Richard Saunders sets out to deal with a stately pigeon problem
The General Licences (GL) have been the focus of much discussion in recent times, causing many of us to reflect on exactly why we shoot animals. Personally, I’ve always taken the view that “a pest is only a pest when it’s being a pest”.
It’s another way of saying that I’ve never shot something simply for the sake of it. In other words, shooting let’s say a jackdaw simply for being a jackdaw is not acceptable, at least not to me.
It seems to me the General Licences agree, as they state that pest bird species can only be shot if they present a specific issue, threat or danger. And only then if non-lethal methods have proven to be unsuccessful. Some would say that was always the aim of the GLs, and some needed reminding of it.
Quarry: feral pigeon
PEST STATUS: These birds cause serious problems, not only by stealing grain and animal feed around the farm, but also by contaminating feed, water troughs and stored produce with their droppings.
CAUTION: Shooters must take care not to confuse racing pigeons with feral pigeons. Tired racers sometimes stop at farmyards for a rest, and it’s likely you will encounter them from time to time. They look leaner and more alert than ferals, and also have a ring on their leg.
HUNTING TACTICS: Feral pigeon culls tend to take place indoors, where birds have infested barns or warehouses. These birds are not wary, so camouflage clothing is not essential.
Owing to the disease risk, total eradication from your site should be the aim. You need to bag as many birds as possible before the rest of the flock wise up to your intentions, so a fast-handling multi-shot airgun is favourable. Turn down the magnification on your telescopic sight for improved light transmission and faster target acquisition – laser sights are popular with pest controllers tasked with culling ferals.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Descended from the wild rock dove, which cannot be shot, feral pigeons are fast-breeding birds that have colonised car parks, train stations, warehouses and farm buildings. They come in a variety of colours from blue and grey to pure white.
Feral pigeons can become quite tame when they live in places that see frequent human activity – this can be witnessed where the birds have colonised town centres, and is also the case on busy farms. For this reason, airgun shooters tasked with controlling ferals will often find themselves shooting at close range. Heart-and-lung shots are effective at close quarters, especially if you’ve got the whack of a heavyweight .22 pellet, or even a .25.
Unfortunately for some pests there is little love. Take rats for example. Few of us like the idea of them running around our homes or the places our food comes from.
The same goes for feral pigeons, and when I was asked to deal with some at a stately home recently, it didn’t take long for me and my shooting buddy Kevin to be content that shooting them was within the conditions set out in the GLs.
Amongst other things, the venue is used for conferences, arts performances and weddings. As a result, by roosting on the outside of the ornate Victorian building, their poop not only looks unpleasant, but is a slip hazard and risks the spread of disease.
And by roosting in a couple of nearby barns and a stable block, they pose a disease risk to livestock, workers and animal feed.
As a protected building, fitting anti-bird control measures on the main building is problematic, and the cost of cleaning up all that poop is prohibitive.
As a result, the ferals have to be thinned out from time to time. And that’s how I found myself standing on a beautiful, ornate veranda early one morning – me with a Brocock Sniper XR and Kev with his BSA R-10, both sub-12 ft-lb and in .22 calibre.
Kev had a Hawke scope on his rifle, but I’d fitted the Brocock with an ATN X-Sight 4K Pro as even without an IR torch, the night mode gives a clear image in murky early morning light.
It goes without saying that shooting near the windows of a protected hundreds-of-years-old building requires plenty of forethought.
We’d opted for .22 rifles to prevent over-penetration and planned to take upper chest shots rather than aim at the pigeons’ heads, feeling confident that at distances of only 10 to 15 metres, both the Sniper XR and the R-10 would put the ferals down humanely.
A walk around the building with thermal spotters revealed dozens of birds on the window ledges and ornate decorative structures. They sat blinking at us, unaware of the threat we posed.
Dealing with feral pigeons is not much of a challenge, and shooting them is pure pest control rather than hunting.
The main difficulty is that whilst they will often sit still even when one or two of their mates flop to the floor, they will at some point clear off. If you’re lucky they will simply do a circuit before flying back again.
Both our rifles are church-quiet, but to minimise the problem, we started at the far end of the building, hoping our shots would not spook any birds further away.
I crept into position below a window which was decorated with splashes of pigeon poop. The dozen or so culprits variously shuffled about, slept or blinked at me. It took me a few seconds to select a bird that was in the right position for a shot. From around 14 metres, I aimed at the top of its chest.
The pellet found its mark and the bird folded its wings and toppled off its perch with a minimum of fuss. The rest of the pigeons were alerted now and, heads nodding, tried to work out what was going on.
I cycled the Sniper XR’s sidelever and lined up on a second bird which also fell stone dead. However, although the third shot killed another pigeon instantly, it flapped as it fell and that was enough to send the rest fluttering off into the dark skies.
I folded up my trigger sticks and headed down the building, squinting through my thermal spotter for another pocket of ferals.
I didn’t have to go far before spotting another group of birds all crammed together onto a window ledge. They were fully alert though, thanks to the shots I’d already taken and the fact that we’d also triggered one of the building’s security floodlights. They sat there, jostling each other to see what was going on.
I knew that one shot, no matter how clean, would be enough to send the others flying off, so we retreated to pick up the birds I’d shot and wait out the lights.
It seemed to take an age, but eventually it was gloomy again and through the thermal I could tell that at least half the pigeons had relaxed. We edged forward again, trying to get within our 20 metre zero distance, but fearing we’d trigger the lights again.
Our luck held out. Thanks to some light from the building, Kevin was able to see the birds through his scope and managed to drop a couple before the others panicked and flew off.
These cat-and-mouse tactics carried on for another hour until workers started turning up for their early morning shifts.
And whilst they wouldn’t put the pigeons off, we didn’t like the idea of having to explain that yes, we were allowed on the property with a rifle.
So, we retired to the furthest of the barns in the grounds. We’d seen several of the pigeons fly off in their direction and hoped they’d holed up in them
By the time we reached the barns, dawn was just starting to break properly and we knew that it wouldn’t be long before the ferals set off for the day.
The barns are used to store horse tack, feed and other equipment used to maintain the grounds. Thick pigeon poop showed the problem to be as acute here as it was at the big house.
Scanning the interior revealed yet more feral pigeons roosting on girders and beams.
By alternating between the two barns, as well as a stable block, we claimed a few more, and by the time the sun was well and truly into its stride Kev and I had accounted for 18 birds, all of which were disposed of in an incinerator.