European Robin American Robin At this time of year, European Robins, a species commonly called robin or robin redbreast in the UK, are a familiar sight on Christmas cards in England. The practice began during Queen Victoria times in the mid-18th century when …
Author: John Cammidge
Sandhill Cranes During early October this year, I visited the Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento, to glimpse flocks of Sandhill Cranes flying high in the sky, having just arrived to winter in their thousands among the fields, marshes, and wetlands of the Central …
Many years ago, I was required to persuade my fellow birdwatchers that I had spotted a pair of Shore Larks on a beach just north of the Warren at Spurn Point, Yorkshire, England, to have the sighting recorded in the Bird Observatory’s daily log. What made the task difficult was that the presence of a Shore Lark in this neighborhood was unusual, the encounter demanded that I supply a detailed justification, and that as a teenager, I had never done this before. Nonetheless, I was successful with my presentation.
Drawing of Spurn Point April 1961- see my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress for more details
Today there are fewer sightings of Shore Larks in Britain than during the 1960s, and according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, only around 100 Shore Larks arrive to winter each year in the UK. These birds appear along the east coast of England during October to March, traveling south from their breeding grounds. They usually spend summer in Scandinavia and the far north of Eurasia, migrating in search of new sources of food and to avoid the cold weather. Typically they appear along sea-shores and on salt marshes. Those breeding in the mountains of south-east Europe and southern Asia tend to remain there year-round.
Shore Lark: Global Range Map – orange breeding; purple year-round; blue non-breeding
Contrast this with my experiences today in California as I fulfill my docent responsibilities to protect the nesting Snowy Plovers on Surf Beach, close to the Vandenberg Space Force Base. During my visits, I have seen close to the above annual number of UK birds that look similar to the ones at Spurn Point, either undulating in flight in small flocks, or erratically walking and running among the dunes foraging for food. The distinction is that in North America these birds are called Horned Larks, and are the only lark that is native to North America. In Europe, there are several other native species such as the Skylark, Crested Lark, and Wood Lark. The Shore Lark probably spread to the New World around 600,000 years ago. Today many are resident in North America year-round, and are joined during winter by Horned Larks from the north and from mountainous areas. Birds belonging to this species return to their birthplace each summer, a characteristic known as philopatry.
Horned Lark: North America Range Map
Horned Larks breed throughout North America, choosing open ground or habitats possessing short vegetation. They construct grass-lined, cup-shaped nests in depressions on the ground, laying a clutch of three to five eggs. Their scientific name translates as “desert lover of the high mountains”.
Horned Lark breeding
There is also a species known as Meadowlark in North America but these birds belong the blackbird, not lark family. Also, efforts in the past to introduce the Eurasian Skylark into North America have usually failed, although a small population survives today on Vancouver Island, and vagrants from Asia are occasionally seen in Alaska.
North American Western Meadowlark
This species with two names enjoys one of the largest worldwide ranges of any songbird, and has an estimated global breeding population of 140 million, with 97 million in North America. The species is usually classified as of “Least Concern” from a conservation point-of-view. However, in North America, its numbers have declined by an estimated two thirds since 1970, in part due to pesticides, as well as caused by loss of habitat. In western North America, Horned Larks are one of the species most often killed by wind turbines although, as the chart below illustrates, this cause of death among birds is minor compared with other means of fatality. In the UK, the Shore Lark is on the Amber (Watch) List of birds due to habitat loss caused by changes in agricultural practices and urbanization.
Wind Turbine Deaths: It Happens!!
The Shore Lark is easily distinguished from other Old World larks by its pale yellow throat, the yellow on its face, and a black breast-band and cheeks. It is pinkish brown above and whitish below. Males have a small black band across their crown and small black feather tufts, only visible at short range, that are horn-like (two pointed black feathers jutting out backwards on either side of the crown). Males are slightly larger and darker than females and their “horns” are more prominent. The same description applies to New World Horned Larks.
Horned Lark or Shore Lark?
