Winter foliage has a clear and predictable effect on some types of quarry, finds Simon Everett, as he looks at how to hunt woodpigeons
With the winter solstice now behind us, we’re firmly into the season of the holly and the ivy. For the airgun hunter this is significant – or at least, the ivy is, because while the holly is also in berry, it is the ivy berries that woodpigeons love to fill up on.
They are fixated on this easily accessible food source that sits above the snow, and doesn’t require them to land on the ground. They pitch in the trees covered in ivy, then work their way down the evergreen foliage, picking on the berries, quite often performing amusing antics at hairy angles, until they have filled their crop. This means they can be intercepted.
You won’t see hordes of pigeons on the ivy at once – which is much better for the airgun hunter, because you can only pick one target at a time, and having a small flock descend at once is of no advantage. What you really want is a steady trickle of ones and twos into a limited area, which the ivy-foraging time affords. All you have to do is identify a favourite feeding tree, then set up in a concealed position to take a harvest from the visiting pigeons.
In the first instance you need to do some reconnaissance, but thankfully this is one time when you can react quickly to the situation. Just watch where the pigeons flight in to feed. Certain trees will have a particular attraction; when you recognise which patch of ivy the pigeons are singling out, it is just a matter of getting into position and waiting for the next customer.
Don’t be too concerned with putting up a portable hide: you can make use of existing cover in the form of a nearby holly bush or other suitable foliage. A piece of camouflage netting just draped loosely will help make use of the most makeshift of positions. Remember the basics to avoid: silhouette, shine, sound and movement. Scent is less important when you’re targeting pigeons than with other animals. You need to be in a position where you can get telling shots in; if that means being upwind, don’t worry about it.
Making use of these limited opportunities revolves around taking note of the pigeons’ behavioural pattern. The observant airgun hunter will notice the birds dropping onto the ivy and make a mental note of where and when that happens. Some people even keep a notebook with them to jot aides memoire as they see something of interest.
Over a period of time, you can get to know your patch and how you can make the most of opportunities when they appear. You can even pre-empt them and be ready to take advantage of the situation as soon as it manifests itself, because while these things are an annual occurrence, the actual timing of them is very weather-dependent year on year. The airgun shooter who is already primed and prepared is the most likely to react and make a decent bag.
Principles into practice
Having made a note of an ivy tree the pigeons are using frequently, I like to get in position very early in the morning – there is always the chance of a squirrel while I wait, too.
It is worth noting the time of day pigeons use certain trees. Early on cold mornings, they will be found high in the trees on the eastern side of the wood, where the sun first strikes as soon as it comes up, unless it is windy and cloudy. This will be the warmest spot at the earliest time, and the pigeons will go there to warm themselves up after a long, cold night.
If there is a feeding tree on the same side of the wood, where they can drop into the ivy fronds straight from their sunning perch, so much the handier, otherwise it may be later in the morning before they start to visit, when the sun moves around a bit.
I like to make use of natural cover as much as possible. There is always something around that you can tuck yourself into, but you need good concealment from pigeons because their elevated position gives them a commanding view of the terrain around – and don’t forget the only blind spot a pigeon has is close behind its tail.
If there are no holly or yew trees to make a hide out of, you will need to make something to tide you over. I actually cultivate hides where I need them by planting small, naturally setting saplings. Holly is very easy to transplant and is ideal for hides, being evergreen. Holly is also pretty weatherproof, with its waxy covered leaves. By taking a pair of secateurs and a folding pruning saw with me in my rucksack, I can soon cut a space in a bush when I come across an unexpected shooting opportunity.
Even if you’re well tucked in, it is still important to have your hands and face covered. The biggest giveaway is the movement of those two white flags on the ends of your arms, and the big, white moon on the end of your neck! Pigeons will see these and be gone as quick as a flash.
A decent face veil and thin gloves are worth investing in; mine are at least 20 years old now. The trigger finger has a hole worn through from use over the years but the thin, cotton, camouflage gloves still work to hide the white of my skin. It’s the same with my micro-netting face veil; the seams need stitching back together, but it still does its job. Over that I wear a wide-brimmed hat, rather than a baseball cap.
Once you have recognised a regular tree the birds visit, set up and be patient. You will build your bag over a period of time, taking each shot with care as it presents itself. You may get other shots at pigeons sitting in the other trees round about, waiting their turn to drop onto the ivy to feed. These waiting pigeons often present even better targets, because the ivy can obscure much of the target area, whereas a bird sat on a bare branch on another tree species affords a much easier shot. Just keep still and quiet, and be observant – it pays dividends in the long run.