The Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus) is a familiar bird in the United Kingdom, particularly around our towns and cities, where they have become rather tame and confiding. They are the largest pigeon species in Britain and are frequently encountered in a variety of habitats, from farmlands and woodlands to residential gardens and parks.
We often see these birds courting each other, but how do they pair up? Do they mate for life?
Wood Pigeons are monogamous and form long-lasting bonds. They will stick together throughout their extended breeding season to produce two or three broods of squabs. Some pairs are even said to mate for life, although they will seek new partners if one should die.
Wood Pigeons are well known for their public displays of affection, which can be an intriguing and delightful behaviour to watch. They are common garden birds that build their flimsy nests in trees, other thick vegetation, or on ledges.
Before nesting begins, male Wood Pigeons go through a process of claiming a territory, defending it from other males, attracting a female and courting her. Success requires various antics, including acrobatic displays, physical combat, song, dance, and romance.
This article covers the love life of one of the UK’s best-known birds, the Wood Pigeon. Read along to learn how they find their partner and maintain such a close bond.
Wood Pigeons remain monogamous during the breeding season, with some pairs mating for life
Wood Pigeons form monogamous bonds during the breeding season, and some pairs even mate for life. The average Wood Pigeon’s lifespan is about three years, and they reach sexual maturity from about seven months to one year old.
Many Wood Pigeon pairs are believed to stay together for successive breeding seasons. With an average lifespan including just two breeding seasons, many Wood Pigeons will remain with the same breeding partner for their entire lives.
Wood Pigeons are migratory birds across most of their range, although birds from the UK have found both town and country suitable for year-long residence.
Their sedentary habits allow successful pairs to stay in contact, which makes more sense than risking a breeding season with a new, potentially inexperienced or infertile partner.
Continue reading to learn how Wood Pigeons find a mate.
Wood Pigeons can be highly affectionate towards one another
Wood Pigeon breeding behaviour includes various stages, usually starting in the winter and concluding when the last brood of chicks fledge in the following Autumn.
Wood Pigeons are territorial leading up to the mating season. Males hold small territories that they will defend with violence if need be. Most trespassers will be deterred by their calls and displays, however. They may maintain the same territory year after year.
Male Wood Pigeons initially catch the eye of a potential partner by perching prominently in a tree within their territory. They may sing and perform their display flight too. Should a female alight in his territory, he will approach and attempt to woo her with a bowing display.
The Wood Pigeon’s bowing display is performed with the neck inflated, highlighting the characteristic white markings on either side. As he lowers his head, the male bird raises his tail in a rocking motion. The tail is spread open while raised but briefly closed as it reaches the highest point. The male also sings quietly while bowing.
On the ground, the newly acquainted pair may circle each other, with the male walking or hopping to keep up.
It may take some time for the female to accept the male and gather the courage to approach more closely, but eventually, the pair will begin to spend time in close contact, frequently caressing and nibbling at each other's necks. The female will also insert her bill into the male’s mouth, almost as if being fed.
When the time comes for nesting, the male will choose a suitable nest site in a tree and signal to his partner. He does this by perching at the potential site and making exaggerated pecking motions while uttering a specific double-noted call. Regardless, it seems as if the female bird has the final say.
Close up courtship behaviour of Wood Pigeons
Wood Pigeons usually have two or three broods per year in the UK. They will breed as long as suitable conditions and food supplies persist. However, predation accounts for many lost eggs, so these birds will make six or seven attempts in a year if necessary.
Wood Pigeons begin nesting between February and April in the UK. Their extended breeding season usually lasts until Autumn, although some nests remain active as late as December.
It is thought that modern crops have allowed these birds to extend their breeding season into the winter.
In the unfortunate event of one Wood Pigeon partner dying, the remaining bird will seek a new mate. A widowed male will attempt to attract a new partner, while a female will approach an unmated male on another territory.
Wood Pigeons face many threats from hunters, foxes and birds of prey like Sparrowhawks. Inevitably, breeding birds will lose their partners from time to time. These birds can live for up to seventeen years, so longer-lived individuals probably have several partners in their lifetime.
A pair of Wood Pigeons drinking water from a pond
Many people believe birds are capable of mourning. Magpies, for example, are known to gather around a recently deceased acquaintance, and they seem for all the world to be aware of the loss. But what about pigeons? Do they really grieve?
Wood Pigeons invest a lot of time and energy into securing a mate and maintaining a close bond. Losing their partner almost certainly causes distress, although we just don’t know how that compares with our own feelings of grief and mourning.
Baby Wood Pigeons leave the nest just under a month after hatching. Their parents continue to feed them for a while after fledging, but eventually, they must move off to form their own territories or join the territory of another individual.
Wood Pigeons being affectionate
Wood Pigeons are the quintessential lovey-dovey birds. The bonded pair spend much time in each other's company, sharing tender moments and even what looks remarkably like kisses. This behaviour often precedes mating.
The female Wood Pigeon will insert her bill into the males during courtship. This behaviour is reminiscent of a baby bird begging for food, although it is not known whether the male actually transfers any food.
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