As for the most appropriate name for this species, the North American term seems most suited since it refers to the bird’s obvious feature of “horns”. Also, only in certain parts of Europe does the species migrate to coastal habitats during winter that justifies the name of “Shore Lark”. Personally I am satisfied with either name, and I am delighted that my volunteering at Surf Beach has reconnected me with a species that caused me so much excitement many years ago. However, whether this species continues as a winter visitor to the UK remains uncertain. Global warming will impact mountain and high altitude upland regions as the tree line advances upwards, potentially pushing the habitat of these birds further north.
I was first introduced to Northern Wheatears at the end of March 1961 during a school geology fieldtrip to Stainforth in Ribblesdale, Yorkshire, England. A small group of us were studying the area’s Carboniferous Limestone and Millstone Grit and searching for fossils in the older …
California Quail – male and female Admired by many, the California Quail, about the size of a pigeon, is a hardy and adaptable ground-dwelling game bird that was originally resident in the United States from Southern Oregon south into Baja California, but has extended …
Killdeer faking injury
According to research, birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. Jennifer Ackerman in her book The Genius of Birds dismisses the belief that idioms such as “bird brain”, “eating crow”, “cuckoo”, and “feather brain” have anything to do with a true understanding of the brain structure of birds, and my early experiences as a bird watcher confirm her belief. One of my first memories of unusual bird behavior is at Spurn Point in Yorkshire when two partridges flew over the Warren. The female hit the overhead electric wires and decapitated herself, and the male landed and called out for her for at least 30 minutes. Further details of my adolescent bird watching are in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.
There are many other illustrations of bird intelligence that I could give you from my experiences but I want this article to focus on the more bizarre aspects of bird behavior. Examples of strange conduct I have used in previous blogs include birds feigning injury, shrikes impaling prey on thorns before eating their victims, fulmars spitting foul liquid at anything that threatens their nest, and the parasitic behavior of Eurasian cuckoos and brown-headed cowbirds.
Great Indian hornbill
Let us start with Indian hornbills. There are nine species in India, so how about choosing the largest one, 40 to 48 inches long (100 to 120 cm), the great Indian hornbill. It is native to the tropical rain forests on the Indian subcontinent and in south-east Asia, and like all hornbills, has a huge casque on top of its massive bill. The casque is hollow and serves no known purpose, but for this article the species uniqueness lies in something quite different.
Great Indian hornbill nest
The female builds a nest after entering the hollow of a large tree and then seals the entrance while she is still inside so that she can no longer leave. She uses dung and pellets. The male supplies the pellets of mud from the forest floor; first he swallows the material and later regurgitates it as saliva-covered nesting matter for the female to use. During the next 8 to 10 weeks the male feeds the female through the nest slit as she molts, the eggs hatch, and the chicks become half-developed.
Another example of unusual bird behavior involves the red-breasted nuthatch, a resident and native to most of Canada and the United States. It is a small compact bird with a very short tail, and like the hornbill, nests in holes in trees. After building the nest, it will spread a coating of conifer resin at the entrance to the hole, sometimes applying it with a piece of bark, for the purpose of preventing other birds, like wrens and woodpeckers, from using the space.
Red-breasted nuthatch Range Map
Should you happen to be in New Guinea, look out for a bird that is poisonous, known as the hooded pitohui. It is a small black and orange bird with powerful bill and dark red eyes that inhabits the hills and low mountains of the islands of Papua New Guinea. The poison is in its feathers and skin. Apparently, along with the fruit and seeds that they eat, these birds are also partial to invertebrates such as the small melyrid beetle. It is this creature that provides them with the poison, known as batrachotoxin. In humans, in small doses, it can cause tingling and numbing, but in large quantities it may lead to paralysis, cardiac arrest, and death. Local people leave the bird alone, call it the “rubbish bird”, and consider it inedible. Snakes that eat its eggs may become sick because of the poison the female wipes onto her clutch of eggs.
