As families go in the bird world, the pigeons have done pretty well. The family has 309 species occurring pretty much everywhere on earth, except the Far North and Antarctica.
North America is actually pigeon poor, though that might seem hard to believe since pigeons seem to be among the most abundant birds in American cities—and lately have been occupying rural areas as well.
These birds aren’t native Americans, however. They were introduced by colonists who kept them for food. They’re well-known as messengers, too. Plus, pigeon breeding is a well-developed hobby. So is pigeon shooting.
These birds are known ornithologically as “rock doves,” though the name never has caught on outside birding circles, where pigeons are pretty much held in contempt as barely worthy of notice—though they do count on life lists.
That’s too bad, because pigeons are quite beautiful birds, often displaying glistening iridescent plumage. They also are capable of striking aerial maneuvers.
It’s their colonial habits that make them objectionable. Pigeons like other pigeons, and they nest in large groups. They are seldom seen alone.
They like vertical surfaces, since they originally were cliff dwellers. This ancient habit makes them partial to buildings, and they pretty often hang over the sides and make messes down below.
The rock dove is the first of the pigeon family to overrun North America. It now is common just about everywhere humankind occurs, as far north as the northern border of the Canadian prairie provinces and the panhandle of Alaska.
It took these pigeons about as long to occupy North America as it did humans.
Rock doves are not widespread in South America, however, even though the human history of the two continents is similar—a westward expansion that eventually filled up the landscape. That might be because South America has many more species of native pigeons than North America has.
And South American pigeons did not suffer the holocaust that beset the pre-eminent North American species, the passenger pigeon. Passenger pigeons were abundant in the eastern half of North America, and they occurred as far west as northeastern Montana, though in smaller numbers. Records for the territory that now is North Dakota suggest they nested wherever there was timber to support them. This includes the valleys of the Missouri and Red rivers.
Today, there are no living passenger pigeons. The species is one of eight members of the pigeon family that have become extinct since 1600. Two others are probably extinct. Another 56 are listed as threatened by Bird Life International.
Do the math. That’s 20 percent of the known pigeon species.
Extinction is part of the family history.
So, as we’ve seen, is expansion.
The latest example of an expanding species is the Eurasian collared dove.
The collared dove reached North America about 1985, when it showed up in south Florida. The first collared doves were seen in North Dakota in 1999, just 14 years later.
By contrast, 232 years separate the first European settlements in Florida—at St. Augustine in 1565—and North Dakota, at Pembina in 1797.
In fairness, humans faced formidable obstacles. The collared doves piggybacked on human settlements. They are not quite dependent on humans, but neither are they abundant where there are no humans.
On the Great Plains, they often are found in small towns, usually scavenging spilled grain at elevators. Sometimes, they show up at bird feeders.
These occasions often excite interest, because the collared dove is not yet a familiar bird in our area. Rather, the mourning dove, a native species, is more abundant, more expected and more likely.
Except for one thing.
Mourning doves are poorly equipped for cold weather. Specifically, their feet are exposed and often freeze, leaving them helpless in cold weather. For that reason, mourning doves seldom survive a Red River Valley winter. The entire local population is migratory.
Eurasian collared doves are tougher birds. They spend the winter months here, and that is when most sightings are reported.
The doves are present in summer months, as well, though they are harder to see. I’ve heard their distinctive calls in a number of small towns in the northern valley, including Gilby, Cavalier and Park River, N.D.
The call is three notes, each longer than the one before. This is rendered “kuk-koooo-koook” in the National Geographic’s “Complete Birds of North America.” This is reminiscent of the slow, melancholy cooing of the mourning dove—often the first bird song of summer mornings on the Plains. But it is easily recognized as a different song.
The collared dove is similar to the mourning dove, but larger and more bulky in appearance. Its plumage is cream-colored or off-white, not quite gray and certainly not the rich brownish color of the mourning dove. The clinching field mark is on the back of the neck, the collar in the bird’s name.
These three—the rock dove, the Eurasian collared dove and the mourning dove—are the pigeon family representatives in our area. Another 15 species occur on the continent. Of these, seven are strays from the West Indies or Mexico, and four are introduced from Europe, Asia or Africa.
This leaves four native pigeons not yet mentioned: the band-tailed pigeon of the southwest and Pacific Coast, the white-winged dove of the southern Plains states, the Inca dove of Texas and the Southwest deserts, and the common ground dove of southern Texas and the Gulf Coast states.