How clever are woodies?

Woodpigeons - how clever are they?

It seems that every keen Shot has, at one time or another, been outwitted by woodpigeons. Here Rupert Godfrey considers their intelligence and offers his opinion on the matter.

For several years now we have had a variety of bird feeders in the garden here in Wiltshire, and have been rewarded with an explosion in bird numbers. It has been fascinating to watch the different bird species adapt to the different feeders, and the feed, on offer. We also have a small hopper, dispensing peanuts, for the pheasants which flee the two local shoots for the sanctuary of (my wife's!) garden.

The only bird which has proved incapable of finding any food for itself is the dear old woodie! All they manage to do is stand in hope, under either the small bird feeders or near the hopper, in case another bird drops something they can grab. Jackdaws, jays, woodpeckers - even the moorhens off our pond - have all learned to leap up at the slits in the hopper and dislodge food, but not woodie. He just wanders aimlessly around, forlorn, waiting for a miracle.

During the snow, we spread wheat tailings on the ground, which was probably what first attracted the pigeons when there was nothing else available. Unfortunately, it also attracted rats. The pigeons hung around all winter, however, and several have obviously nested very nearby. We've got a much higher local population flitting about than normally, despite there being no corn adjacent to us, as there usually is.

Did they come down from the north in the bad weather, and just hang around when it cleared? Are there fewer now where the snow lay longest? Did their population suffer as a result of the extended cold spell? I don't think so: I expected to see some birds in very poor condition when our snow cleared, but, even after two or three weeks with little obvious food for them to eat, they were still in remarkably good shape. They must have found something, or their maize diet had left them in good enough condition to survive a thin period.

I remember game shooting back in the early 1980s during an extended cold and snowy period, and seeing any number of woodies which could hardly fly. When one did get shot, it was razor thin. Now, generally, in January they are as plump as any cook could wish for. They are clearly one of the bird species for which the current farming regime is a positive benefit, with sustenance all year round.

Their distant cousin, the collared-dove, is also a frequent visitor to our garden, but numbers never increase that much, which, as far as I have noticed, is down to our local sparrowhawks. The dove's slow flight makes it an easy mark for that swift killer, and we've seen three taken - more than any other bird. One might assume that the sparrowhawk, too, would learn of the easy pickings around the house, and visit daily. Luckily, neither cock nor hen has come to this conclusion, so they are an infrequent menace. When one flitted through the other morning while we were having breakfast, all the other birds simply froze; two of the peanut feeders had woodpeckers on them, both of which remained absolutely motionless for a good five minutes after the hawk had gone.

So while woodie hasn't quite got the brains to work out our feeders, he clearly does learn lessons and is very adaptable.

My comment recently, about the growing ineffectiveness of the pigeon magnet, has been echoed by other pigeon fanatics I've talked to around the country, so much so that many are trying not to use them except when absolutely necessary. One told me of his successful ploy: not using a rotary in the morning, but putting it out in the afternoon to show a different picture to passing birds which might have been scared off during the morning shooting. From the number he's shot, it's clearly effective.

It's certainly fun to roll back the years and try to outwit and pull them in without a rotary, but I've become so used to it, that without its whirling presence, something seems to be missing from the decoy pattern!



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