Across the globe, in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, lives a bird known as the hoatzin (pronounced wat-sin), and sometimes called the reptile bird, skunk bird, or stinkbird. It is pheasant-sized, with a long neck and small head, and feeds on leaves and fruit. It has no known close relatives among the bird world, but like some dinosaurs, Hoatzin chicks are born with two claws on each wing that survive for the first three months of their lives and are used for climbing and balance.
The hoatzin’s digestive system is unique among birds. It employs bacterial fermentation in the front part of its gut to break down vegetable material, much like cattle do. However, this process causes the bird to produce a highly disagreeable, manure-like odor. While indigenous people sometimes collect its eggs, it is rare that they hunt the bird because they consider its meat to be undesirable. The hoatzin is fairly common in its range today because it inhabits mangrove swamps and riverine forest.
Last but not least, let me introduce you to the Eurasian wryneck, a member of the woodpecker family that pretends to be a snake when threatened. In my early birdwatching days it was a summer resident in the UK, from March to mid-July, breeding chiefly in southern England and occasionally in Wales. Today it is only a passage bird with less than 300 sightings in Britain annually.
It is sparrow-sized and feeds on ants, and like the hornbill and nuthatch, nests in holes in trees. When threatened, it has the ability to turn its head 180 degrees, twist its neck, and hiss like a snake, and is nick-named snake bird because of this behavior. It has often been linked to witchcraft, curses, and evil spells. Using its Latin name of Jynx torquilla, it is supposed to “jinx” people (i.e. bring them bad luck).
Eurasian wryneck Range Map: orange – summer; blue – winter; green – all year
As you might expect, none of these unusual birds are particularly threatened at the moment, either by global warming or human interventions.
As my daughter leaves for a vacation on the Shetland Islands, I am featuring the long-time persecuted family of cormorants on my bird blog for this month. The Shetland Islands are a birders paradise, and both the sleek great cormorant (simply called the cormorant in …
I have volunteered to assist with the protection of the Western snowy plover during their California coastal breeding season this year from March to September. The following is published to coincide with my training as a docent. This small shorebird is approximately the size …
Here is the story of a species of bird that has flourished on continents where it was introduced during the 19th century while at the same time suffering serious decline in its native Europe.
In North America, there were close to 200 million European starlings a few years ago, dispersed from Alaska to Mexico, with geographic extensions into Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba. Most are descendants of approximately 100 starlings released in New York’s Central Park during 1890 and 1891 by a group of people dedicated to introducing bird species mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays. Their territory rapidly expanded due to the species strong flight ability, its adaptability to various habitats, the production of two broods each season, their aggressiveness, and their diverse dietary choices. The average life span is two to three years but individuals can live up to 20 years.
As early as 1914, people in the United States realized how harmful these birds could be and efforts were made to discourage them. For example, in parts of Connecticut, residents tried to scare them away by fastening teddy bears to trees occupied by the birds, and fired rockets through the branches.
Red coloring – European starling introduced Blue coloring – native habitat
By 1928, European starlings had reached the Mississippi, and in 1942 they had made their way to the West Coast. Today, these birds are regarded as pests and their numbers are supposed to be in decline. Estimates in recent years are that the North America population has decreased to around 140 million.
The United States classifies the species as invasive and does not protect it under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of starlings are killed each year. The US Department of Agriculture reports eliminating 1.5 million birds during 2012 and about 700,000 in 2019.The damage that these birds cause annually to North America agriculture is estimated at approximately one billion dollars.
The North America experience is repeated elsewhere. For example, in Southern Africa, the starling was introduced in 1897 around Cape Town and is now the most common bird in that region. In New Zealand, starlings were introduced in 1862 to destroy the hordes of caterpillars and insects that invaded newly planted crops, whereas today it is considered a pest by orchard owners and an advantage in pastoral areas. In Australia, the starling was introduced in the Melbourne area during 1857 to control insects that were invading farm crops, and rapidly spread across the south-east of the country. In Argentina, the European starling appeared first during 1987 in Buenos Aires and has rapidly expanded its territory.
