The invasion began in 1955. Cromer, Norfolk. Craftily taking advantage of humanity’s untidy habit of leaving heaps of spilled grain all over the place, and for other nefarious reasons known only to its highly cunning self, it had spread its many minions far and wide across Europe, and, with a sense of occasion, made a breeding incursion on the Norfolk coast, spiritual home of British birdwatching. Crowds of vintage binoculars flocked to keep a watchful eye on this new arrival.
In the following years, with breathtaking speed, this ‘invasive’* species of bird has gone on to occupy a huge proportion of the country. They’ve even got a few in Shetland, and the Outer Hebrides. So complete is the takeover of Europe by this gentle army, we’ve almost gone to sleep entirely and fail to notice them on a daily basis. But you should know that your garden is no longer yours. It belongs to Streptopelia Decaocto. Yes, the collared dove.
Not actually so menacing or such a ruthless intruder then. Not, in fact, that noticeable in any way at all. But if you were planning an invasion, collared doves suggest stealth would be the right path to victory. Behaviour-wise, I’ve always thought of themlike a shy woodpigeon, subtler, a little less noisy, definitely not so ungainly; this gives the bird its advantage – it goes about its business hardly remarked upon, attracting lower levels of ire than its corpulent cousin (though the repetitive song is, again, not well loved) whilst being quite unnoticeable in appearance. Or is it?
You guessed it was coming, but let me try and say a couple of nice things about the collared dove. I was being slightly unfair before; in the right light, the combination of washed -ut pale grey and beige, and the almost blueish tone to the white edge of the collar which gives the bird its name, is quite attractive.
Being a dove, it’s an elegant bird too**, more so than a woodpigeon. Sunlight catches the white edges of the tail in display, and for a brief moment, seeing one rise from a lamppost in a country village is slight consolation for the absence of its vanishing relative, the turtle dove. It does make one noise which is rather fun too, setting aside ‘Oo-Ooo-oo’, and slightly out of character for this unassuming bird – you may have noticed collared doves landing with a triumphant, wheezing ‘hyeeah!’ or perhaps ‘huzzah!’. Betraying the advancing army mindset after all, I wonder?
The most remarkable thing to me is that so integrated into our garden bird communities are they, for people of my generation the mindless cooing of a collared dove evokes memories of warm, dozy summer afternoons growing up in suburbia – as if it was the buzz of a lawnmower a few doors down or the distant chiming of an ice cream van. Yet they’ve only lived here for about twice as long as I have. From their home in Asia, they have managed to become a thoroughly English bird. It’s no mean trick – quite a feat of multiculturalism.
Anyway, to save me writing even more words (after all, I’m attempting to write a few more scientific sounding ones at the moment in order to pass my MSc, so I should go and do that instead), here is a pleasant video snippet from the excellent series “Birds Brittania”. It nicely sums up their expansion, general drabness, and monotonous call and features a well known and respected ornithological author and broadcaster. And Bill Oddie***.
Whilst you enjoy that, let me finish with a final thought. I’d call them a native species, since they came of their own volition. And yet didn’t they get here because of changes in human activity? So what’s the difference between a collared dove, and a little owl, except that one flew here across the North Sea and the other probably crossed the Channel in a boat, and that one is afforded a ‘green’ listing, whilst one is not even considered, being listed as an ‘alien’?
Fortunately, both seem pretty harmless to other species slightly longer established in these Isles. And everybody loves little owls. I quite like collared doves too, given how I love to promote the ‘boring’ birds.
But I wonder if species are assigned ‘native’ or ‘alien’ categories in a slightly curious way based on whether human hands literally and deliberately released the thing in the first place. A bit of a technicality, perhaps?
*Not technically true, you see. To be invasive, you have to be an evil species, i.e. doing something nasty to the natives.
**I suspect ‘elegance’ is how taxonomists decide between ‘dove’ and ‘pigeon’ when they name things. (I think it is supposed to be slimmer body + longer tail.) But we mess it up all the time – rock dove / feral pigeon – same species! Or how about the white ‘dove of peace’? Yep, a feral pigeon, bred to be white. A pigeon release doesn’t sound so romantic, does it? One and the same, really.
***I say this merely for comic effect, of course. If in the statistically improbable event that you are Bill Oddie, welcome to my blog – thanks for reading and please recommend me to all of your friends in bird conservation circles!