Pigeons and doves: Why I take them seriously
Nature Notes | Bob Jarman writes for the Cambridge Independent.
Ask a birdwatcher if there are any birds that are too boring to record, unless there is an exceptionally huge flock, and they will probably say the woodpigeon.
I tracked back into the archives of the Cambridgeshire Bird Club and woodpigeons rarely got a specific mention. Then everything changed.
In the mid-1970s winter oilseed rape was introduced into the expanding winter arable farm crop rotations and the population of woodpigeons exploded. They now have a tasty green leaf to eat throughout the winter and flocks of 3,000-4,000 are common. They are one of the few species that can survive on green leaf matter alone.
There was a big ‘but’ to this success. What to feed on in the breeding season when the arable crops had grown, and huge numbers were competing for green plant material in the countryside? Easy: move into our villages, towns, and cities to feed in gardens on lawns and parkland grass.
I do have a grudging regard for woodpigeons. I’m reminded of the American passenger pigeon. In the early 1800s, the time of James Audubon and his pictorial encyclopaedia of American bird life, it is estimated that there were three to four billion passenger pigeons in the American prairies. Systematic slaughter for food led to its extinction by 1914.
So, I take records of large woodpigeon flocks seriously.
Woodpigeons are mainly sedentary but there is evidence of an inward migration of continental birds in the autumn, escaping the Scandinavian winter.
Collared doves fall into the same ‘boring’ category, but they have a different track record.
In the early 20th century, their population from central Asia expanded west following the conversion of the Asian steppes into arable farmland to provide an abundance of green leaf feed.
To quote Peter Bircham in his book The Birds of Cambridgeshire: “The collared dove was first recorded in Cambridgeshire in 1960 and within 10 years was breeding in every village.” They too have become garden birds.
I remember seeing my first collared doves on my way home from school in 1968. They first bred near the nurses’ hostels at Addenbrooke’s, and birdwatchers, keen to see them, were abruptly chased off by the caretakers, accusing them of spying on the nurses! Collared doves now occur from the Shetlands to Sinai and the Canary Islands and from the very far east to the West Indies.
Collared doves are less abundant than woodpigeons. I’ve seen a flock of about 250 near Impington in a field harvested for maize and up to 60 can be seen around the market square feeding on takeaway food debris and vegetables dropped from the market stalls.
There is another species that lurks anonymously behind the woodpigeon in boringness but is uncommon in gardens. The stock dove looks like a smaller but bulkier woodpigeon, without the woodpigeons’ white neck and wing patches, and instead has an iridescent green neck patch and two-tone grey wings.
It is more solitary but may occur in smaller flocks of 100-plus. Walk through Logan’s Meadow, Chesterton, and you will soon see them, often in pairs, and hear their distinct moaning ‘wooowooowoo’ call. They are also regular in the Botanic Garden and around the allotments by Hobson’s Brook.
So, what’s with the feral pigeons that chase about the market square, nest under our river bridges, and pollute our window ledges? These are at the top of the birdwatchers’ most boring list! The latest Cambridgeshire Bird Club’s annual report (2021) gives some numbers: Trumpington Meadows - 150; Addenbrooke’s, Grantchester Road and Logan’s Meadow - 100 each; Cambridge market - 65. Feral pigeons are also a reliable food source for our nesting city centre peregrines.
The last dove, the turtle dove, is certainly not boring. Unsustainable hunting on its spring migration through Spain and France and loss of habitat in the UK has caused a catastrophic decline in breeding numbers. Action by conservation organisations and farmers might just save this beautiful bird from extinction in the UK.