, that classic emblem of marital tenderness and devotion, described by David Bannerman as 'the smallest and loveliest of the British pigeons', is getting increasingly rare and it's a few years since I saw one. The member of the Pigeon/Dove family with which most people will be familiar - and one of the few wild birds that they are likely to have touched - is the pigeon, the Rock dove, the frequenter of Trafalgar Square and irritator of Ken Livingstone. It is almost impossible to describe this bird accurately as the wild version has merged with the town-liver, the messenger bird, the semi-domesticated 'food' provider, to produce an infinitely variable shape and colouring which can confuse the eye (true wild rock doves usually display a white rump and double black bar across the pale-grey inner wings). On the other hand the Stock Dove, often routinely neglected if not misidentified by birders, is believed by Cocker and Mabey to run the Turtle dove close as the most beautiful member of the family, lacking the pale-eyed 'meanness' occasionally suggested by the Wood pigeon and possessing large dark irides which, in combination with a perfect round head shape, 'give it a deeply benign appearance'.
The Wood pigeon, with a population of more than 3 million, is our most numerous, most common, large, truly wild bird (the heaviest weighing well over 1 pound/500 gm) and, it has to be admitted, is one of our most serious agricultural bird-pests. It is also, in the view of Cocker and Mabey, a bird of 'considerable beauty'. They concur with Bannerman that 'the patches on the side of the neck glistening white, the head more blue than grey and the breast a delicate vinous, while the iridescent violet and green feathers of the neck' add up to a bird of considerable charm. It used to be a bird more or less confined to farm and woodland but now it is increasingly becoming a familiar garden bird and a frequent visitor to some of our busiest towns and cities. Ten years ago it didn't figure on The British Trust for Ornithology's garden list, but now it is the 4th most common species identified, easily out-numbering Sparrows and Great tits. This move from the country has resulted from a combination of 'push' and 'pull' factors. Ironically, changes in farming practices have been partly responsible but perhaps not in ways normally anticipated. The sowing of cereals in the autumn - which has adversely affected birds such as the skylark - together with the increased popularity of oil-seed rape, meant that an abundance of food became available for wood pigeons throughout winter in their agricultural heartlands. This, however, led to a population explosion, which in turn led to greater competition for food and available nesting opportunities, 'pushing' the birds to seek food and nest sites in previously less favourable habitats. This coincided with 'pull' factors as more and more people provided bird-tables and feeders in their gardens designed to attract 'birds' - but not Wood pigeons of course! - for their delight and entertainment. Personally, I would rather watch and listen to the Wood pigeon than be subjected to the Collared dove's ubiquitous song which, with its declining novelty value, has lost much of its former appeal. Nowadays we are obliged to listen all day, and throughout the year, to the endless repetition of what one author termed 'a mournful, penetrating and monotonous kuk coo ku'. Beautiful looking birds though!
Spring is on its way with reports, throughout March, of the first Sand martins coming in from all over the county. They are one of the first of our summer visitors to arrive back and the herald of more to come. This little bird, brown above and white below, with a brown breast band and only weakly forked tail, is the smallest of the European martins. They don't fly very high and, although they like water, are prepared to take their insect prey wherever they find it, so keep your eyes open. Red kites are around also: 16th March saw one flying west over dry Drayton and there were two at Landbeach rubbish tip (together with two Buzzards) on the 16th.