Shakespeare only mentions the starling in Henry IV, Act 1, whereas I refer to them twice in my novels. In Unplanned they forecast the weather, and in She Wore a Yellow Dress I feature their habit of flocking in flight during fall and winter to create acrobatic murmurations. They are permanent residents, although some will migrate short distances.
The seagull and the starling
Growing up in Yorkshire, England during the 1960s, I encountered starlings in most places, from around the farm to school grounds, and I also saw one attacked and drowned by a common gull at Spurn Point bird observatory. They received virtually no mention from my colleague birdwatchers because of their abundance. However, since I moved to the United States in 1979, their population in Britain has declined by an estimated 90 percent. The reasons are unclear but seem to include loss of habitat and the poisoning of the insects that they eat. Even so, there remains an estimated 1.8 million breeding birds in the UK, even though the species is placed on Britain’s red-list of birds that carry the greatest conservation concern.
European starling aggression
They are aggressive, stocky, social, and noisy birds that are medium-sized (about 8 inches/20 cm long – the size of an American robin), have short triangular wings, a short tail, pinkish red legs, and a long, slender, pointed bill that is yellow during the breeding season but becomes dark in the fall. They tend to walk rather than hop, and typically roost in trees and on telephone and power lines. During summer, their plumage is a dark, iridescent purplish-green, molting into a blackish-brown with feathers tipped in white to give the bird a speckled appearance. Starlings belong to the family that includes myna birds noted for their voice mimicking. The starlings own whistling and whizzing are sometimes a mimic of other starlings, and occasionally they will repeat the sounds of people, animals, and inanimate objects like police sirens.
European starlings are common in towns, suburbs, and in the countryside close to human settlements, where they forage for food on the ground. They are highly social and enjoy an evening singsong. Eating habits are omnivorous and include taking fruits, grains, and seeds, which has caused them to be treated as agricultural pests. The fact that they eat invertebrates, such as leatherjackets (the larval stage of daddy long legs) that damage the roots of grasses and crops, is often overlooked.
They also compete aggressively to secure tree cavity-space for nesting sites, and in North America displace native species such as bluebirds, oak titmice, acorn woodpeckers, and tree swallows. Starlings quite literally push out the native bird. Nesting in gutters and vents of buildings and competing aggressively at bird feeders have added to their notoriety, as do their messy droppings that can cause disease.
It is hard to mistake other birds for European starlings. The common grackle in North America is similar looking, but larger, and has a yellow eye whereas starlings have dark eyes. These grackles are resident east of the Rocky Mountains and their cousins, the great-tailed grackle, are present in southern California but look distinctly different. Other similar-looking birds in North America include the brown-headed cowbird and Brewer’s blackbird. In Europe, the nearest comparable species is the blackbird.
It is the winter’s evening entertainment of aerial displays known as murmurations that is the welcome side of starlings. These murmurations sometimes involve hundreds of thousands of birds and occur when they gather above their roost at dusk to fly in patterns before settling down for the night. The feature is particularly visible from October to February. Where does the name come from? The best guess is from the low and indistinct sound that the birds make in unison, particularly after they land, and is taken from the Latin “to murmur” or “to mutter”. These flocks of birds can be seen twisting, turning, swooping, and swirling across the sky in mesmerizing shape-shifting clouds. The behavior is believed to confuse predators and help the birds keep warm, and studies show that each bird follows the path of about seven of its closest neighbors. No other bird has a comparable aerial display, although dunlins, some sandpipers, American robins, red knots and geese can be seen traveling in flocks.
The starling may also have weather-predicting abilities. Like many birds, starlings possess a special middle-ear receptor known as a Vitali organ that detects extremely small changes in atmospheric pressure. As atmospheric pressure falls – indicating an approaching storm – the birds fly lower and lower and eventually roost to quietly await the arrival of rain. This weather forecasting ability, however, does not include long range forecasting!
