This graceful, cloud-coloured bird is a familiar visitor in the gardens and parks of the suburbs of London, including East Finchley, where they regularly visit my bird feeder.
In the photo above, the two birds seemed to get along quite amiably, rather than attempting to stab one another. However, they can be surprisingly assertive, especially in the breeding season – I have seen a male pursue a female from chimney to roof to tree for over an hour, making its high-pitched, rather demented call for the whole time (to listen to this, find the audio section here ). On landing, the male often gives what Dominic Couzens describes as ‘several triumphant nasal calls – rather like those children’s trumpets that unroll when you blow them and tickle people’s faces’.
Although there are nearly a million pairs of these birds in the UK, they only arrived here in the 1950’s, with the first successful London chicks raised in 1961. The record for Collared Dove breeding is five broods in a single year, and as with all pigeons and doves the youngsters are fed on ‘pigeon milk’, a crop secretion that is produced when the adult birds have adequate food. Their rise has been truly astonishing.
Sadly, the increase in the numbers of Collared Doves might have come as Turtle Dove territories were vacated – this bird was common in the 1930’s, but is now more or less extinct as a breeding bird in London. The Turtle Dove’s decline has been attributed to the desertification of Sahelian Africa, where the birds spend much of their lives, and also the brutal persecution of migratory birds in the Mediterranean, with the hunters of Malta bearing a great deal of the responsibility for the birds’ demise in Western Europe. The final straw may be the increased intensification of agriculture, with much less spilled seed and fewer weedy patches available for the migrants who do arrive. This beautiful bird, memorialised in The Twelve Days of Christmas, has lost three-quarters of its population and a quarter of its range in the past three decades.As usual, Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey is a source of many fascinating facts about the Collared Dove. For example, in Germany, the bird is known by the name Die Fernsehtaube, ‘the television dove’, because it often calls from the aerial on the roof.
The book also includes the explanation for the Collared Dove’s Latin name, ‘decaocto’:
‘A poor maid was servant to a very hard-hearted lady, who gave her as wages no more than eighteen pieces a year. The maid prayed to the Gods that she would like it to be known to the world how miserably she was paid by her mistress. Thereupon Zeus created this Dove which proclaims an audible ‘deca-octo’ to all the world to this very day’.
I have to say that I am very fond of Collared Doves. They have a sleek elegance compared to the rather fluffier, plumper appearance of the Woodpigeon, and they are confiding birds, only flying off at the last possible moment when I approach and then hanging around to see if any more seed is going to appear. They mate for life, and seem to do everything together – when I see one bird, I can be sure that the other is not far away. Sometimes, I spot them sitting in the whitebeam preening one another, the preenee closing his or her eyes in obvious bliss. They are another one of those peripheral birds, going about their business with little fuss and attracting no notice. But the garden would be much the poorer without their gentle presence.