Pigeon Hunters

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A rain-soaked spectacle

When we moved to this house, we inherited a reasonably large number of pigeons. Most probably have racing ancestors, but they are mainly just a genetic hotchpotch of colours, shapes and sizes. The farm had lain unoccupied for two years before we moved in, and this provided the birds with a quiet, peaceful sanctuary in which to multiply and prosper. I have shot a few of these pigeons to train the dogs, and the dogs have killed a few squabs under their own steam which they have found lying around in the yard. All considered, I was happy to leave these birds be, provided that I could pick off one or two as I needed them for dog training or ferret food as required. I resented their constant crapping, but I balanced this with the pleasure of seeing their enthusiastic mating rituals, which take place on a stage-like knuckle of granite behind the house.

Since bringing in the hay, I am beginning to feel less tolerant. Pigeon crap can carry disease, and the birds have been sluicing my bales with pots of white slurry. I have shot a few more, but I’ve been pleased to see natural control mechanisms begin to kick in. Over the past three weeks, the fields around the house have been littered with puffs of white feathers. A juvenile peregrine has been working around the house, and while his efforts have been mainly confined to the starlings which browse through the wet ground, I found scraps of bone and feather suggest that the hunter has been working on the doos.

As I lit the stove last night, there was a noisy thump on the window. I rushed outside to see what the matter was and found a pigeon waddling around in the wet grass. Rain hammered down, and the poor bird was struggling with heavy, gummed-up wings. I noticed that it was missing a good part of its tail, and it seemed strangely dazed. I went closer to investigate and the bird rose up groggily and flew in a loop around the hayfield; a figure of eight which took twenty seconds. It passed over the house and headed for a branch in one of the old scots pine trees which stand above the yard. That seemed like a sensible decision, since the old trees have thick canopies and would offer some shelter from the developing downpour. Almost as soon as the pigeon had landed, a second bird came rushing in behind like a sinister shadow – there was a moment’s tussle, then both fell vertically down into the wet rushes in a squalling cartwheel, during which I saw a pair of brown, barred wings powerfully outspread.

My wife and I had already been soaked by a thousand teacup-sized droplets of rain, and we rushed over for a closer look. Not wanting to disturb the drama, we tried to hold back and watch without being seen, but the sparrowhawk (for it was she) saw us immediately. Rather than fly away, she boldly began to pluck the pigeon right before our eyes, and she allowed us to approach to within thirty yards. This was more than close enough, and we spent the following fifteen minutes watching her dismantle her prey as the rain continued to batter down. It must be hard work hunting in those conditions, but we later found that the pigeon was just a youngster and would not have provided much of a challenge.

We presumed that the hawk had bashed the pigeon and forced it to crash-land into our window. If we had not intruded, the hawk might have come down and finished the job then and there, but instead the poor pigeon had been flushed again and was finished with a second assault. After fifteen minutes, the hawk suddenly rushed away again with her crop swollen and tight. I walked up to inspect the remains of the pigeon and found it well butchered. Most of one breast was gone, and there had been a hole ripped into its guts through which several lengths of intestine had been pulled. I was impressed by how quickly the job had been done, but I suppose it makes sense to work fast when you’re a small, nervous predator with many enemies.

 

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