The first thing I said this morning, apparently, was that I had just seen a red kite through the bedroom window. I was accused of hallucinating. In my defense, I’m pretty sure I meant heard, but perhaps the hinterland between waking and sleeping was still addling my brain. It’s one of the hazards of warm weather, sleeping with the window open – admitting wasps and flies by day, moths by night, and the unexpected cries of a distant raptor as the sun rises.
Which is all very lovely in its own way, even the fun of chasing the occasional unwanted intruder round and round with whatever herding device came to hand, but for many people I know the pleasure stops as soon as the woodpigeon starts calling. Indeed, they do like to make themselves heard – I’ve often noticed them calling straight down the chimney, I’m sure quite deliberately. The woodpigeon has a bit of an image problem too; the BTO puts it nicely: ‘This handsome and rather corpulent species has not endeared itself with many householders owing to its large appetite.’ We’ll have to get used to them, since they also point out a twentyfold increase in their occurrence in gardens. Incredible.
Not every birder’s favourite, either, and I’m not entirely innocent, having re-christened them as ‘bloody-everywhere pigeons’ in the past. I think it also has something to do with their almost offensive visibility, sitting squatly on the lawn or letting it all hang out on the telephone wires, or their annoying habit of looking, for a split second, like something much more interesting by flying in an odd way. But again, they’re not going anywhere – the population is up 160% since the late 1960s, to a total of, well, millions. At least in the 2.6-3 million territory, anyway, and that estimate is for the year 2000. I think in 2011 they’re probably approaching global domination.
So last night as I was sat out on the patio, eating my tagliatelle and reading Darwin (yes, I know), I listened to the evening pigeon chorus practice and wondered if there wasn’t some way of redeeming their reputation a little. After all, if we’re going to be seeing and hearing woodpigeons every which way we look and listen for the foreseeable future, we might as well find a way of enjoying it. We could start with appearances: the BTO’s page did say handsome, and it’s true. Take a look at those shimmering greens and purples on the neck and breast, bright beady yellow eye, and signal-flashing white blazes on the wing as they fly. Although I can’t say the young birds are particularly endearing, having watched one waddling around the end of our drive yesterday, all gawky and covered in bristly hairs. A bit like me then, I suppose.
One thing I do appreciate is how woodpigeons must be one of the few birds I can identify simply by the racket they make when they take off. They don’t even need to ‘sing’, or sit anywhere prominent; they just need to spook (and my goodness, do they spook easily), and off a flock of them will scatter with a clatter of wings and a crack and rustle of vegetation.
And the flight itself is actually rather worth watching, especially when the males are showing off. Each one is a small self-contained drama: watch him climb with breathtaking speed, clapping wings, tail spread out to reveal a handsome wide black band, then suddenly he’s plummeting –surely he won’t make it – until he remembers once again that he can actually fly, and hauls himself up again. In a direct, purposeful flight, perhaps answering the call of that famously hungry stomach, and off to forage, or scarpering at the sight of a passing sparrowhawk, they can build up a surprising head of speed. And I mean a potentially record-breaking 40 or even 50mph plus. Not bad at all, and accompanied by a gentle squeaking of feathers as if the pigeon is accelerated to such a rate by some kind of mechanical contraption. Out walking the village with the vicar yesterday (tis a very quaint existence we lead here, sometimes), she asked if perhaps some woodpigeons needed oiling. Maybe so.
And what can we do about that song? That slow, leering song? The title of this post refers, in case you didn’t know or hadn’t guessed, to a transcript of what ornithologists suspect woodpigeons are actually saying. Though that may be the Welsh version; I imagine in this rather affluent corner of the London commuter belt it is more likely to be ‘The grass needs cutting! The grass needs cutting!’, or here’s another one I like: ‘It’s your fault, you know, it’s your fault, you know’ (both found courtesy of that well known ornithological journal, Google). Don’t look for musicality or transcendent beauty in the song of the woodpigeon; look for humour. Perhaps that’s the key then, to the woodpigeon winning the nation’s affections. They should play the comedy card. Everybody loves a comedian. They’re a lot easier to see than the clown prince of the bird world, the puffin, and I happen to think they are often just as hilarious, if not so implausibly cute. If you’ve ever watched them feed on ivy berries in the autumn by hanging upside down from a branch, you’ll know exactly what I mean.