Targeting pigeons at the roost – the countryman w/ Mat Manning

Winter has long been the traditional season for targeting pigeons as they flight in to roost, and Mat Manning reckons an airgun is the perfect tool for the job.

Roost shooting is a wonderful way to target woodpigeons during the colder months. It doesn’t require any of the cumbersome gear necessitated by decoying, yet can still yield some impressive bags if you get it right.

Most people associate roost shooting with shotguns, and I often reach for the 12-bore when the wind is whipping through the woods and it’s simply too blustery to shoot accurately with an airgun. But in windless conditions the loud bang of a shotgun can spook incoming birds – this is the time when an airgun can really shine. 

Fitted with a decent moderator, modern airguns are almost silent so it’s possible to pick off pigeons with minimal disturbance. The lack of noise means that approaching birds are not discouraged as they home in on their favourite roosting spots and it can also be a real asset if you’re shooting relatively close to houses.

The woods where I’m targeting the pigeons this evening are right next to
a field of rape that is being hammered by the ravenous birds. I have already
had a couple of productive sessions decoying them over the crop, but there
are still lots about so I’ve decided to ambush them as they flight back to the neighbouring woodland.

Any birds that I manage to snipe will amount to fewer hungry diners ravaging the rape when morning comes, but there is another benefit aside from important crop protection for the farmer. The breast meat of woodpigeon is absolutely delicious so I’ll be taking home some tasty free-range fare for the table if the session goes to plan.

Weather conditions look favourable; there’s just enough of a breeze to create a bit of background noise, but not so much as to make it tricky to shoot with precision. If the pigeons play ball we should be in for a decent evening’s shooting.

More from our countryman series

The quarry: woodpigeon

PEST STATUS: Woodpigeons congregate in huge flocks that can comprise thousands of hungry birds, devouring crops with ruinous impact.

HABITAT: Woodpigeons are woodland birds, but also roost in gardens, hedgerows and parks.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Pigeon is excellent to eat, and the breast meat is valued by chefs. Successful pest control will be rewarded with some great meat for the table.

14:20 – choosing a spot

When pigeons pick a place to sleep, their priorities are much the same as ours – they want to be somewhere warm and comfortable. With that in mind, Mat has headed straight for the sheltered side of the woods, which offers the best protection from prevailing winds.

Although there are still a few leaves on the trees, evergreen species are a favourite with roosting pigeons as they offer year-round shelter. Dense stands of firs can be very popular with the woodies, and so can ivy. This parasitic shrub clambers up the trunks and along the branches of trees, and pigeons know that its waxy leaves will provide them with welcome protection from rain showers and cold winds.

The area Mat is targeting is a stand of trees with several thick clumps of ivy. Incoming birds perch in the treetops so they can survey the woods from on high before fluttering down to roost amongst the ivy when the coast is clear.

You can learn as much from looking at the ground as looking up into the trees when it comes to finding an active pigeon roost. If the leaf litter is splattered with the birds’ droppings then it is very likely that you’re in the right place.

Getting your timings right is just as important as choosing the right spot. It can vary from place to place, but in these woods the pigeons tend to start flighting back a couple of hours before nightfall and Mat likes to be set up ready to intercept any early arrivals.

14:30 – hiding place

Although concealment is a vital consideration when targeting sharp-eyed woodies, constructing a hide is not usually the best solution; apart from creating additional disturbance it can also be very restrictive.

Changes in the weather and their feeding habits can sometimes cause pigeons to roost in different areas from usual, which can make shooting tricky even if they only shift by two or three trees. Apart from causing additional disturbance, constructing a hide can also tie you to one place, making for a laborious move if you suddenly realise you’re in the wrong location. 

For this reason, Mat usually relies on natural cover so he can quickly shift to another spot if the pigeons aren’t flighting as expected.

One of the best ways to make yourself inconspicuous in the woods is to tuck yourself against a thick tree trunk. It doesn’t sound like much, but the backdrop gives your camouflage clothing something to work against and also helps to hide your outline. With this in mind, Mat picks a spot at the base of an oak tree from where he can cover several promising-looking areas.

One of the biggest giveaways in gloomy woodland is pale skin, which can really stand out when viewed from above. Mat has geared up with gloves and a camouflage head net in order to keep out of sight. A peaked hat adds to the effect by helping to conceal his eyes.

Expert tip: elevated shots with high power

Shooting up into trees with an FAC-rated air rifle needs to be done with great care, as the pellet will have more carry and a greater risk of ricochet than one fired from a sub-12 ft-lb airgun.

