Early birds – roosting wood pigeons

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Ian Barnett ventures to a box wood over an arctic weekend in order to catch the early-bird woodies…

The bounty from air rifle hunting may not lie in a freezer-full of prime venison such as my stalking friends enjoy, but I’m happy with my supply of small game meat. The stalker has to endure close seasons on either buck or doe according to species. The air rifle hunter can shoot night or day, all year round – which is why I love what I do and don’t covet either the shotgun or smallbore rifle.

With the current dearth of rabbits in my vicinity (but they’ll be back), I have been leaning heavily towards pigeon as a source of free meat over the winter. Perhaps this is the time to experiment with squirrel meat, too? Lord knows, I shoot enough of them – and they are considered a delicacy in the States.

This blustery, wintery afternoon, though, was perfect for a few hours under a pigeon roost. I had the usual ‘should-I-take-him-or-not’ mental debate as I prepped my kit and the old lurcher followed me to the shed as I got the rotary shooting seat and decoys. His tail was only half-wagging because he‘s long enough in the tooth to associate that bucket seat with being left at home.

Roost shooting is probably his least favourite sport, lying around in the cold for hours with no purpose until it’s time to clear up and I need his nose to find shot birds in the gloom. Yet against my better judgement, I relented to the doleful sighs and sad eyes and loaded the dog into the motor, along with a thick rug for him to lie on.

Having driven my Nissan X-Trail right down to the wood where I wanted to shoot, I unloaded all the gear except the rifle and gamebag. I stashed the decoy bag and bucket seat under the natural hide I’d recently ‘crafted’, then drove the motor about half a mile away.

It’s pointless expecting woodies to sweep in to roost if a vehicle is parked too close. They’re not that stupid! Nor do I like checking zero close to where the roost is. Entering a roost area at any time will disturb one or two birds (no matter how early you are), so advertising that you are shooting doesn’t serve any good purpose.

As soon as we left the X-Trail, I found a small stone and propped it up against a fence post. I walked along the fence line to a point 30 paces away, turned and shot the stone from the post. Thirty-pace zero: check. We walked on…

As we were passing the woodshed, a tempting pigeon sat aloft near the roofs eave, but I shot it with the camera instead of the rifle, knowing that an errant pellet could result in the tinkle of broken glass from the greenhouse behind the bush – and a very angry tenant. Know your backstops, dear reader!

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A tempting shot – except when there’s a greenhouse behind the bush…

By now, I’d have expected to have seen a grey squirrel or two, but their absence paid tribute to the same ice-cold north-easterly breeze that I was hoping would bring the woodies in early. The squirrels were curled up in their dreys. Indeed, it’s only mad dogs and Englishmen who go out in an Arctic blow.

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Woodies had clearly been feeding on these ivy berries

At the exposed side of the wood, we flushed a handful of woodies from some ivy. I checked the shrub and it was clear they’d been feeding on the ivy berries, rather than roosting among them. It was far too cold this side of the wood, so we headed off for the lee side and my waiting kit.204_ITB (11)_580px

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Ian’s natural hide offers a good view and is spacious enough for him and Dylan

The natural hide I’d found a month ago (April issue) has been subtly altered to make it comfortable and spacious enough to hold a man and a dog, just like my portable pyramid hide. Surrounded by beech, birch and tall pines, it’s right in the middle – and so offers a good view of a substantial pigeon roost, which fills when the wind is in the right direction.

The deciduous trees are coated in thick ivy, the perfect shelter for a tired woodpigeon on a freezing cold winter night. And the woodland floor around the hide is coated in pigeon guano, always a sure sign of a roost’s popularity.

An obvious sign of the popularity of this roost...

An obvious sign of the popularity of this roost…

I laid the blanket on the floor beneath the canopy of wild box and the first icy afternoon shower hit us. Wild box, similar to the hedgerow box we use to line our gardens, has a very waxy leaf and offers good cover, so we stayed relatively dry until it passed.

It was one of those days when, as soon you stop moving, the chill starts to bite – and we managed to last only about 90 minutes, taking just the one pigeon. Dylan’s shivering convinced me it had been a big mistake to bring him today, so I let him up to move around before we headed home.

Next afternoon, I ignored all the wittering and pleading, steeled myself to the pitiful stare and drove back to the hide on my own. The tactics were the same as the previous day. It was brass monkey weather, but I had several layers under my warm Jack Pyke Shires fleece. Gloves and a bob-cap were definitely mandatory.

As the chill-factor from wind drives woodies to roost much earlier, I had high hopes of some action – however, I still set half-a-dozen flocked shell deeks around the floor to try to pull in some early birds. As I’d arrived a bit too soon, I decided to first take a tour of the wood to keep my circulation going and see what else was about.

There were still no squirrels; it’s days like this that perpetuate the urban myth about grey squirrels hibernating. They don’t, of course. They simply lie up, cuddled in pairs to retain body heat. But they’ll come out when they’re hungry enough…


Standing in a gateway to the south of the wood, I watched pigeons flighting across the wide open fields. There were plenty in the air, heading for their respective roosts as the sun lowered. Across the water meadows, skeins of geese were coming noisily into the splashes.

Back in the wood, I wandered slowly back toward the hide. There was at least 90 minutes of daylight left still, and the birds, I was sure, would be in soon. The Mercury was falling as steadily as the sun, making conditions perfect.

Pigeons fly in fast on a breeze, turn swiftly and clatter in noisily with their beaks to the wind. Inside my evergreen canopy, I had the sun at my back, making me even harder to spot by a sharp-eyed woody. All I had to do was wait.

With the sun behind him, Ian was confident he would be harder to spot

With the sun behind him, Ian was confident he would be harder to spot

And wait and wait I did. It was freezing… but then it started. The first couple of birds came whistling in high and fast. They settled, bobbing on the high twigs while surveying the ivy. I left those two alone because pigeons attract more pigeons. My advice is always to allow several birds to make themselves at home before you start potting them.


Having said that, it’s just as important in a big roost to make sure you don’t wait for them all to come in. Whenever you drop a pigeon, it’s inevitable that you’ll spook a few and they’ll move off. A popular roost fills up by degrees, with birds coming from far and wide. The best way to bag a few is to let a few in; pick a bird and drop it; then let the wood settle again. Let more birds in; shoot again; settle down again.

Keep a cycle like this going until you either lose the light or have enough birds. Occasionally, you will clear the entire roost with that first shot, but that’s exactly the reason why I favour a silenced PCP over a springer. My Weihrauch HW100K-T is whisper-quiet and more often than not, it’s the sound of a pellet’s impact – or the thump of a bird on the floor – rather than the sound of the gun itself that causes disruption in the roost.

By the time I’d bagged four woodies, I was happy to call it a day, while it was still ‘day’. I moved out to collect the birds and sweep up the decoys while I could still see them, the creep of cold through the soles of my boots advising me to get warm.

A long, cold wait finally paid off

A long, cold wait finally paid off

Often, I breast out in the wood and leave the carcases for the fox and badger, but it was so cold, my gloved fingers were throbbing. So I bagged the birds and took them home, prepping them in a warm kitchen.

Next day, those eight plump, washed breasts were diced and turned into a delicious woodpigeon bourguignon using a ready-made sauce, an onion, mushrooms, red pepper, and slow-cooking the whole lot for six hours. It was a delicious reward for a very cold wait.

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