The Band-tailed Pigeon is a common, social bird in forests of the Pacific Coast and the Southwest.
Band-tailed Pigeons are large, stocky pigeons with small heads, long, rounded tails, and pointed wings with a thick base. They are soft blue-gray above and purplish-gray below, with a white crescent on the back of the neck. The upper half of the tail is gray, fading to a pale gray band at the tip. The wings are unmarked pale gray with dark wingtips noticeable in flight. The bill and feet are yellow.
Band-tailed Pigeons are about the size of a crow. They have a length of 13.0-15.8 inches (33-40 centimeters) and a weight of 12.1-12.8 ounces (342-364 grams).
OccurrenceBand-tailed Pigeons are year-round residents to medium-distance migrants, the northern populations migrating south, though some stay year-round, depending on humans. Band-tailed Pigeons have two distinct breeding populations in North America, though individuals may move between the two regions. They breed in wet forests of the Pacific coast from southeastern Alaska to southern California, and in dry mountain forests in the southwestern United States (extending south through Mexico and Central America). On the Pacific coast, they live between sea level and 1,000 feet of elevation, in temperate rainforests of coniferous trees such as Sitka spruce, red cedar, western hemlock, Douglas-fir, and red alder. Their foraging habitat includes fruiting shrubs. In the southwestern interior, they live between 5,000 and 10,000 feet of elevation, in coniferous or mixed forests dominated by pines and oaks, with many berry-producing shrubs. The Band-tailed Pigeon’s winter habitat lies in the southern portions of the breeding range. A small, isolated population lives year-round in southern Baja California.
Like other doves and pigeons, Band-tailed Pigeons are almost entirely vegetarian. They eat grain seeds, domestic and wild fruits, acorns, pine nuts, and flowers of woody plants. They travel long distances every day to feed, often to fields and orchards at lower elevations than their breeding habitat. In grain fields, Band-tailed Pigeons feed on the ground in rolling flocks, as individuals in the rear fly over their flockmates and land at the front to continue foraging. In forests and orchards, the pigeons may hang upside down to pick acorns, fruit, or buds. They swallow capless acorns whole. Parents feed their nestlings a substance called crop milk, secreted from the lining of their esophagus. In summer, adults of the Pacific coast region often visit natural springs and other bodies of water high in mineral salts. There they drink the water and peck the soil, possibly to boost their sodium intake.
Band-tailed Pigeons build nests on sturdy tree limbs, 10–180 feet from the ground, in trees. It’s unclear whether the male or female chooses the nest site. The male may lead the female to potential locations, while the female may have the final say. The nest is a flat or saucer-shaped platform of haphazardly intertwined twigs, occasionally supplemented with sparse needles, moss, or breast feathers. Constructed by both members of the pair over 3–6 days, it measures about 8 inches across and 4 inches tall on the outside, with an interior space about 5 inches across and 1 inch deep.
Band-tailed Pigeons have one to two broods per year and one to three smooth, glossy, pure white eggs in each clutch. The eggs are 1.5-1.7 in (3.7-4.4 centimeters) in length and 1.0-1.2 inches (2.6-3.1 centimeters) in width. Incubation period is 16-22 days and nesting period is 15-29 days. At hatching, they are helpless and covered with long, orange-yellow down.
Band-tailed Pigeons are gregarious year-round, flocking in groups of up to 300 birds. They may chase each other away from nest areas, but they are not known to fight with each other while feeding, even at high densities. Their flocking behavior may help protect them against predators. A brooding parent may hiss, droop its wings, and bristle its feathers in an attempt to scare away a nest predator, even resorting to striking the intruder with its wings. Band-tailed Pigeons have a long nesting season, sometimes completing three nests in a single year, though each nest is likely to have only a single egg. Courtship happens in the trees, where the male struts toward the female, swinging his head side to side or standing tall and pressing his bill down against his throat. The female responds by bobbing her head. The breeding pair is monogamous, and both parents incubate the egg and chick.
From the top of a tall tree, the male gives a slow series of deep, hooting, almost owl-like coos, each rising slightly in pitch. Males also make mechanical chirping calls while both males and females give a soft, nasal grunt to keep other individuals from crowding too closely. When Band-tailed Pigeons take flight their wings sometimes clap together, possibly to signal aggression or to warn fellow pigeons of danger.
Band-tailed Pigeons are common within their range, but their populations have declined over 2% per year between 1966 and 2014 (amounting to a cumulative decline of 63%). Early reports describe seeing millions of pigeons, but the birds were hunted heavily by sportsmen and also shot by disgruntled farmers, who charged the birds were digging up grain or eating sprouts. The species had no legal protection until after the winter of 1911–1912, when a large number of the pigeons were slaughtered for market in southern California. This event triggered public outrage in light of the recent extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, and the Band-tailed Pigeon became federally protected. Hunting resumed in many areas by the middle of the century, with occasional heavy harvests, but in the late 1960s–1980s legal harvest limits were sharply reduced. The pigeons are still hunted in six American states (California, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, with a total harvest of about 25,000 per year in the U.S.), and in Mexico and Central America. Current declines may be related to continued hunting, and possibly from changes in land use over the last century.
- One pigeon banded in Oregon was shot a year later in Florida, well outside the normal range.
- The Band-tailed Pigeon is occasionally called the “blue rock,” because of the blue-gray hue of its back and its resemblance to the closely related Rock Pigeon.
- Like other doves and pigeons, Band-tailed Pigeons can suck up and swallow water without raising their heads.
- The oldest Band-tailed Pigeon on record was at least 18 years and 6 months old.
- Band-tailed Pigeons are called Paloma Torcaza (in Spanish) and Pigeon à queue barrée (in French).