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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

Pigeons and doves - six of one, half dozen of the other

We are home to at least two species of Columbidae, that is, members of the dove and pigeon family. I say at least, because I have seen a third member, which I will explain below. The Columbidae family is host to many species of birds which we typically identify as doves or pigeons. 

Before I begin identifying which bird is which, let’s set the record straight on the difference between a dove and a pigeon. Well, quite honestly, there really isn’t any difference. The terms are used arbitrarily. The smaller members of the family are typically labeled doves and the larger ones pigeons. For all intents and purposes, it is six of one and a half-dozen of the other.  That being said, let’s look at our two birds of the month.

The first is one of my all-time favorite birds, the mourning dove. Note mourning, not morning. The specie gets its name for its sad lament of a call. This bird is almost always seen in pairs, as the birds mate for life. These pretty little doves range from gray to saddle brown in color, often with a varying amount of dark spotting on its closed wings. An important field mark is the long, pointed tail which has a notable taper visible on the flying bird. The open tail is framed with white and is quite distinctive.

The mourning dove may or may not be in your neighborhood during winter.  Depending on the weather they might migrate locally or regionally, or simply stay put. I have seen them in the woods in  January. They don’t care for a lot of rain nor really cold weather, but seem willing to tough it out for as long as they can. Home bodies I suppose. Mourning doves are delicious to eat and avidly hunted across the continent, and are probably the most numerous game bird in North America.

The other common Columbidae in our area is the Rock pigeon, also known as the feral pigeon. These are those birds you see hanging out at the tracks, or the horse barn, the fairgrounds, the local Les Schwab tire center, or just about anywhere with a large overhang to hide under.  Rock pigeons range in color from blues to reds, even an occasion (though rare) white. These birds might be escaped pets or drawn from locally established nesting populations. The point being, these birds seem to be everywhere that people are. They even range up to Alaska. Specially bred lines of these birds include both racing pigeons and homing pigeons. Same genus, just different breeds. 

The last specie I’ve spotted was a probable Eurasian Collared dove. I say probable because it might also have been a Ringed Turtle dove, which is a very similar bird. I spotted this outlaw resting on a phone pole in the parking lot of the Sandpoint West Athletic Center. I didn’t have my binoculars with me, so I couldn’t be sure which of the two it was, but both are commonly kept as house pets. This  specimen was probably an escapee and I doubt it survived long in its flight for freedom. It is just the sort of thing a passing falcon would make a quick meal of.

Doves and pigeons are unique in many ways compared to other species of our feather friends. Unlike other birds which have to drink water by lifting mouthfuls (beakfuls?) to flow by gravity down their throats, members of Columbidae can drink by suction. They just stick their beak into the beverage of choice and drink away, never having to lift their heads. 

These birds are also unique in the way they feed their hatchlings. Both the male and female parent are able to “suckle” their young with crop milk. Crop milk is a milk-like secretion from a special lining of the stomach and the young birds access it by thrusting their beaks into their parent’s craw, sucking it up. Though this special type of feeding only lasts a few days, it is quite extraordinary. Who would have thought that such a common bird was so uncommon in characteristics. Just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover, nor a bird by its commonness. Happy birding! sa

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, pigeon, dove, Rock pigeon, Eurasian collared dove, mourning dove, ringed turtle dove

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