On a lovely December day, I was going along a Weyburn, Saskatchewan street when a station waggon drove up. The driver motioned me over. “Do you know Martin Bailey?”
“I saw your face. Since the middle of April, I’ve seen two pigeons on the golf course. They are distinct from the others. Want to see them?”
We parked near the Weyburn Golf Course clubhouse and walked over to the spruce trees around the eighteenth hole that afternoon. Two pigeons whistled and flew over the stream to a barren tree limb.
These two birds were not found in a typical Rock Dove habitat. Rock Doves in our town spend their time constructing roofs, ledges, and other man-made heights. They may be seen in the countryside on grain elevators and stockyard facilities. Rock Doves are a European import that originated in temperate Europe and western Asia, mostly in rocky, hilly terrain and on coastal cliffs. They are pigeons, and their domestication dates back to the Bronze Age in the Middle East, almost 6,000 years ago.
Neither were the odd birds discovered flitting through deciduous trees like Mourning Doves, but rather concealed in a spruce tree until flushed. While Mourning Doves are known to continue flying away when disturbed, monitoring these birds revealed that they wanted to return to their favourite spruce tree. They were comparable to Rock Doves in this regard. When disturbed, Rock Doves will normally fly in broad arcs to return to the perch from where they were disturbed.
There was no question that these strange birds were pigeons. Pigeons are all different in appearance, with strong bodies, short necks, and tiny, round heads. They all have short, thin bills with spherical tips.
I had my suspicions beforehand. Two Eurasian Collared-Doves were seen in Regina, Saskatchewan, about 70 miles northwest of Weburn. They roosted on spruce trees, seldom moved during the day, and tended to remain in a limited area. They were never spotted roosting on structures.
We then returned to the station waggon, where I unsuccessfully sought my torn National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America. My Second Edition did not include the birds (Eurasian Collared-Doves are mentioned in the Third Edition.)
I searched about in the station wagon’s glove box and discovered a pencil.
My notebook was the inner rear cover of the field guide. My initial impressions were an all-black beak, a white eye ring, and a white curve on the end of the tail that was evident in flight. The primaries appear black against the long tail while at repose.
I couldn’t discern the bird’s telltale form and movement since I’d never seen it before. But I could see it had the delicate, elongated head that you identify with a Mourning Dove and wasn’t as thick set as a Rock Dove. It was bigger than a Mourning Dove yet flew like a Rock Dove.
When I came home, I turned to page 305 of Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Europe. Collared-Dove was the bird.
Collared-Doves came in Europe from Asia about 1900 and migrated west to England in the 1950s. Their current European range runs from the Urals in the east, west to the United Kingdom, and north along the Norwegian coast to 70 degrees longitude. They are known to avoid hilly locations and prefer parks and gardens near people, yet they are wary when confronted. They like grain.
I was astounded when I compared the European range maps of the Collared-Dove to those of the Rock Dove. The Collared-Dove resides in northern Europe, farther north than the Rock Dove. The Collared-Dove, which is presently thriving in the warm south of the United States, may be able to make it north to the Canadian tundra.
I was now ready to go public and tell everyone about what I had discovered. Surprise! Other birders in town had previously seen the doves. They were called turtle doves. An unlucky turn of circumstances. I was now entangled in birdwatching politics. I didn’t want to argue over the identity of these birds. On the other hand, I was not going down without a fight. I decided to enlist the help of a Saskatchewan birding specialist to make the final decision.
Bob lived in a hamlet halfway between Regina and Weyburn and had previously been to the backyard in Regina where the Collared-Doves spent the most of their time.
Our specialist put his coat on and his vehicle keys in his right hand before we were through on the phone. He arrived to the golf course an hour later. Bob waited in the vehicle near the deciduous trees, while I walked around to the far side of the spruce tree, where the doves were nesting. The birds were cooperative. They walked up into the winter-bare deciduous trees near the parked vehicle after leaving the spruce.
“These birds, like the Turtle Dove, have a black, basal underbelly,” Bob said. “I’m not sure whether the black hue penetrates the undertail coverts.” If that happens, we’ll be looking at Eurasian Collared-Doves. If not, we could see Ringed Turtle Doves.”
The Ringed Turtle-Dove is the smaller of the two. Collared-Doves are bigger than Mourning Doves, although being smaller than Rock Doves. Ringed Turtle Doves are similar in size to Mourning Doves. However, without two separate members of the same family side by side, you must be very careful when judging by size impressions.
“I didn’t see the dark crescent on the back of the neck.”
“I have,” I said. “I remember the first time I saw them. “Extremely unique.”
“Yes. Turtle Doves lack such a distinguishing marking on the back of the neck.”
Collared-Doves first appeared in the Americas as part of the captive bird trade. When a supplier was unable to fulfil an order for Ringed Turtle Doves, he instead supplied Collared-Doves to a pet store in the Bahamas. Soon after, the shop was broken into, and many Collared-Doves fled and were on their way to become part of our birding scene.
By the mid-1980s, they were well established in the Miami region, and by 1993, they had expanded to Georgia and Alabama. They had expanded as far west as Colorado by 1997 and were seen in Cape May, New Jersey.
While certain variants of the Ringed Turtle Dove resemble the Eurasian Collared-Dove, and hybrids between the two species have been discovered, no one expects the Ringed Turtle Dove to survive the harsh conditions found on the northern end of the North American plains. It is a cage bird that cannot survive in the wild. Three of the four Collared-Doves discovered in Saskatchewan in 1999, on the other hand, were still alive in the spring of 2000. The Collared-Dove, like the Rock Dove, will most likely have to survive the winter on grains and seeds left on top of snows.
The Collared-Dove has a longer tail and a more delicate head than the Rock Dove. The undersurface of the tail’s base is black, whereas the remainder of the undertail is white. The top half of the tail is grey, with white tips on the outside.
Both the Collared-Dove and the Mourning Dove, another common dove found in western North America, have white eye rings. The Mourning Dove, on the other hand, has a more visible black line going from the bill over the centre of the eye and onto the opposite side of the head. Do not mix the black line at the back of the Eurasian Collared-neck Dove’s with the black mark at the aide of the Morning Dove’s neck.
To be safe, be sure you’re looking at a Eurasian Collared-Dove rather than a Ringed Turtle Dove. The belly of the Collared-Dove is grey, and the main feathers are darker than the rest of the wing. The belly of the Ringed Turtle Dove, on the other hand, is white, and its primaries are often not much darker than the rest of the wing. The Collared-tail Dove’s has black wing tips in flight, whereas the Ringed Turtle Dove’s tail has grey tones.
Collared-Doves may eventually be seen by everyone. Their territory is expanding. The Ringed Turtle Dove, on the other hand, will almost certainly remain a rare outside of the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal areas.
Martin Bailey writes a weekly nature column for the Weyburn, Saskatchewan newspaper. He has been involved in birding, banding birds of prey, and censusing endangered species for many years. He can be reached at [email protected].