Drab, boring, alien, ubiquitous. These are four words that have been used to describe the Collared Dove, notwithstanding which they have been part of a fascinating story of natural colonisation from India across Europe to the UK. Ubiquitous it is not though, as continued declines in the Garden Birdwatch counts demonstrate.
Now one of the commonest birds in Britain, it first bred here in Cromer in Norfolk in 1955 having arrived via Turkey and the Middle East in the 1930s.
The Collared Dove is smaller and more delicate than a Woodpigeon. It is creamy grey-buff with a black half collar on the back of its neck (in adults). The typical call is a clear and persistent three note coo-COO-coo, plus a harsh loud screeching call lasting about two seconds, just before landing. Their cooing in early spring is sometimes mistaken for that of early-arriving cuckoos and, as such, a mistaken sign of spring’s return.
The spread of Collared Doves across the United Kingdom was very rapid. Following that first report in 1955 they were found breeding in Kent and Lincolnshire in 1957, also being seen as far north as Scotland. Two years later Ireland was colonised, and by 1970 there were probably 25,000 pairs in Britain and Ireland. The BTO Common Birds Census revealed a five-fold increase in their population between 1972 and 1996.
Collared Doves are bigger than Blackbirds and so are quite conspicuous, meaning that they are popular with predators, often being taken by cats and Sparrowhawks.
As an aside, they have very dusty feathers leading to fantastically detailed prints when they fly into a window. They often show every detail of the individual feathers, the beak and even the eyelids, and are best viewed against a dark surface, and can easily be photographed. If not cleaned off the window they can last for several months, as the dust is oily and quite sticky.
There is little evidence available relating to the drivers of their spread but they seem to have been able to fill an empty niche by exploiting the intermittent seed resources available both in gardens and elsewhere.
The collared dove is not migratory, but is strongly dispersive. Over the last century, it has been one of the great colonisers of the bird world, travelling far beyond its native range to colonise colder countries, becoming a permanent resident in several. Its original range at the end of the 19th century was subtropical Asia. In 1838 it was reported in Bulgaria, spreading across Europe to the Balkans between 1900–1920, and then rapidly northwest, reaching Germany in 1945.
Collared Doves typically breed close to human habitation where food resources are abundant and there are trees for nesting. They are monogamous and share parental duties when caring for their young. They are regular visitor to bird tables, and large populations are found around farms with grain stores, or where livestock are fed. They are gregarious and form sizeable winter flocks where there are food supplies such as grain and seeds, shoots and insects. Flocks most commonly number between ten and fifty, but up to ten thousand have been recorded.
The male’s mating display is a ritual flight, which, as with many other pigeons, consists of a rapid, near-vertical climb followed by a long circular glide downward, with wings held below the body in an inverted “V” shape. At all other times, flight is typically direct using fast, clipped wing beats without gliding.
If you find the lives of our garden birds to be of interest, and would like to join in and count the feathered occupants of your garden, please contact me or visit the BTO Garden BirdWatch website (www.bto.org/gbw). If you know of a local organisation who would like a talk on garden birds call: Mike Gray 07596 366342 or firstname.lastname@example.org.