Skip to main content

Game Bird Hunting

Game Bird Hunting

Species Highlight: Band-tailed Pigeon

The mention of pigeons to many people may conjure up images of our familiar city or barn pigeons, the rock pigeon (Columbia livia). These birds are native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa and have spread across the world as a domesticated species. Domestic rock pigeons were introduced to North America in the 17th century and eventually colonized much of North America.

However, this article is about Oregon’s native forest pigeon; the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata). Band-tails, along with the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratoris), were North America’s only two widespread, native pigeon species, however the passenger pigeon became extinct by 1914. Luckily, the band-tailed pigeon escaped this fate.

In North America, band-tailed pigeons are a bird of the west, seasonally occupying parts of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas. Oregon’s birds are part of the Pacific Coast Population, made up of the birds from British Columbia to northern Baja California. In Oregon, these birds are common summer residents from the Cascades west, with only the occasional bird spotted further east. Additionally, most band-tails depart Oregon during the winter for areas in California or further south, but it isn’t unheard of to find an over-wintering bird.

So, what makes a Band-tailed Pigeon different than a Rock Pigeon? Well, lets start with habitat. While it is possible to see the two species together in limited circumstances, band-tailed pigeons are mostly a bird of the forests, though they do use wooded portions of cities and towns, and agricultural areas before wild growing (native) berries are available, especially those in the foothills. You’d be hard pressed to find a band-tail swirling round a skyscraper in Portland or exploding out from under an overpass on Interstate 5 as you head down the road, just as you’d be hard pressed to find a rock pigeon sailing over a forested ridge in the Coast Range.

Band-tails are larger than rock pigeons, and their color is a blue gray on the back and wings, with a purple-gray head and breast. Their flight feathers are dark, appearing black, while most of their long, square tail is light gray. The adults show a white collar on the back of the neck, with a bronzy patch of iridescent feathers below it, above the shoulders. Their feet are yellow and their bill is yellow with a black tip. Because rock pigeons have been domesticated, the feral birds living in our cities and countryside come in a variety of colors. Generally, they show some degree of gray or gray blue but are often white or fawn colored. They typically have a distinct white-rump and a dark band to the tip of the tail, unlike the light gray of the band-tail. Additionally, the feet of rock pigeons are pinkish red, and the bill is dark.

Band-tailed pigeons consume a variety of different foods, typically seeds, nuts, fruits, and buds. Here in Oregon, some of the most common foods are cherry, cascara and elderberry berries. If you find an area with an abundance of these native berries, usually the pigeons won’t be far away. Our Pacific Coast band-tails also have the unique habitat of visiting mineral springs. These are natural or artificial sites where pigeons drink water that is high in sodium. Specifically what function this serves in the pigeons isn’t known, as band-tails from other parts of the range are not known to consistently visit mineral springs.

It is this habitat of visiting mineral springs that helps biologists track the population status of band-tails. ODFW has been conducting pigeon surveys at mineral springs for many decades, and for the past 20 years, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California have been conducting coordinated surveys in July to track changes in abundance and to help inform decisions about appropriate hunting season limits.

And on the topic of the hunting season, you may have noticed the season is relatively short with a small bag limit. Band-tailed pigeons have a relatively low reproductive rate for a game bird, laying only one egg in each nest, though they may nest several times during a summer. Experience with more liberal hunting regulations has shown that the population can be reduced due to overharvest, which has led to a conservative regulations policy for this unique game bird.

And if you’re looking to give hunting band-tails a try this fall, a couple of popular ways to do it are to find them feeding on their favorite berries in a timber cut or find a pass over a ridge, where pigeons are moving from one drainage to another. If you do choose to go, don’t forget to get your band-tailed pigeon permit, which helps the department and the USFWS track harvest for this unique species.