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Band-Tailed Pigeons

This species deserves our attention so that it can continue to live and thrive in our world.

By Tony Brancato

Few Americans are aware that our country has a native pigeon — the beautiful band-tailed pigeon (Columba fasciata). Band-tailed pigeons are classified as a game bird in many states, including California. Hunting pressures have made these lovely pigeons extremely wary of humans. Unfortunately, the outlook does not look good for the species. Reproduction is low. Only one egg is laid and incubated at a time, and as habitat disappears at an alarming rate, the band-tailed pigeon has few places to go.

Photo: Tony Brancato
Band-tailed pigeons are rare in aviculture, so author Tony Brancato captured them on canvas instead of with a camera lens.

The native habitat of band-tailed pigeons is temperate and subtropical mountain ranges. They are especially found where oaks are plentiful on wooded slopes and canyons. They are indigenous to mountainous areas of western North America: from British Columbia, Canada, to western North Dakota, and as far south as northern Argentina.

In the wild, these pigeons feed on a variety of seeds, acorns, berries, young leaves and blossoms of a wide variety of trees and plants. Similar to the European wood pigeon, they feed both in trees and on the ground. One unique characteristic of this species is that when it is feeding in trees, it can cling and hang upside-down with the same agility as a hookbill! This behavior is totally "unpigeon-like" and surprises avian fanciers that are unfamiliar with arboreal pigeons.

Band-tailed pigeons nest in trees and rocky ledges. One white egg is laid per clutch. Incubation is from 18 to 20 days. Most of the time, only one brood is raised per season.

Physical Description
The band-tailed pigeon is a little smaller than a domestic pigeon, but a wee bit stockier in build. It is a remarkably beautiful member of the pigeon and dove family. The male has a light purplish-pink tinged in gray head, breast and underparts. Shades of gray and mauve predominate the entire body. The head has an iridescent golden-olive-green or almost a bronzish olive-green sheen. A strickingly beautiful half-ring of white collars the head. The primaries are a very dark gray, almost black. The tail is a bluish-gray with a black band across it. The band nearly extends to the center of the tail on both sides. The skin surrounding the eyes is red, the eyes are pale yellow with mauve or pale pink outer rings. Unlike most pigeons and doves, the band-tailed pigeon has a very yellow bill with a black tip. The legs and feet are also deep yellow (most species of doves and pigeons have red legs and feet).

The hen is duller than the male, especially where he is pink she is not. Juveniles are duller with rusty fawn fringes over most of their bodies. Eyes, bill, feet and legs are dark gray.

Close Encounter In The Wild
Every morning my wife and I take a walk toward the San Bernardino mountains in Southern California, not far from our home. Early one morning, we saw a flock of band-tailed pigeons feeding in wild elderberry trees. The flock consisted of 50 or 60 individuals! When we were within 50 yards of the flock, most flew swiftly toward the mountains. Several individuals flew to nearby power lines before returning to the elderberry trees. The fruit from these trees (Sambucus mexicana) seems to be a favorite of these birds. When I first moved to California from New England in the early 1960s, it was not uncommon to see these lovely pigeons in lower elevations of Los Angeles county. They would visit yards and gardens in the San Fernando Valley. As the human population grew, the pigeons were seen less and less. We were totally amazed to see this beautiful species in the wild again.

The real reward is seeing this beautiful pigeon in its natural habitat. It is an incredibly graceful and swift flyer. When feeding, it is elegant.

Avicultural Rarity
This is a species that is difficult to find in captivity. Band-tailed pigeons are expensive and require a lot of special care. Some fanciers remove the one squab at 10 days old and hand-raise it. Domestic pigeons make suitable foster parents. The young band-tailed pigeon will not be as wild if raised by calm, domestic birds.

The aviary needs to be very large. For one pair, the aviary needs to be at least 10 feet wide, 30 feet long and 10 or more feet high. Good cover is essential.

Band-tailed pigeons are extremely wild in captivity. The birds will hit the walls and wire in panic attacks anytime the keeper comes near the aviary. From the band-tailed pigeon's perspective, humans are predators. How comfortable would any of us be in the ocean with a 20-foot Great White shark nearby? Because of its wildness and special needs, I would not recommend this species to the novice or average dove/pigeon enthusiast.

In captivity, the band-tailed pigeon should be provided with a varied diet including seed, various berries when in season and other soft foods. Replicating a species' natural diet in the wild is difficult. Feeding them a diet of only domestic pigeon seed begs for trouble because they will not thrive on a diet of hard grains for long.

A federal permit is required to keep any native species. Breeding and capturing band-tailed pigeons is illegal otherwise. Despite this and the previous difficulties mentioned, dove and pigeon fanciers have successfully bred the band-tailed pigeon in captivity.

Captive breeding will ensure that this New World native will continue to exist. The band-tailed pigeon is not in many collections. It is difficult to find and, as stated earlier, expensive. Many dove and pigeon enthusiasts would not keep the band-tailed pigeon even if were available and inexpensive. They are much too wild for most collectors.

My personal opinion is that the band-tailed pigeon must remain part of our wild American heritage. Only when its survival is threatened should we confine it to an aviary. This species deserves our attention so that it can continue to live and thrive in our world. After all, it is their world, too.

If you have a question for Tony Brancato, send him an e-mail care of BIRD BREEDER at birdbreeder@fancypubs.com. We regret that columnists are not able to respond to letters individually.

Tony Brancato has bred doves and pigeons for 35 years. He currently breeds 25 species of seed-eating foreign doves. Brancato lives in the Inland Empire of California.



3-2-2004


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