Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

Band-Tailed Pigeon: Our Only True Native Pigeon

My wife and I have found immense joy in the bird feeder we set up a few years ago. It hangs on a rope from the eaves right outside a big picture window in our living room, perfect for observing the ebb and flow of migrating species, along with our resident birds. We have struggled to keep our bird feeder from becoming a squirrel feeder and have found amusement in the intelligent rodents’ efforts to overcome the squirrel-guards. We also get an occasional dose of the “circle of life” when a hawk or falcon makes a pass through.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical
Society of the Crescenta Valley
and loves local history.
Reach him at

By far the most spectacular bird that visits is our native-Californian band-tailed pigeon. They are huge – nearly the size of a chicken. They are much too big to fit on the narrow feeding trough. They always come in pairs, landing on a branch a few feet from the feeder. They examine the logistics of the situation for a couple of minutes, weighing the difficulty of the landing on the too-small ledge to the temptation of a free meal. Often the braver of the pair will flap over and land sideways on the trough edge, flapping the outboard wing wildly to stay upright, while grabbing mouthfuls of seed. This sets the suspended bird feeder to start slowly rotating. The second bird will then join the first, also landing sideways on the opposite side, and flapping its outer-facing wing. Now the feeder starts spinning faster and faster from their wings flapping until finally centrifugal force spins them off. Fun to watch!

When we think of pigeons, we usually think of the common urban pigeon or rock pigeon. They are not native and were introduced to America from Europe in the 1600s. They are smaller than our native band-tailed pigeon, but do bear a resemblance, as does the mourning dove.

The band-tailed pigeon is easily identified by its size, as long as 16 inches and beefy, weighing over a pound. They are grey with a white band on the back of the neck. When seen up close, they have an iridescent sheen of green and pink on their necks, very pretty. The clincher for ready identification is that their beaks and legs are bright yellow-orange. They are gentle, sweet and sociable, and have a soft low call similar to an owl.

Band-tailed pigeons prefer foothills and mountains, oak woodlands like our areas. They inhabit the Pacific coastal mountains and parts of the southwest. Some flocks migrate, others stay in place year-round. Their natural feed is acorns and elderberries, but they obviously also visit bird feeders for seeds. As well they can feed on other introduced fruits and seeds. The widespread planting of English holly and common ivy have attracted them into suburban areas like ours.

They are most closely related to the storied but extinct passenger pigeon. The passenger pigeon once blackened the skies by the millions, but were hunted to complete extinction by Americans in the late 1800s. The same fate almost befell our band-tailed pigeons. They were hunted extensively here in the west, and by the turn of the century were becoming scarce. Hunting was put on hold, but unlike the passenger pigeon, they rebounded, and today offer hunting sport in a limited capacity.

However, their biggest threat today is disease. A particular bacterium, avian trichomonosis has plagued the band-tailed pigeon for decades and occasionally flairs up as it did in 2007 and 2015. I was horrified to read that experts were recommending removing bird feeders to slow the spread of the disease. I would hate to lose my bird feeder! My guilt was assuaged when I read that transmission of the bacteria occurs when band-tailed pigeons and rock pigeons (common urban pigeons) share a common feeder. Rock pigeons are carriers. Fortunately we have very few common pigeons here in the valley, and none at my feeder.

We have so many things of natural beauty here in Crescenta Valley. The band-tailed pigeon is one beautiful native bird we’re lucky to share our valley with. I get great joy when these massive birds set my bird feeder to spinning.