Related to passenger pigeons
Band-tailed pigeons are large – larger than domestic pigeons -- dark gray birds with yellow feet, red eyes and a white band on the back of their necks. They are named for the dark band that runs across their tail feathers. You might spot them flying high overhead in the Oregon Coast Range and Cascades, and they can be quite skittish. When flushed from a tree or off the ground, they make a distinct slapping noise that is hard to miss.Their call is a two-note coo or a hoarse croaking sound.
Being migratory birds, band-tailed pigeons are co-managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the fish and wildlife agencies in the states where they spend time in the United States.
What band-tails eat
Band-tailed pigeons feed on seeds and fruits, and their diet will vary depending on the time of year. In early spring, before fruits are ripe, they eat mostly seeds and nuts. During this time of year you can find them under bird feeders eating seeds dropped by other birds. They also feed on acorns from native oaks, alder catkins and whatever other wild seeds they can find. As the summer progresses, the birds will transition to ripening fruits, and feed ravenously on Cascara, bitter cherry, and elderberry. Band-tailed pigeons are usually still focused on fruits when the September hunting season rolls around.
In late summer, after weeks of eating primarily fruit, band-tailed pigeons will begin visiting mineral sites looking for calcium to supplement their diet. Mineral sites could be water sources rich in dissolved calcium or landslide areas where calcium-rich rock has been exposed. This is a critical time for band-tailed pigeons as they need more calcium to replace what’s lost through molting feathers and to add what’s needed to produce eggs with strong shells. You may discover dozens of birds gathered at these mineral sites at one time.
How to hunt them
Season: Sept. 15-23
Daily bag limit: 2; Season limit 6
Band-tailed pigeons were once hunted heavily in Oregon and other west coast states but as populations declined, bag limits and seasons were reduced accordingly. It’s unlikely hunting caused this decline; habitat loss and diseases spread by nonnative birds are more likely culprits. With a daily limit of two birds and a nine day hunting season, you’re not going to fill for freezer with band-tailed pigeons. Instead, consider this an opportunity to hunt a unique, native gamebird that can only be enjoyed on the west coast of North America.
Regardless of how you choose to hunt band-tailed pigeons, avoid hunting them at their mineral sites. These critical sites are limited and hunting at them can discourage birds from visiting them again.
Two ways to avoid hunting around mineral sites are pass shooting, and jump shooting at feeding locations.
Pass shooting is a popular way to hunt band-tailed pigeons. Position yourself along the flight path pigeons take between mineral sites and feeding areas. Specifically, look for saddles along ridges or obvious breaks in tree lines along ridges. You may need to do some pre-hunt scouting to find these well-travelled flight paths.
A second way to hunt these birds is to watch flocks of birds to see where they land to feed. Binoculars will help. Once you know where the birds are feeding, quietly sneak through the forest and take an ambush position near the birds’ destination.
Any shotgun will do for band-tail hunting. Because band-tails are so hard to hit, you’re likely to take far more shots than you expect to bag two birds. So, you might want to pick a gauge based on the price of ammunition. For example, shotshells for 12 ga guns are generally cheaper then 20 ga shells. Lead shot is allowed and is a good choice if you’re not hunting near wetlands. Shot sizes 7 ½# or 8# are about right. If your hunt will be around a wetland, small non-toxic shot such as 4# or 6# steel shot are good choices for band-tails. Most hunters use modified chokes in their guns because shots tend to be fairly long.
Cooking them up
The popular expression “they’re good if you cook ‘em right” certainly applies to band-tailed pigeons. Because band-tails depend on their ability to fly fast and over long distances for survival, most of the of meat in a bird is in their breast muscles. But don’t overlook the leg meat, it can be excellent as well.
Birds that are long distance flyers, such as pigeons, dove and waterfowl, tend to have dark breast meat. The muscle fibers in this dark meat are called slow-twitch fibers, which are suitable for long, consistent use during migration.
Birds that rely on short bursts of intense activity, such as running or short flights to escape predators, will have light meat comprised of fast twitch muscle fibers. The breast meat of a domestic chicken is a good example of light meat.
Often dark meat can have a stronger, richer flavor and if prepared properly it can be excellent table fare. HOWEVER, if this meat is cooked too long over too much heat it can get dry, chewy and flavorless. Most experienced cooks of band-tailed pigeons cook their meat hot and fast, without cooking it past the point of medium rare. So, cooking band-tails over a hot grill with some light seasoning often produces some of the best results.
Stuffing the pigeon mean with a slice of jalapeno pepper, wrapping it with a thin layer of bacon and grilling it over a hot fire is a recipe for excellence. Remember to cook it hot and fast, the trick is to thoroughly cook the bacon with out overcooking the band-tail meat inside. Pair this with a beverage suited to rich meat and you’re in for a treat.
Hear ODFW migratory game bird coordinator Brandon Reishus talk more about band-tailed pigeons and their path to population recovery on the Beaver State Podcast.
Header photo by David Seibold.