Dear Readers, I can already sense you asking why the feral pigeon appears to have infiltrated my Red List piece for this week (in addition to wondering why someone is handling the bird in the first place). Well, as you may know, feral pigeons are descended from rock doves, birds that used to inhabit sea caves, cliffs and mountainous areas right across Europe, Asia and Africa. However, over the years the rock dove has morphed into the feral pigeon, which, while it’s the same species as the rock dove, is genetically distinct. As you know, feral pigeons come in every colour under the sun, and there are other differences too.
The original rock dove only comes in one colour – grey- with a distinctive white patch above the tail and two black wing bars. The wild birds also have longer,thinner beaks and a more pronounced forehead than their feral cousins. Unlike your typical feral pigeon, these birds are extremely shy and difficult to catch, as the author of the study, Will Smith, points out.
‘Fieldwork was often challenging and involved long nights in Outer Hebridean meadows, climbing through ruined buildings to study the doves as they roost. One of the privileges of this is getting familiar with all the other animals and plants that make their home there, including the Corncrake. These fascinating birds seem to purposefully move gradually closer and closer to the tent each day until they are shouting ‘crex-crex’, at maximum volume, all night, a metre from my head. At least Rock Doves don’t test an ornithologist’s patience quite that much!’
Actually it sounds like absolute bliss (except for the Corncrake). What Smith discovered was that the birds in the Outer Hebrides are actually still genetically distinct and very similar to the ancestral pigeons of the feral birds. This is a real find, as in many fairly isolated places, such as the Orkneys, the wild rock doves have bred with ferals and are now no longer similar to the original birds. A similar thing has happened with the Scottish Wild Cat, which interbreeds with domestic cats and is so in danger of disappearing as a distinct species. We are moving towards a much less biodiverse world, and so preserving these relict species is important for the planet as a whole.
There are many opportunities for further research and protection for the wild dove – there is a population in Ireland which has not been the subject of a study (yet), and there may well be populations in many places in Europe, particularly on some of the islands in the Mediterranean. While homing pigeons and other ‘stray’ feral pigeons will join rock dove flocks, the bigger danger is if people start to keep free-flying pigeons and these interbreed with the wild birds. Another danger seems to be that feral pigeons are more likely to survive trichomoniasis, the disease which has wiped out 90% of our greenfinches and which is a danger to rare birds, including pigeons, wherever it turns up. However, for now, the rock doves of the Outer Hebrides are living by the sea just as they’ve always done. It will be interesting to see if they eventually attain some kind of conservation status to help protect them in the coming years.
You can read the whole of Will Smith’s article here, and jolly interesting it is too.