The Daystate Red Wolf Mat is using here produces just over 30 ft-lb and shoots accurately out to around 60m with 16-grain pellets. This relatively lightweight ammo doesn’t carry as much momentum as heavier pellets and slugs, and therefore drops comparatively quickly. Mat is shooting on a very large, remote estate and knows his pellets will end up within a safe fallout zone.

Slug ammunition tends to carry a far higher degree of momentum than pellets and is also more prone to ricochet. Always ensure that there is a safe backstop behind the target when using this ammo with a high-powered airgun – taking high shots into trees is not recommended.

14:55 – first bird

The pigeons take longer to arrive than Mat had expected, but he’s not concerned. It is usually better to have to wait for the birds to start flighting in rather than spooking dozens of early arrivals as you crunch your way through the woods.

Mat has been waiting for almost half an hour when he gets his first chance. First a small group of birds drops in further down the woods, way out of range, but then he glimpses another pair through the treetops.

The pigeons circle once before opening their wings and gliding down. One of them disappears amongst the branches about 35m away, but the other is a little closer and in clear view.

Pigeons are usually on high alert when they first pitch in and have an uncanny ability to spot the slightest movement, so Mat shoulders his gun extremely slowly. Fortunately, he hardly has to move his feet as he lines up for the shot and he soon has the unsuspecting woodie in his sight picture.

The pigeon is perched on a dead branch at the top of a tree and is very clearly silhouetted. Leaning into the oak for additional support, Mat settles the crosshairs on the bird’s neck and touches off the trigger.

The pellet connects with a ‘whack’, knocking the bird from its lofty perch and sending it toppling down through the branches and into the undergrowth with a crash.

15:00 – quick pick-up

The shot pigeon dropped like a stone and appeared to be very cleanly killed, but Mat still decides to quickly break cover and retrieve it. Had the bird fallen onto open ground where it could easily be found, Mat would have left it where it fell and collected it at the end of the session to keep any disturbance to a minimum, but he doesn’t want to risk losing this one in the gloom.

Losing shot birds in the undergrowth is extremely frustrating, so whether you’re planning to pick them immediately or at the end of the session it pays to make a clear note of where each one drops. It is also a good idea to take a torch; it’s surprising how quickly darkness can close in on the woods, and the extra illumination can be extremely helpful.

Before leaving his spot, Mat tries to get a clear mark on the branch the pigeon fell from and then walks in on as straight a line as possible – this is important as it’s easy to lose your bearings once you get amongst the trees. It turns out to be a very easy find on this occasion as the bird wasn’t as well hidden as Mat thought it might be.

After picking up his prize Mat makes his way back to his hiding place and settles in ready for more action. It doesn’t look like he’s going to have to wait very long as more birds are already moving overhead.

15:20 – mixed fortunes

Pigeons tend to leave their feeding grounds as soon as the light starts to fade; the risk of attacks from predators increases greatly as darkness closes in. With dusk rapidly approaching, it’s clear that the birds are moving in from the rape field, and more and more of them are drifting over the woods.

Before long a large flock of more than 20 birds flutters down into the trees around Mat. Having so many birds in close proximity is problematic as it means there are lots of pairs of eyes scanning for danger. Sure enough, one of the woodies manages to clock the movement as Mat tries to shoulder his gun and the whole flock clatters away with a whoosh of panicked wings.

The missed opportunity leaves Mat cursing, but it’s something you have to get used to when targeting these wary birds and it isn’t long before he gets a chance to redeem himself. Just a couple of minutes after the large flock broke away a small group of birds drifts back over and swings down into the treetops.

This time there are two birds within range and Mat manages to get a steady aim at the closest one, which is about 30m away, without being detected. The shot finds its mark and the evening’s tally creeps up to two.

16:40 – dusk closes in

The pigeons continue to flight in from the fields, drifting back into their woodland roosting grounds mostly in small packs of between three and six birds, along with the odd larger flock. Mat has set up in a good spot and has made the most of the opportunity to steadily build the evening’s bag.

All too soon darkness closes in, activity drops dramatically and it’s not long before the birds stop flighting. Mat has had a decent session, ending up with a tally of five birds, which isn’t bad for just a couple of hours in the woods. It makes a modest contribution to ongoing crop protection efforts and Mat is delighted to be going home with a good haul of fine meat for the table.

There is no cumbersome gear to pack away and carry back, and Mat concludes the session by picking up the last few pigeons. Working by torchlight, and thanks to careful marking, he quickly manages to account for every bird that fell to his airgun.

It’s a long trudge back to the car and Mat is relieved not to be weighed down with the hide-building gear and decoys that he uses to target woodies out on the open fields.

Mat’s gear

Daystate Red Wolf (FAC)

MTC Mamba Lite

Daystate Rangemaster Sovereign

Ridgeline Grizzly III (Dirt Camo)

Aigle ISO Parcours 2

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