Forest-dwelling, band-tailed boomers

Only a lucky few see these pigeons at their backyard feeders
Band-tailed pigeons, which inhabit mountain forests from British Columbia through Central America to northern Argentina, can often be seen flying over the valley in very loose flocks.

Tumblers and tipplers, homers and carriers, pouters and rollers all testify to the close association between pigeons and their relatives and people.

Wherever you go, downtown parks are populated by rock pigeons walking with bobbing heads looking for handouts. Mourning doves frequent feeders, filling their crops with millet. More recently, Eurasian collared doves have joined them at the feeding stations.

There is one more pigeon in our area. This one keeps its distance. Only a lucky few ever see band-tailed pigeons at their backyard feeder, and those who do usually live in the foothills well off the valley floor.

They are larger than the rock pigeon and have a distinctive orange bill and white collar. The banded tail is subtle, and you must have a very good view to see it. It's not the name I would have chosen for the species.

In spring you may hear their slow, booming call from deep in the forest. I suspect the call of the band-tailed pigeon inadvertently gave the mountain beaver the nickname of "boomer." They both live in the same habitat, and it is rare to see a bandtail singing. It's likely a case of mistaken identity. The mountain beaver is a squirrel-sized rodent restricted to forests of the Pacific Northwest that has almost no tail and no call, certainly no call worthy of the name. Why the name "beaver?" I haven't a clue.

Band-tailed pigeons inhabit mountain forests from British Columbia through Central America to northern Argentina, where they feed largely on fruit. As the blue elderberries ripen in the hills about the Rogue Valley, pigeons hang like over-sized ornaments threatening to break limbs as they feed.

Driving the road to Pilot Rock, shrubs erupt in noisy flocks of six to eight birds, wings clapping as they take off in a panic. Band-tailed pigeons can often be seen from the valley floor flying high in very loose flocks heading purposefully to some distant destination.

Not long ago, band-tailed pigeons were far less common in Oregon. Liberal hunting regulations in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in overharvest. This has since been corrected, and they are slowly recovering.

Several factors contributed to the decline. Band-tailed pigeons reproduce slowly, laying a single egg a year in a flimsy platform nest. The nest is often lacy enough to see the egg from beneath. This contrasts with the other pigeons and doves in the area that rear multiple broods each with two or more young.

Second, they seek out mineral springs, frequently flying 20 miles or more to favored sites. The location of these springs is well known to hunters, making harvest relatively easy.

The behavior is a consequence of their diet. Fruit is a great food, and most people should eat more. However, you can have too much of a good thing. While fruit is rich in some nutrients, it lacks others. For years it was thought that calcium was the critical nutrient pigeons were seeking in these springs. However, analysis of the water revealed they contain no abundance of calcium. It appears that salt is the principle attraction.

Late summer is a good time to observe these birds, especially in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. It offers abundant berries and fruits for the pigeons to feast on before heading south.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.


Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.