The West’s most underrated and least-known game bird
The band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata) is the closest genetic relative to the extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) of yesteryear. Like the passenger pigeon, band-tails were hunted very hard over several decades. This caused the closure of the bird’s hunting season during some years throughout the West. Over-harvest led the birds to fall out of favor with bird hunters. Over a period of time, many hunters forgot all about them. They became the West’s least-known game bird. While band-tailed pigeons are recovering and populations are on the rebound, the decline has been due more to lack of interest and effort than availability. A popular game bird 40 to 50 years ago, their gradual return should be a signal to new and old band-tail hunters to again embrace the once forgotten game bird.
These wild mountain pigeons with their pastel gray-blue colorations and their namesake feature, the long and wide tail with the dark band, are a wingshooter’s dream. Band-tails are a worthy adversary as they are elusive and challenging to hunt. Bird hunters need not forget that the birds are still in need of protection.
Description and life history of the band-tailed pigeon
Band-tail pigeons are native birds and should not be confused with rock doves (feral pigeons), though band-tails are occasionally referred to as the “blue rock.” Despite the birds being similar in size, the band-tail is slightly larger than its cousin. Band-tails are large, stocky pigeons with small heads, long, rounded tails and pointed wings.
Rock doves come in an array of highly variable colors and usually sport a white rump patch, whereas the band-tail’s body appears almost entirely blue-gray, hence the reference as the “blue rock.” The bird’s coloration is more of a soft blue-gray on the top portion of their bodies and purplish-gray below. Adult band-tails have green-bronze iridescent feathers on their hindneck resembling scales marked with a noticeable and distinctive white crescent shape. Juvenile band-tails lack the white crescent on the neck.
As its name suggests, the fan-like tail’s upper half is gray with a broad dark band (appears almost black) across the midsection, fading to a wide pale gray band across the tip of the tail feathers. The wings are unmarked pale gray with black wingtips observable in flight. A unique physical characteristic of band-tails (compared to feral pigeons) is their yellow bill tipped with black, and their yellow legs and feet.
The band-tail pigeon call is a slow one-or two-syllable coo. The call resembles that of an owl.
Nesting and breeding
Band-tailed pigeons nest primarily in conifers within closed-canopy conifer or mixed hardwoods and coniferous forest stands. On occasion the birds will nest in hardwoods and shrubs. Band-tails breed in the wet rain forests of the Pacific Coast from southern California to southeastern Alaska. The interior species of band-tails breed in the Southwest mountain forests of the United States and extend south through Mexico and Central America. Studies show that adult band-tails are monogamous, and clutches normally consist of one egg. Some nesting pairs of band-tails may complete up to three nesting cycles in a year.
Band-tail pigeons are almost entirely vegetarian. These forest pigeons travel in flocks of dozens to even hundreds to feed and forage, often from treetop to treetop. Some individual band-tails have been known to commute long distances (up to 32 miles) daily to feed and drink. Most band-tails feed in traveling groups in rolling flocks scouring the forest floor and trees for wild seeds, nuts and fruits.
Individual band-tails feeding in the rear will fly over their flockmates and land in the front to continue foraging (The Birds of North America 2019).
Their diet consists of buds, flowers, and domestic and wild fruits of deciduous trees and shrubs (especially blackberries, cascara, cherries, elderberries and madrone). In forests the pigeons may land upside down to pick acorns, pine nuts, or buds. Band-tails will also fly into grain fields and orchards at lower elevations to feed. These locations can vary seasonally and often with location. Pacific Coast region band-tails often fly to natural springs and other bodies of water high in mineral salts.
Band-tails can become nomadic depending on food availability, which appears to be a significant determinant of abundance, distribution and productivity of band-tails.
Range and habitat of the band-tailed pigeon
While the rock pigeon is a widespread introduced species, the band-tailed pigeon is native to western North America. The ranges of the two species in general do not overlap. There are two recognized subspecies of this underrated upland gamebird in the United States: the Pacific Coast subspecies (P.f. monilis) whose range includes Baja California, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, extreme southeastern Alaska and western British Columbia; and the Interior or Four Corners subspecies (P.f. fasciata) which breeds in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Band-tails are sociable birds that gather in large flocks in their yearly migrations in the fall and spring. These forest pigeons winter in Baja California, Mexico and parts of Central America (U.S. Forest Service 2019).
Band-tailed pigeons primarily inhabit and frequent mature coniferous semi-open forests in the western mountains, damp temperate rainforests along the Pacific Coast, and conifer-oak woodlands that include Sitka spruce, red cedar, western hemlock, Douglas fir and red alder. The birds live between sea level and 1,000 feet of elevation. Band-tails that reside in the southwestern interior live between 5,000 and 10,000 feet of elevation (All About Birds 2019). Habitat includes a mixture of forests dominated by pines and oaks, with many berry-producing shrubs. Their foraging habitat includes fruit producing shrubs such as cascara, elderberry, cherry, and huckleberry (FEIS – U.S. Forest Service 2019).
