This bird could hardly be called a dove, except perhaps a particularly swollen one, the old name of ‘Ring Dove’ does sound a lot nicer than ‘Woodpigeon’ though as does the curious south-east English name of ‘Culver’. This species is not on my list of favourite birds, and I daresay that you would have great difficulty to find a birder who does, yet that does not mean I do not like it in some ways. The Woodpigeon, to note its negative qualities, is ridiculously common to the extent that it is literally impossible to go outside anywhere in Britain and not see one. It also looks obese and is rather clumsy (its scientific name of Calumba Palumbus also sounds quite unsubtle), I recall finding a dead individual beneath a tree with sticks jammed in its feathers and flesh; it had clearly flown straight into a branch in a classic display of idiocy. Not to mention the fact that it is one of the noisiest birds in Europe; with a sonorous song often belted down chimneys, it also frequently clatters explosively out of trees at the sight of a human (with good reason too). They also hog bird feeders and scoff vast quantities of food on farmland and in gardens, they are also a nuisance to birders; in low light (a frequent occurrence in England) a flying pigeon has this strange ability to appear to be any number of rare and interesting birds – from falcons to hawks and cuckoos.
Yet despite it making itself an unavoidable nuisance, this ubiquitous bird has its good points. If you really properly look at a Woodpigeon in good light you will see that it has an understated beauty that is overlooked by almost everyone except a few enlightened artists. Its puffed up breast is an unusual shade of purplish pink, like an almost-ripe plum or a fresh bruise, that in some lights appears to be washed out orange. Its small head is the colour of a plump sloe, set off artistically by a paint-brush dab of chalk-white positioned immediately below a flashing metallic green patch on the ruffled neck. The main part of its hulking body is a flat grey, but even this dullness is enlivened by a waxing crescent of lunar white running along the wing edge – which in flight expands into the shape of an apple slice and is a key identification feature. At the other end of the body; right at the tip of the wedge of feathers known as the ‘tail’, the grey is again made more interesting by a strong, wide band of black. I suspect that if the Woodpigeon was, and always had been, a very scarce bird not often encountered, that more people would gaze in delight at its colours and symmetry than do currently.
This out-sized dove is also a rather amorous chap; they have been recorded breeding in every month of the year and often have 2 or 3 broods (of two eggs each) in a twelvemonth, which perhaps explains why their estimated UK population is around 3.1 million pairs (rising to a max of 10 million in winter thanks to visitors from the continent). You have probably noticed the males displays already this year; when on a branch a male will approach a female with head bowed, breast puffed and its tail raised in a fan while it coos with great force – this will (rarely) lead to copulation or (almost always) the female fluttering off without so much as a backward glance. In flight the males perform a simple (a kind way of saying ‘looks lazy’) but distinctive display where the bird flies from a perch in an upward curve, upon reaching the zenith of said curve the male claps his wings together several times then descends the curve in a steady glide. Not much can be said for the nest itself which would look better if a child picked up a bunch of sticks and chucked them on a branch. Even less can be said for the young – called ‘squabs’ – which are violently and hideously ugly.
Woodpigeons do have a couple of quite interesting features shared by few other birds; they have the ability to drink water without having to scoop it up in their bills and tip back their heads – they can suck it up like mammals. Their other party trick is that the squabs are fed on a fluid called ‘crop-milk’ produced by the adults which is highly nutritious – this is only found elsewhere in Greater Flamingos and Emperor penguins (as well as all other pigeons). Perhaps because of these unusual features as well as their regular breeding and commonness, they have been the subject of many studies and even have their own New Naturalist monograph. So maybe I don’t look twice at Woodpigeons every day, and I don’t expect anyone else to unless you are writing a monograph on them, but every now and again it would be nice if we could all look past its everyday-ness and appreciate the bird for its beauty and uniqueness.