Woodpigeons have a soft, puffed-up appearance, like animated pillows. There is none of the sleekness of the feral pigeon, or the elegance of a collared dove. On a casual glance they seem to be mild-mannered and a little bumbling, a quintessentially Mr Micawberish bird. I can imagine falling asleep with my head on the breast of a giant woodpigeon. But beneath those soft, easily detachable feathers lies a heart filled with passionate feeling.
As I look out of my kitchen window, I see two woodpigeons on my seed feeder, one on each side. The feeder is at least half-full, but even so, the birds are spending more of their time attacking one another than feeding, pecking at one another viciously, first on one side of the plastic tube, then on the other.
Although the birds look identical to us, they can definitely tell one another apart. Sometimes, two birds will feed together in perfect harmony, other times there will be great discord, like today. The whole tree is shaking and I fully expect the feeder to drop off and crash to the ground.
When we first got our (now disintegrating) bird table, I was astonished by the assertiveness of the woodpigeons. When two landed together, they would stand up as tall as they possibly could, and glare at one another. If this didn’t sort out the matter, they would flick the other bird with their wings, each blow lightning-fast, with an audible ‘click’. Each bird reminded me of a would-be duellist, striking his opponent around the face with a glove. If that didn’t work, the pigeons would fall to pecking one another, until one of them would, eventually, give up and fly away.
The only time I saw the woodpigeons bested was when the starlings and their fledglings emerged.
The pigeon would begin by pecking at any starling that approached too closely, but as more and more birds rained down like hail, sometimes landing on the pigeon’s back, he would become more and more agitated, wheeling round and round until there was more seed on the floor than on the table. It seems that numbers trump size, for the woodpigeon was a giant compared to the starlings and yet he was left flailing around impotently until, with what looked like a kind of despair, he retired to the whitebeam tree to wait them out.
Yet, there is a more joyful, tender side to the woodpigeon.While I was in Prague for business last week, I watched a male woodpigeon flying in a most peculiar way. With slow wingbeats he soared into the sky and then allowed himself to drop, before raising himself again and then falling through the air. At the top of the loop he would occasionally indulge in a wingclap. It was as if he was riding an invisible rollercoaster. Then, another bird appeared, and he started to fly more directly after her. When she landed on one of the poles that supported the wires for the trams ( her subsequent behaviour made me feel sure that she was female) he settled down beside her, cooing and turning back and forth, and sidling closer and closer to her. She seemed to be in two minds: she allowed him to preen her neck, closing her eyes, and started to crouch down, but as soon as he tried to mount her she flew away, as if panicked by her own wantonness. He followed her as she flew fast and low towards Petrin Hill, until they disappeared against the trees.
Some people call woodpigeons ‘greedy’ and try to dissuade them from their birdtables and feeders. To this, I can only say ‘have you seen the size of the creature?’ Of course woodpigeons eat a lot. They are big birds. They need a lot of seed to keep them going, and this seed is not always available, so they have to make the most of every opportunity.
When I was living in Islington I once found a woodpigeon collapsed in front of our flat. When I picked it up, I could feel how thin it was, with no flesh at all on that soft breast, and its toes twisted and convoluted like a Celtic knot. I put it in a box and headed off to our local vet, a kind man who didn’t turn up his nose at helping urban pigeons and foxes and squirrels. While I was waiting to see him, there was a sudden scratching from the box, and the woodpigeon died. I felt terrible. Had the shock of being captured been too much for it? The vet lifted it out, parted the feathers, looked at the feet.
‘It’s died of starvation’, he said, ‘and it also has a terrible case of bumblefoot – I’m sure it could hardly walk’.
So, I never begrudge the pigeons their sunflower seeds. I enjoy spying on their private lives and their dramas. Just because they are common, familiar birds doesn’t mean that I know or understand them. Like so many creatures that live alongside us, they have complex behaviours that we might never be able to interpret fully. Feeding them gives me the opportunity to get to know them better.