It has been a surprising spring, with many birds and animals active much earlier in the season than has been the case in recent years. Perhaps everything seems so much earlier because of the very slow start to last year, when low temperatures and rain delayed the emergence of butterflies and hedgehogs, and stalled the northward migration of our summer visitors.
One particular feature of this year has been the numbers of woodpigeons breeding early; it seems as if everywhere I look there are birds sat on nests containing eggs or young chicks. A woodpigeon nest is a rather pathetic structure, a few dozen sticks placed together to form a platform. Some are so badly constructed that you can see the eggs through the sticks when viewing the nest from underneath, making you wonder why more nests don’t fail because the eggs have slipped through and fallen to the ground.
Woodpigeons nest in a wide range of places but, this early in the season, most seem to favour the thick cover provided by climbing ivy, particularly where it is growing up a tall tree or shrub. Other individuals place their nests in more exposed locations and there are a number dotted around town which have been placed in trees still devoid of any leafy cover. Such nests often fail because they are easily spotted by predators like crows.
Once you get your eye in you soon discover how many nesting platforms there are in the scrubby cover provided by those scruffy bits of land characteristic of the urban landscape. Occupied nests will almost invariably contain a pair of glossy white eggs; while some nests contain just a single egg, a clutch of more than two eggs is exceptional. The resulting chicks are rather ugly, with narrow heads, grey skin and rather thin, yellow down. Known as squabs, they will be fed initially on crop milk – a substance produced by just a small number of bird species and not dissimilar from mammalian milk – before spending a month in the nest before fledging. Despite the time invested in each nesting attempt, the woodpigeon breeding season will continue on throughout much of the year, giving you a good chance of catching up with some yourself.