The term “pigeon” is often used to denote the larger of the species and ‘dove’ to denote the smaller, but they are both of the same genus or family. Also, the now extinct Dodo, a flightless and tasty large bird from Mauritius, was a pigeon and so easy to catch and good to eat unfortunately to it’s demise was hunted until the last recorded bird was killed in 1665. Two other flightless pigeons, the solitaires, which lived on islands near Mauritius, were also hunted to extinction by 1760.
There are some 255 species of pigeons found throughout the world except for polar and sub-polar regions and some oceanic islands. Australia has 22 species of native pigeons (including the Wonga, Crested, Squatter, Partridge, Spinifex, White-quilled, Chestnut-quilled, Topknot, Bronzewings and the beautiful Imperial Pigeon) and doves and 3 introduced species:- The Feral Pigeon, the Spotted Turtledove (1870) and the Laughing Turtledove (1898). Both pigeons and doves are mainly Granivores, (grain, seed eaters but some will eat fruit such as the White-headed Pigeon). Their muscular crops grind off the tough seed coatings and because of this dry diet they need to regularly visit water, sucking up the fluid through their beaks, rather than drinking, without raising their heads. Because they are very vulnerable to predators, such as falcons, eagles, feral & domestic cats and foxes, they tend to gather in bushes near water, then fly down to drink in a large flock for safety. At any hint of danger, the birds rocket skywards, even if they haven’t drunk their fill. They are also very vulnerable to hunting and habitat destruction and numbers of native birds in Australia and overseas have been dramatically reduced because of this.
Of all the rainforest pigeons, the White-headed Pigeons is the most likely to remain abundant in coastal districts. Ranging from Cooktown in far north Qld to the Illawarra district NSW they live mainly along our eastern coastal strip only occasionally venturing to live inland. They are most common in lowland rainforests in the south but further north are more abundant in higher rainforests and also survive well in open woody urban situations. They are among the wariest and often most secretive of our native pigeons and with any hint of movement or danger will either sit silently in the dense foliage of a tree or on the forest floor, remaining motionless until exiting with loud claps of wings, bodies hurtling to escape any apparent threat.
Living in local nomadic pairs or groups of 15 or more, they feed by foraging not only on the ground for seed, grasses and grains but also find food in the lower storeys of the trees and forest wandering from place to place according to the ripening of fruits. In the open country the fly not at a high altitude but at high speed, in a straight path but swerve upwards and away wildly at the sight of an unusual object all the while wings beating continuously flying direct and swift.
Head and neck white, lower beast, belly under sides grey, with back, wings and tail black/purple-grey sheen eye golden-yellow with red-orange outer rings, beak red with cream tip, feet red-pink with darker claws. Young are born covered in rust coloured down. The dense soft plumage of the adults contains powdery down with feather set loosely into their skin and which they can throw, especially the tail feathers, if attacked.
Their call is a drawn out succession of low pitched coos which in breeding season becomes an advertising call to their mate with more of a deep, quavering coo-coo.
In early spring the males display themselves prominently, rising above the forest canopy to perform a spectacular, undulating flight up and down their territory. Then the male faces the female on a branch and does his distinctive bowing display, with his body erect and his breast and throat inflated, he depresses his beak towards his upper breast. He inclines his body forward slowly to around 25 degrees from horizontal, the legs flexed as his body moves down. At the lowest point there is a soft deep coo and then he retruns to the upright position to start over again. At the end of several such bows he stretches his neck, holding his head up, and opens and closes his beak several times very rapidly. This bow is very different from the bowing displays of the other members of the genus.
Breeding season is anywhere from July – March when a small platform nest made of fine twigs and vine approx. 125mm in diameter is built by both parents in the bushes or small tree 3-20 meters above the ground. One, sometime 2 small ellipsoidal cream eggs are laid and incubated by both parents for about 20 days. Their chicks grow rapidly on a diet of “pigeons milk” made in the parent’s crop, looking like cream cheese it contains 75% water, 15% protein, 9% fat and 1% minerals. This milk is scooped up by the broad soft beak of the young inserted deeply into the parent’s mouth to obtain the regurgitated material. Gradually it is supplemented with partially digested food. (in a successful season 2 or 3 broods may be produced and also if they loose any eggs or chicks to a predator, weather conditions etc they will breed again) The young fledge in 21-22 days but stay with their parents joining the flock.
Other facts and information.
All domestic/feral pigeons are derived from the Rock Dove of Europe.
If you find a pigeon with a metal tag on it’s leg with numbers on it, it’s a racing pigeon off course. Call racing pigeon society, quote numbers and someone with come and collect.
I find when treating pigeons and doves that they are the most graceful and gentles of all birds.
Domestic cats are often the cause or injury or death to these birds. Please keep your cat in at night, place not 1 but 3 ringing bells in the collar around their neck and if all else fails over feed to make them sluggish!
Image by Alex Wilson