Despite the entertainment value, the starlings’ reputation remains much more as a pest and they suffer from human persecution. They are frightened out of gardens because of aggressively occupying bird feeders, their nests are destroyed because of the inconvenience and their filth, and farmers shoot, trap, and poison them because of crop destruction.
Another feature of European starlings is that they are subject to mysterious deaths when up to hundreds of birds fall out of the sky and die. These incidents have been reported in the UK, the United States, the Netherlands, and Spain. There are stories of starlings tumbling from above and ending up dead on the road, in gardens, and across fields. The cause is a mystery and suggestions offered include that the birds were being chased by a bird of prey and hit the ground as they changed direction, or that they were reacting to a change in the weather, or that they had been poisoned. Tests usually show the birds died of physical injuries rather than from health causes. There are, however, incidents of birds flying too low and hitting moving vehicles, and drones causing chaos in the midst of murmurations.
European starlings – an invasive species
So what is the future of the European starling? Should these birds be protected, especially in the Old World where their numbers are in serious decline, or culled as in the New World where they remain an invasive species and a threat to agriculture and native birds? United States regulations allow their eggs to be taken as well as permitting their capture and lethal removal. In the Old World, people use scaring devices, shoot or trap the birds, and spray chemical repellants. In countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and France, starlings are sometimes eaten as food (for example, as pate de sansonnet).
It is a controversy that won’t be resolved anytime soon. Sadly, once upon a time, the European starling was a national treasure, a source of aesthetic beauty, and occupied an important role in agriculture. Today, thanks to the Agricultural Revolution, most of that has changed. The introduction of pesticides, the development of crops that are resistant to insects, mechanization, and the implementation of new farming practices, has replaced the need for the starling. The species now has a reputation as an invasive agricultural pest that carries disease to livestock and people.
In the meantime, I invite you to reflect on the starlings past history and consider the Legend of Branwen, the daughter of the King of all Britons. After marriage to the King of Ireland, she moved to Ireland where she was abused by her husband. She taught a starling to speak and had it fly to her brother to tell him of her plight. The bird succeeded in its task and her brother came and rescued her. Exactly whether or not this happened is uncertain, but the tale is believed to be based on real events that occurred during the Bronze Age of British history. Well done the European starling!
Last but not least, you may also be interested in watching the Netflix movie The Starling, recently released, and starring Melissa McCarty, Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline.
In chapter 5 of She Wore a Yellow Dress, I describe my first date back in 1965 with a fellow Hull University undergraduate who became my wife. She curiously asked about my favorite hobby, and when I said it was bird watching, she wanted the name of my best-loved bird. Willingly, I told her it was the curlew because of its large and golden appearance, its mesmerizing summertime call of cur-lee cur-lee cur-lee, and its behavior when protecting its nest. These birds often bred in waterlogged grassland fields close to our family farm. During my youth, I would hide behind the hedgerows (long since removed), hoping to see the parents, and find the location of their nest. Curlews are highly secretive. Their nests are usually hidden by long grass, and they will leave the nest by taking flight some distance away from where they are nesting. They sometimes pretend to be injured, dragging their wing behind them to persuade you to follow them. When I eventually would find the nest, it would usually contain four dark olive-green eggs with brown markings.
And who could not be hypnotized by these birds as they poured out their distinctive bubbling call, like a kettle rising to the boil, but never quite getting there. I would often hear the sound late into the night.
Regrettably today, because fields are drained and long grass is no longer grown, the curlew has moved on. Most of their past territory in the west of Britain has been lost, and virtually none breed in lowland England.
Curlews are migratory large wading birds, mottled brown and gray, with long bluish-colored legs, and very distinctive long down-curved bills. The bill length is approximately six inches (15 cm). In the UK, pairs nest on the ground in wet pasture, and on moorland and heathland, and in marshes. They are site-faithful, returning to the same location each year so long as conditions remain suitable, and their chicks often establish nesting sites nearby. The species is omnivorous, eating both plants and invertebrates, and are often seen probing soggy ground with their long bills to find worms, grubs, and insects. The bill is longer than their tongue and acts like a pair of tweezers or chopsticks as they extract food. They may then toss it into the air and catch it on their tongue before swallowing it.
