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Search Magazine

Woodpigeon: mating and nesting habits

David Chapman / 15 February 2017

Wildlife expert David Chapman looks at the mating habits of the woodpigeon, one of the UK's best-known birds.

Male and female woodpigeons
Male and female woodpigeons

The silence of a woodland edge is broken by the twitters of a few small birds and then a more dominant hollow cooing call: ‘My knee hurts Betty; my knee hurts Betty.’ This five-syllable call is repeated innumerable times by the same bird until others join in. What was initially a gentle background call for the nature-watcher eventually becomes something more like a form of torture!

That said I would rather listen to the contended call of the woodpigeon than disturb one. Many’s the time I’ve walked slowly, deliberately and quietly towards a woodland hoping to see birds and other wildlife only to disturb a wood pigeon in a dense thicket of ivy. The ensuing clattering of wings is the pigeon’s way of telling other birds, and anything else in earshot, that there is danger close by. Its method is very successful, within seconds everything in the area has taken flight.

The woodpigeon is a big heavy bird with a full breast but small head. In late winter and early spring many pigeons feed on ivy berries, the large green, slimy droppings found underneath ivy-clad trees are a sign of that. It takes quite a lot of effort for a large bird like this to get airborne and in so-doing their wings clap behind their backs as they try to create as much down-draught as possible. They can’t fly through small gaps so they don’t even try, they simply clatter through the leaves and branches making a din. In some parts of the country the woodpigeon has become known as the ‘clatter dove’.

Witness birds take flight and soar the skies of their natural habitat on a special interest bird watching holiday. Find out more here

The woodpigeon’s mating ritual

You might think I don’t like woodpigeons but that’s not the case. They have many appealing traits. In March and April I enjoy watching them display to each other. It’s impossible to tell the male from the female by sight but it’s the male which shows off to the female by flying up into the air, clapping his wings before gliding back down with his tail spread. This might, if he is lucky, lead to a period of billing and cooing.

Woodpigeons begin nesting in April and might have three clutches during the summer. They nest in trees, especially in areas close to arable farmland but they have become much more widespread over the last few decades. They can now be found in parks and gardens even in city centres where they have become quite tame.

Identifying woodpigeons

Woodpigeons can always be distinguished from the street (feral) pigeons by their plump body shape and short legs.

For a bird which has such an interesting flight it is really not a very strong walker. The woodpigeon’s waddle seems to exaggerate its short legs and full belly making it look distinctly overweight.

The woodpigeon has a few plumage features which help us identify it. Another common name for the woodpigeon is the ‘ring dove’, a reference to the white feathers on each side of the pigeon’s neck which almost form a ring. As well as the ‘ring’ woodpigeons have white transverse bands on their upper-wings unlike their other close relatives, the stock dove and feral pigeon.

Once we get into summer their identification is confused a little by the young woodpigeons which lack the white ‘ring’. Juveniles can look quite ugly before they develop the attractive yellow beak and eye of the adults. This is usually achieved in the autumn and at about the same time each year our resident woodpigeons are joined by a throng of wintering birds from Scandinavia, some of which pass through on their way to spending a winter in Spain others stay here to feast on berries and seed.

Attracting woodpigeons into your garden

If you want to attract woodpigeons to your garden you can use any type of bird seed, including the coarser seeds which most other birds leave behind. They like to feed on the ground but will also visit bird tables and will happily feed on roofs. Something else they need is a good supply of freshwater. Their diet doesn’t give them enough moisture so they need to drink frequently, they also enjoy a good bath every day.

From blue tits to goldfinches, find out how to spot and attract a whole wonder of garden birds in our guide to common garden birds.

Visit our Home and Garden section for gardening guides, home improvement tips and much more.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.