On the wild side—October, 2014
by Tina Mitchell
Returning one day after having been gone for a week, I headed to the birdbath to clean it out. Imagine my surprise to find there a pair of yellow chicken-like legs. Just 2 legs—no feathers, no blood, nothing else. It took me a bit to remember the only species we have here with such brilliant, large yellow legs—I guess a predator had snatched a Band-tailed Pigeon and had left us notice. Perhaps a large Cooper’s Hawk? (Given the time of year, no other avian predator seemed likely.) It’s a jungle out there…
A large, robust pigeon of the woodlands, the Band-tailed Pigeon is predominantly slate gray with a narrow, bright white collar on the back of the neck (absent in immature birds), a yellow bill with a dark tip, and (of course) yellow legs. A wide, pale-gray band on the tail gives the bird its common name. (Both sexes have the same plumage, although the female tends to be a bit duller overall.) This description sounds rather bland; but a look through binoculars reveals the exquisite coloration—subtle shades of mauve, metallic bronze, and green—of Colorado’s only true native wild pigeon. At about 12 – 16” tall, this striking bird stands considerably taller than its more urban cousin, the Rock Pigeon. Another similar-looking bird is the increasingly common Eurasian Collared-Dove; however, this big dove is a bit smaller than a Band-tailed with a predominantly black collar rather than the Band-tailed’s white collar.
Band-tailed Pigeons inhabit dry forests of the mountain west—most commonly, ponderosa and pinyon pines, other types of coniferous and mixed forest, and scrub oak shrublands. Acorns and pinyon seeds top the list of favorite foods, but Band-taileds also eat a wide variety of berries, seeds, tender young spruce cones, buds, young leaves, flowers, and even insects on occasion. They forage both on the ground and in trees, climbing around limbs with great agility. They typically feed in flocks, often quite large ones, even during breeding season. Band-taileds may fly long distances for food and water; recent research indicates that during times of limited food supply, they may show up almost anywhere, looking for food.
Breeding mainly in the western two-thirds of Colorado, Band-taileds begin to arrive in late March. The female usually build a flimsy stick nest high in a conifer or deciduous tree, laying usually only one egg, which both parents incubate for 19-20 days. Both also feed the nestling; for the first 4-5 days, it receives regurgitated pigeon’s “milk”—a fatty, curd-like substance produced in the adults’ crops. Gradually, the youngster’s diet shifts to whatever the adults eat. The nestling fledges 25-28 days after hatching, joining mixed flocks of adults and first-year birds shortly after that. With a good food supply, a pair may nest 2 or even 3 times during 1 season, so the female may turn to laying the next clutch as soon as the first youngster is out of the nest. In Colorado, the birds vacate breeding areas, to winter in Mexico and Central America, starting in late September and October.
Band-taileds were originally classified in the same genus as Rock Pigeons (Columba); however, in recent years, taxonomists moved them to the genus Patagioenas with several other large Central and South American pigeon species. As best I can find, Patagioenas refers to the large patagium—the membrane connecting a bird’s shoulder to its wrist, creating the leading edge of the wing—typical in these large pigeons, although I wouldn’t place any large wagers on that. The origin of the species name of fasciata is a bit clearer—from the Latin fascia, meaning a strip of material or a band, such as on its banded tail. The common name of “pigeon” derives from old French pijon, the word for a young dove.
Recent genetic analyses suggest that the Band-tailed Pigeon is likely the closest living relative to the now-100-years-extinct Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Estimated to number in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, Passenger Pigeons in the East and Midwest migrated in flocks reportedly one mile wide and 300 miles long—darkening the sky for hours or even days at a time. With humans apparently learning little from history, Band-taileds’ numbers also plummeted due to overhunting as game and under the mistaken guise of crop protection. With current legal protections, although still a game species, Band-taileds have made a modest comeback. But in recent decades, this species again has been experiencing a major decline of 2.7%/year across the continent, due to as yet unclear reasons.
You rarely see just 1 or 2 Band-tailed Pigeons, at least not for long. If a few birds find food, they will typically be joined by others pretty quickly. A rather skittish group, they often take off as a unified group, in response to an unseen (at least by me) concern, in a large “whoosh” of powerful wing strokes and surprisingly deft aerial maneuvering for such large birds. Sometimes, toward the end of breeding season, we have a massive flock of Band-taileds at our feeders—at times, as many as 50 or 60. They spend inordinate amounts of time and energy jostling, flapping, and squawking, each trying to elbow its way into the best position (whatever that might be). I can’t imagine that they get enough food to counter the calories they expend with all of these noisy, rowdy “fisticuffs.” But whenever I start grumbling about these large flocks of pigeons, I remind myself of the plight of the Passenger Pigeon. You just never know…
You can learn more about these grand native pigeons here.