Eurasian curlew feeding
Because of the decline in curlew numbers since the 1970s, the bird is now placed on the UK’s “red list” of endangered species. It is likewise listed as vulnerable to extinction in continental Europe. Reasons include habitat loss (afforestation, urban development, drainage of wetlands, and shift to arable farming), changes in farming practices (increased mowing of fields, destruction of nests by farm equipment, and early cutting of green grass for silage), more predators (foxes, badgers, crows), and climate change (loss of water, drying out of breeding sites, ground too hard for curlew bills, and the inundation of coastal habitats). To raise awareness of this situation the English-based Curlew Action Group has declared April 21 as World Curlew Day.
An estimated 25 percent of the Eurasian birds’ global population breeds in the UK today, numbering close to 70,000 pairs, but since the late 1960s its numbers have declined 70 percent. The species has never had it easy with humans. It was often hunted and eaten, and it was not until during World War II that butchers in the UK were banned from selling its flesh.
Curlews are mentioned in several old English recipe books, and in Cornwall they were so common that their meat was stuffed into pies. Evidence of their revival by the mid-20th century, however, is mentioned in the 1958 edition of the York Bootham School Bird List. Under “curlew” it reports:
At the end of the 19th century, the curlew seems to have been confided to the moorland parts of Yorkshire as far as breeding was concerned. Nowadays the picture is quite different. They have bred for several years in locations around York and during the severe winter of 1947, many were seen along the River Ouse.
North America long-billed curlew
In North America, the Eurasian species is not present except as a very rare vagrant. There are three other curlew species, however, native to the continent, with the long-billed curlew the most common. This is the curlew I have seen most typically since moving to California. It has an estimated population of 125,000 to 160,000, and its down-curved bill is slightly longer than the Eurasian variety, at 8 inches (20 cm). The bird is a foot tall (30 cm), and is the largest shorebird in the United States. Its coloring is mainly mottled brown, with a pale cinnamon belly, and in flight, it displays upper and lower wings that are slightly cinnamon. Because of the long bill, it was nicknamed the candlestick bird, and it is this alias that is one of the alleged sources of the name for Candlestick Point in San Francisco. Apparently, long ago, the long-billed curlew was plentiful in this area.
Long-billed curlew Range Map
In size, shape and color, the long-billed curlew is similar to the marbled godwit, but the curlew’s down-curved bill is distinguishable from the upturned bill of this other bird. The curlew’s call is a whistled and high pitched curl-e-e-u-u, whereas the godwit gives off a loud kerreck or god-wit sound.
Alaskan breeding grounds of bristle-thighed curlew
There is the much rarer bristle-thighed curlew, so named for the inconspicuous bristle feathers at the base of its legs. It nests in a few hilly areas of north-western Alaska and has an estimated population of 10,000. For winter, it flies non-stop to various south Pacific islands, including Hawaii, Fiji and Samoa. This species, regrettably, is vulnerable to extinction, causing its numbers to be closely monitored in Alaska and measures taken to protect its wintering habitat.
The third species of curlew may now be extinct. The Eskimo curlews’ breeding grounds lay in the far northeastern regions of Canada, and they migrated long-distance to the pampas grass of Argentina. The last confirmed sighting of this species in Canada was during 1987, and it was last recorded in South America in 1939.
One caution for birdwatchers is not to confuse the identification of curlews with their close cousin, the whimbrel. The latter breed on the vast treeless plains of the frozen Arctic in North America and Eurasia, and migrate south to South America and the shorelines of Africa, south Asia and Australasia. Because of their more remote breeding locations, the whimbrel is less threatened than other curlew species, and maintains a global population of around 1.8 million. They are typically greyish-brown above and whitish below, with two distinct races. The Eurasian whimbrel is white-rumped (very noticeable in flight), whereas the North American subspecies is dark-rumped. The curlew and whimbrel are similar in shape, but the whimbrel is smaller, and its bill, although similarly down-curved, it is not as long as the curlew. Probably the best ways to identify the whimbrel is through its two dark bands across the head, and its rippling whistle that prolongs into a trill.
