Bird Lore: Band-tailed Pigeon

Band-tailed Pigeon (Photos by Carol Riddell)

With extinction of the Passenger Pigeon in the early 20th century, the Band-tailed Pigeon is the only native pigeon remaining in the U.S. It is a bird of the Western States that breeds in the mountains up to 1000 feet. It can be seen in forested parks and neighborhoods of Edmonds, especially in winter. As with other pigeon species, the Band-tailed Pigeon is a flocking bird. In Edmonds it is typical to see one or two at a time, and occasionally 10-30 birds.

The pigeon most typically seen in Edmonds is the smaller, feral Rock Pigeon, a denizen of utility lines, plazas, parking lots and the ferry terminal. If you see a pigeon on a utility line or artificial structure, you can be fairly certain that it is a feral Rock Pigeon. The Band-tailed Pigeon almost exclusively perches in trees. Pigeons will come to backyard feeding stations that offer seed platforms large enough to hold them. Look for the yellow bill and white crescent on the nape to be sure you are seeing the Band-tailed Pigeon.

Diet shifts with the season, but it is mostly nuts, seeds and berries. Acorns, when available, are a major part of the Band-tailed Pigeon’s diet. Berries include manzanita, juniper, elderberry, wild grapes, and many others. Seeds, tender young spruce cones, and buds are also part of this pigeon’s diet.

The Band-tailed Pigeon has a long breeding season. It can complete up to three nests each year. It either nests alone or may form a loose colony of several pairs. In courtship, the male flies up and glides in a wide circle. He gives a wheezing call and flutters his wings at the end of the glide. Another courtship display, when the male perches, involves cooing with his neck and chest puffed up while his tail is lowered and spread. The female responds by bobbing her head. The nest site is in either a conifer or deciduous tree. It is usually at the fork of a horizontal branch or at the base of a branch against the trunk. The male gathers nest material and the female builds the nest. It is a bulky but loosely built platform of sticks.

There is usually one egg, but sometimes there are two. Both parents incubate for about three weeks. After the eggs hatch, both parents feed the young “pigeon milk.” Pigeons and doves are vegetarians so pigeon milk provides protein needed by the young for growth. During nesting season the walls of the adult bird’s crop secrete a milky fluid that is rich in fat and protein. The young receive pure pigeon milk for their first few days of life and then the parents start to mix in partially digested seeds or fruit. A young bird inserts its bill into a corner of the parent’s mouth. The adult then regurgitates the pure milk or milk mixture for the young to eat.

The oldest Band-tailed Pigeon of record was 18 years and 6 months of age when found. Flight, flock, kit and passel are collective nouns for a group of any pigeon species.

Status of the Band-tailed Pigeon is mixed. One conservation organization lists it as a species of least concern. However, the North American population declined over 2 percent per year between 1966 and 2014, which amounts to a cumulative decline of 63 percent. Partners in Flight placed it on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Species on that list are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. The global breeding population is estimated at 2 million, with 8 percent breeding in Canada, 39 percent spending part of the year in the U.S., and 37 percent in Mexico. The species is also found in parts of northern South America.

The Band-tailed Pigeon is still subject to hunting in several states, but not in Washington. A good book about this species, available at Sno-Isle Libraries, is “Band-tailed Pigeon: wilderness bird at risk,” by Worth Mathewson.

You can hear the Band-tailed Pigeon’s song here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.


  1. Such an interesting article!
    I was surprised by how deep throated the pigeons song sounded.
    I will definitely be keeping my eye out for this beautiful bird.

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