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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: The Pigeon Project

My house is located in rural open country, so there are a few birds that I’ve had to get used to doing without. I have lots of goldfinches, house finches, mourning doves and crows, but very few titmice and nuthatches. I still get blue jays and a very loyal pair of chickadees that comes every day, but I don’t see too many cardinals or woodpeckers. It’s a different collection of birds than the one I grew up with in the wooded suburban setting of my family home, but I’ve gotten used to “my” birds.

There has been one development, however, that has taken me somewhat by surprise. Way out here in the “big sky country” of large rural fields, I have a flock of pigeons. This may seem strange because pigeons seem to be “city” birds. There are no exposed ledges, bridges, or tall buildings for nesting, but the pigeons have found my feeders and they’ve settled in. My suspicion is that they are utilizing an abandoned barn about a mile from my house as a breeding spot and have laid claim to this outpost only because there is a reliable source of food here.

It has taken me some time to track down the actual date of my first pigeon sighting here at my house, but fortunately I keep rather good bird-sighting lists and I have narrowed it down to Feb. 5, 2011. This is the first paper record I have, but there is this nagging suspicion in the back of my mind that I may have seen one before that. This highlights the weakness of records like these. If you don’t actually write it down, you can’t really depend on your memory!

Anyway, on the afternoon of Feb. 5, there were eight pigeons here. I didn’t see them again until July when they appear to have moved in completely. Up until that point, my monthly bird list only had a slot for mourning doves in the Columbidae family. For the months of July, August and September, pigeons appeared as write-ins. By October, my bird lists had been updated with a permanent slot for them.

Fast forward to this past summer and the eight pigeons had become 25 to 30. Pigeons are magnificent fliers and really quite beautiful to watch, but they are big, bossy and they eat a ton of food. Instead of feeding a wide assortment of songbirds, I was feeding pigeons, which was a little sad. So, I started thinking about different techniques I could use to chase off the pigeons without hurting them. I even thought about training my own falcon, but Susan said I couldn’t have one. Drat!

Because pigeons are an introduced species that are not protected by any wildlife treaties, I considered trapping them and moving them, but pigeons are well known for their homing skills and would probably come back with friends. It’s just about there that the wildlife biologist in me started thinking. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if the birds that were vacuuming up my birdseed were permanent residents, or transients? Why yes, yes it would.

So, I went online and I found a company that sells pigeon traps. Made of wire fencing and extremely simplistic in design, the trap has two one-way doors that the pigeons can easily walk through. They find themselves in a large cage completely unharmed and initially oblivious to the fact that they are caught. Extracting them from the trap unharmed is easy, but I needed some way to mark them.

So, I went online again and found a company that sells supplies for people who enjoy racing homing pigeons. I found a page on the website that listed all of the bands that were for sale and amongst these bands I found the solution to my problem: brightly-colored, snap-on bands that were individually numbered and inexpensive. Altogether, the trap and 24 bands cost under $50.

And so, on Oct. 26, 2013, “The Pigeon Project” began. I put out my normal selection of birdseed that morning, but I also placed the trap on my porch and put a big pile of birdseed inside it. To my horror, I found that the trap was absolutely filled with goldfinches, but then I realized that they could just hop out through the fencing material any time they wanted. I also found myself in the middle of an odd turnabout. I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of a flock of birds that I was hoping to discourage. Funny how things like that happen, isn’t it?

Anyway, it wasn’t long before I captured my first pigeon. I snapped the yellow band (Y1) on his right leg and then took a few photographs before letting him go. I say “he” because of the extensive patch of iridescence on his neck feathers. It seems as though the whole affair was a little overwhelming for him and the other pigeons because I didn’t see another pigeon for the rest of that Saturday, but on Sunday they returned.

I didn’t see any sign of Y1, but I did manage to catch and band two more pigeons. Y2 was a dark bird with white outer tail feathers and Y3 had boldly speckled wings. Once again the birds took off and stayed away for the rest of the day, which actually worked out well for the little birds who were able to eat in peace. Then, I was taken out of research mode by the arrival of the workweek.

The following weekend, I managed to band three more pigeons and I was happy to see that Y2 had returned. I could pick him out of the flock of 20 or so birds with relative ease because of his band, and that’s when I noticed that his white tail feathers were also distinctively bold. However, once he came close, I verified his identity by actually reading the band through my binoculars.

This past weekend, I was able to band three more pigeons and I was fascinated to discover that there was no sign of Y2, but Y1 and Y4 had returned. At this point I had banded nine birds, which meant that of the 20 to 25 pigeons in the flock, about one-half to one-third should have been banded. I also found myself seeing new pigeons that I had never noticed before. Some had pronounced white primary feathers, there was one that had light pearl-gray feathers and another with white speckles on its head.

Please understand that I am well aware of how ridiculously basic this little project of mine is. I’m not breaking any new ground here and I’m not contributing to the scientific understanding of pigeons. I am however learning for myself that out here, miles from anything even close to landscape usage that could be called “urban,” I have a large, fluid flock of pigeons that seems to go though regular roster changes.

As time goes by I may find myself wondering how it’s possible that I’ve banded 20 to 25 birds, but only a couple of the 20 pigeons at my house on any particular day are banded. I also plan on changing colors every year so I can easily identify returning veterans of my project. I’m clearly a “bird nerd.”

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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