Like the curlew, it is named after its call.
There are three other species of curlew worldwide, with only the little curlew not on the endangered species list. It is the smallest curlew, has the shortest bill, breeds in northern Siberia, and spends winter in Indonesia and Australasia. Its population is about 180,000, and the number is stable.
The slender-billed curlew, classed as critically endangered, has a population of under 100, and nests in the peat bogs of Siberia, wintering around the Mediterranean. Finally, there is the endangered Far Eastern curlew, with a declining global population of around 30,000. It breeds in eastern Russia and Mongolia, and winters mainly in coastal Australasia.
Hopefully, this article will help you understand why certain species of bird are headed towards extinction, and why conservation actions are essential. In the UK, efforts are being taken to protect the curlews’ habitat, monitor its nesting sites, cull predators or fence them off from the breeding areas, rear chicks in captivity, and increase public awareness of the vulnerability of the species. The North America situation with the long-billed curlew is less severe, although numbers have declined in the eastern parts of its breeding range. Consequently, the species is placed on the list of “birds of concern”.
Finally, remember that April 21 is World Curlew Day. The date marks the Feast Day of St. Beuno in Wales (who died 21 April 640) and the legend that survives him. As the story goes, he was a Christian missionary, crossing the Menai Strait to Anglesey to lead a sermon when he dropped his papers in the water. This would have been a disaster were it not for a passing curlew that rescued the book and flew his papers to land to dry and to prepare them for his services. As a thank you, St. Beuno prayed to God for the protection of the curlew and asked that the species become invisible and be allowed to nest safely in long grass free from predators.
One of the very few families of birds that remained constant when I moved from England to California in 1979 was the family of terns. I regularly saw Sandwich, Arctic, common, black, and little terns during my visits to Spurn Point in Yorkshire, and during …
This is a memoir of a COVID-invigorated Bird Spotter and his July 2021 journey from Half Moon Bay to the pinnacles of the Southeast Farallon Islands, and waters beyond, in search of pelagic birds: puffins, shearwaters, storm-petrels, and albatross. My thanks go to Alvaro Jaramillo …
For thousands of years, domesticated pigeons have been an integral part of human life. Egyptian hieroglyphics and stone carvings in Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq) indicate that these birds were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. Over centuries they have been kept as symbols of prosperity, used for religious sacrifice, eaten, and trained as couriers. Before the invention of the telegraph (1835), they were the quickest means of sending long distance messages. Today they are bred for show or used in pigeon racing. Feral pigeons, that you seem to see everywhere, are domesticated pigeons that have returned to the wild. My first experience of domesticated pigeons was in April 1953, when we moved into a new home that had a dovecote with about a dozen beautiful white fantail pigeons; for more on this, I refer you to my novel Unplanned.
Pigeons today are usually bred either for show at competitions or to increase their speed and homing instincts as a racing bird. Those raised for racing are usually known as homing pigeons or racing homers, whereas show birds are subdivided into a range of various types such as Fantails, Carneau, Jacobins, Tumblers, Frillbacks, Pouters, and Tipplers.
The ancestor of all pigeons is the rock dove, called the rock pigeon in the United States. The species is native to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and although widespread, its numbers are decreasing. Elsewhere, such as in the Americas and Australia, these birds originated from captive stock and are classified as rock pigeons (feral type) instead of rock pigeons (wild type). The estimated global population of rock pigeons is as high as 400 million birds. The two types are similar in size and shape but it is the feral type that displays the variations in colors and patterns.
Feral pigeons (taking on some of the colors bred into domesticated fancy pigeons)
Rock Pigeon (wild and feral) Range Map: green – native and/or nesting: orange – introduced
Originally pigeons were brought from Europe to North America during the 1600s to provide food for settlers and to be used for religious purposes. However, they quickly began to breed, and as some escaped, they rapidly spread across the continent. Today they are widespread in North America. Under the 1918 United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act they were excluded from protection since they are non-native and were considered an invasive species like the house sparrow and European starling.