Conservation issues for the band-tailed pigeon
At this time, band-tailed pigeon numbers are thought to be primarily limited by food availability, which in turn is affected by habitat loss and alteration associated with land management practices. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, populations in North America have declined over 2 percent each year between 1966 and 2014. This has amounted to a cumulative long term decline of 63 percent. Partners in Flight, which helps monitor bird numbers, estimates a global breeding population of 2 million band-tail pigeons (All About Birds 2019).
Early reports describe observing seeing millions of band-tail pigeons. The birds were heavily hunted and shot by farmers who were disgruntled with the pigeons, claiming they were digging up grain or eating sprouts. Band-tail pigeons had no legal protection until after the winter of 1911-1912, when a large number of pigeons in Southern California were killed for market. The mass number triggered public outrage in part due to the recent extinction of the passenger pigeon and the band-tailed pigeon soon fell under federal protection. By the middle of the 20th century, hunting resumed in many areas. During the 1960s-1980s, legal harvests of band-tails were reduced dramatically. The season was closed in Washington from 1991-2001 to allow the band-tail population to recover from over-hunting.
The hunting of band-tails was once much more popular in the Northwest than they are now, causing many wingshooters to forget and abandon them. While the birds are recovering, they are still in need of protection, including their habitat. Band-tails are currently hunted in seven U.S. states (Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Utah).
The total harvest for the seven states is about 25,000 birds per year (All About Birds 2019). Band-tail pigeons have also been subjected and affected by trichomoniasis, a parasitic disease introduced by exotic pigeons and doves.
Hunting opportunities for the band-tailed pigeon
Think of band-tails as the regal backwoods relatives of dirty city pigeons. The setting for hunting these underrated upland birds is the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Southwestern states of the country as opposed to the concrete and asphalt jungles or barns. Band-tailed pigeons should be valued as worthy gamebirds. They offer a different type of pursuit than other more traditional styled upland birds. Truth is, wild band-tail pigeons will surprise hunters, as these are harder to hit than one may have thought.
Hunting tactics for band-tailed pigeons
Hunters should focus on locating a food source, such as fruiting trees and other feeding areas. Their heavy summer diet of fruits leads band-tails to seek out mineral springs (Pacific Coast subspecies only) to gain extra nutrients. Locations that possess open shooting lanes or positioned along saddles are excellent places to set up. Hunters then can wait and ambush band-tails as the birds pass overhead as they come and go. Rock quarries, tree farms and orchards tend to draw birds and are good places as well to set up for pass shooting opportunities (USFWS Band-tail Pigeon Population Status 2017).
Band-tails are known to sit on the very tips of fir trees, especially single trees that provide birds a good view of any approaching threat. Looking for perched birds on lookout duty is a good way to find moving flocks. A good pair of binoculars will help hunters spot these perched birds and flocks. Band-tails possess excellent eyesight, so staying well-hidden and reducing movement will benefit hunters. Raising shotguns too early will spook passing or incoming birds.
Pigeons are swift flying birds, so hunters should be quick on the swing. Band-tails are known to sweep over hunters heads and turn on a dime, ducking and dodging far better than your typical mourning doves. These birds are tougher to bring down than one might think; extra shells are necessary. Band-tails, if not hit hard, will continue to fly. Shotguns should fire high-brass loads of shot sizes 4, 5 and 6 in 12- and 20-gauges. Those hunters who opt for shooting the 16- should use loads in 5s or 6s. Please note that in some areas and states, non-lead ammunition may be required to hunt band-tailed pigeons.
In the not-so-distant past, pigeon was considered fine table fare. Of those that have had pigeon on the plate, band-tails are said to taste MUCH better than the common pigeon.
|Arizona||Oct. 5-18, 2019||Voluntary Online Registration||Statewide||2/6|
|California||Sept. 15-23, 2019|
Dec. 15-23, 2019
|HIP + $9.98 Upland Game Bird Stamp||North|
|Colorado||Sept. 1-14, 2019||HIP + $5 Ban-tailed Permit||Statewide||2/6|
|New Mexico||Sept. 1-14, 2019|
Oct. 1-14, 2019
|FREE Permit||Statewide |
|Oregon||Sept. 15-23, 2019||HIP + $2 Band-tailed Permit||Statewide||2/6|
|Washington||Sept. 15-23, 2019||HIP + Migratory Bird Authorization w/ Band-tailed Pigeon Harvest Card||Statewide||2/6|
|Utah||Sept. 1-14, 2019||Free Permit||Statewide||2/6|
All About Birds. 2019. Band-Tailed Pigeon. Accessed at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Band-tailed_Pigeon/lifehistory
Birds of North America.2019. Band-Tailed Pigeon, Accessed at; https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/batpig1/introduction
Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) U.S. Forest Service, Accessed at; https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/animals/bird/pafa/all.html
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2017, Band-tailed Pigeon Population Status, Fire Effects Information System accessed at; https://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/pdf/surveys-and-data/Population-status/Band-tailedPigeon/Band-tailedPigeonPopulationStatus17.pdf
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.