In many ways reminiscent of its more widely distributed relative the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), the Band-tailed Pigeon (occasionally called the Blue Rock) is similar in its size and posture, movements, and reproductive and feeding behavior. It is equally a generalist, able to nest and feed in towns and near farms as well as in distant forests. Broadly distributed from Alaska to South America the species includes 6 subspecies, only 2 of which occur north of Mexico, in 2 disjunct geographic regions. Band-tailed Pigeons inhabit dry montane forests of 4 states in the southwestern United States (the interior region) south into Middle and South America, and also the wetter Pacific Coast region, including the Coast Range and western Cascade Range from the tip of southeastern Alaska through California into northern Baja California. An isolated population is resident in south-ern Baja California.
Individuals throughout are distinctive with their white neck crescent, although in the interior region they are paler in color overall and smaller in size than those in the Pacific Coast region. Most individuals from the U.S. interior migrate into Mexico for winter; most in the northern Pacific Coast region migrate to central and southern California. The 2 groups are not entirely separate, as a small number of banded individuals have moved from one region to another.
As with other pigeons and doves, the Band-tailed Pigeon has a long nesting season across its range. Adults are presumably monogamous, and most clutches have only 1 egg. In contrast to long-standing suspicion, recent research has revealed that some nesting pairs complete up to 3 nest cycles a year. Its song is a series of 2-syllable, low frequency coos that may be heard up to 300 m in closed forest. Its nest is typical for pigeons, a seemingly haphazard layer of sticks that look as if they provide little protection to egg or nestling (squab). Both parents incubate the egg and brood the squab. Nestlings are fed curdlike crop milk formed from the inside lining of the crop of both parents. Adults, especially in summer and particularly in the Pacific Coast region, frequently visit natural springs and water bodies high in mineral salts, where they rapidly peck at the soil or drink water intermittently, with long bouts of roosting in nearby trees. Foods are principally wild and domestic fruits, grains, and mast throughout the year. Individuals travel long distances daily to feed and are readily attracted to grain fields and fruit orchards dispersed below the forested foothills where they nest.
There is a long history of sport and market hunting of this species, especially in coastal areas where it has been most numerous. Heavy shooting in the early years of the past century, under the mistaken guise of crop protection, prompted naturalists to worry about a possible repeat of the slaughter of the related Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius); occasional rumors had it that Bandtails were Passenger Pigeons that had come westward. Pastel colors, mellow song, and the species' fast, agile flight have caused many persons to marvel about this bird and for some to express disbelief at hunting it: “Would anyone sensitive to nature's grandeur trade such a vision for a pot of flesh?” (Skutch 1983a). Hunting currently continues in 6 American states and in Mexico southward. Low estimated hunting mortality and longevity up to 22 years suggest that hunting under present conditions has little effect on population trends over large areas, but this remains speculative. Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) show numbers decreasing at an average annual rate of 2.8% across its North American range since 1966.
A substantive literature is available on the species, including a comprehensive early review by Neff (Neff 1947). Much research has been prompted by the sport-hunting interest, including repeated attempts, still continuing, to develop procedures to estimate population trends (e.g., Casazza et al. 1998), and analyses of survival (Kautz and Braun 1981, Jarvis and Passmore 1992) and philopatry (Schroeder and Braun 1993a) from banded individuals. Recent graduate research has been instructive about life history, particularly nesting parameters (Leonard 1998) and the species' use of mineral springs (Sanders 2000). Braun (Braun 1994) presents a thorough summary of harvest and important recommendations about management research. There remains much to learn, particularly about the species' responses to changing land-use practices, most notably in the southern interior breeding range and on its winter range, where our knowledge base is poorest.