Many people treat rock pigeons as pests and hunt and shoot them. They are believed to spread disease, they infest our parks and public places, they damage crops in the fields, and they poop everywhere, including on your head.
Yet for those who breed pigeons, the bird is worthy of protection. The racing homer is bred for its endurance, speed, and desire to return “home”, with racing distances from as short as 62 miles (100 km), up to 620 miles (1000 km). The bird typically flies at about 50 miles (80 km) per hour. Prize money for winning races can be substantial. The South Africa Million Dollar Race offers $1.6 million in prizes with the first prize worth $300,000. Pigeon racing is a serious sport, and a highly successful pigeon is highly valued. In November 2020, a two-year old female racing pigeon was auctioned to a Chinese purchaser for $1.9 million, making it the highest valued racing pigeon ever.
Exactly how racing pigeons navigate their way home is unclear. A favored theory is that they use the position and angle of the sun and landmarks. However, often races take place during sunny, clear weather, yet large numbers disappear. In June 2021, about 10 percent of the 250,000 birds released across the UK for a competition made it home on time, but the others either straggled home much later or are still missing.
Another theory is that pigeons use the Earth’s magnetic field because they have a concentration of iron particles in their bill. A third idea is that they can detect low-frequency sounds coming from the earth and oceans and use these to travel home.
Of course there are many other species of pigeon and dove worldwide. In fact there are over 300 species, some occupying tiny areas, like a single island (for example Granada), or small parts of a country ( like the Somali pigeon in northern Somalia or the black-billed fruit dove in the north-east corner of Australia’s Northern Territory).
In North America, the commonest I see here in California is the band-tailed pigeon, a native of the west and southwestern states. It is the second most abundant species of pigeon in the United States, and usually travels in small flocks that will suddenly descend into backyards and steal seeds from bird feeders. There is also the white-crowned pigeon, native to southern Florida, and the red-billed pigeon that is seen in southTexas and throughout Mexico.
Band-tailed pigeon Range Map
As for doves, there are 15 varieties in North America, with the mourning dove by far the most common. It is resident across two-thirds of North America and has an estimated population of two million. Doves are distinguished from pigeons by their smaller size and fanned tail; however, there is no scientific difference between the two types of bird. Doves are friendly, attractive birds, often seen in backyards where they feed on the ground under bird feeders, or on platform feeders.
Mourning dove Range Map
Hopefully, none of these species will suffer the same experience as the passenger pigeon, which is now extinct. This species was native to North America and the most abundant bird on the continent when Europeans first arrived. The population back then is estimated at around three billion. They lived in forests, ate nuts and berries, occupied very noisy nesting colonies, and were caught and eaten by humans. Numbers rapidly declined, and by 1900, there were none in the wild, and in 1914, the last one in captivity died.
In the UK, during my childhood days, I enjoyed the summer-time visits from turtle doves, a species that is now seriously threatened in Britain. Today there are under 15,000 pairs breeding. The UK is also home to the collared dove and the stock dove. Probably my most favorite is the wood pigeon, the UK’s largest and commonest pigeon, and one whose nest of twigs often allowed me to see the two white eggs it contained before I climbed the tree.
In summary, doves appear welcomed by humans as representatives of love, peace, and compassion, whereas pigeons are hated because of their abundance, mess, and aggressiveness. Our love-hate relationship with these birds needs to find the right balance. Hopefully, we can control the numbers of pigeons without having to hunt and shoot them. Who knows, one of them you shoot maybe a racing pigeon returning home.
(Author’s note: I would like to thank my friend Ted Adams of Pacheco Valley, CA who encouraged this article by providing me with a copy of the 1965 edition of the Encyclopedia of Pigeon Breeds by Wendell M. Levi. Long ago, Ted was the caretaker of about 50 homing pigeons)