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January 2017

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January sunset, Sheila Sims
January sunset, Sheila Sims

A cold January afternoon. Rush, our youngest Lurcher, is sitting by the window counting pigeons and the other two are dozing, occupying a sofa each; no room for humans to sit down in this house. (I really must be firmer with these dogs).

Wood pigeon, Sheila Sims
Wood pigeon, Sheila Sims

The pigeons that Rush is studying so intently are Wood pigeons. They are very common in the countryside and also in towns and cities where they live in parks and gardens.  Pigeons and doves are all members of the Columbidae family and although there is not really any difference between them, it is the smaller, more delicate birds which are usually referred to as doves. The Wood pigeon is the largest of the five British Columbidae and there are certainly plenty of them. One of the reasons for this is that they will breed all the year round if conditions are right. They eat a variety of green crops, berries, seeds, buds, shoots and grains.

The Stock dove is quite similar in appearance but lacks the white collar and has distinctive iridescent green patches on the neck. It tends to feed mainly on seeds and, like the Wood pigeon, will sometimes nest in outbuildings.

The Collared dove, originally from Turkey and Asia, spread across Europe and arrived here in the 1950s. The first recorded nest in Britain was in a garden in Cromer in 1955 and this dove now occurs throughout the country. A pretty bird with buff-grey, pinkish plumage and black half collars on the neck. Collared doves feed mainly on cereal grains and seeds and will very occasionally take invertebrates.

The now rare Turtle doves spend the winter in Africa and arrive in Europe at the beginning of summer for their breeding season; in Britain East Anglia is one of their last remaining strongholds. They will feed on seeds that are on or near the ground making wild flowers an important source of food. Studies done since 1995 have shown that these lovely little doves have declined by between 88 and 95%. This is mainly attributed to the fact that thousands are shot in Mediterranean countries during the spring migration. It is also partly due to changes in farming methods which have shortened the breeding season for those that make it here; agriculture has also changed in their African winter quarters. It is understandable that farmers want to get the most from their land and to leave strips along the sides of fields where these birds can feed may seem wasteful to some; also hedges where the doves can nest are often over-trimmed to keep things tidy. The RSPB has launched ‘Operation Turtle Dove’ to try to help this bird. Also involved is Conservation Grade which works in conjunction with farmers and advises on how to create wildlife friendly farms. Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, near Fakenham, has captive Turtle doves and is trialling different seed mixes in the hope that the best can be sown in suitable habitats. So, people are trying and hopefully will be successful in saving this bird and getting it off the ‘Red List’ of critically endangered species but there is a long way to go.

Number five in the pigeon family is the Rock dove. In Britain the truly wild bird is only found in north and west Scotland, Northern Ireland and on northern off-shore islands. It is a coastal bird nesting on cliff ledges and feeding on seeds and cereals. This is the ancestor of feral or, as they are sometimes called, town pigeons.

Pigeons have been domesticated for thousands of years. There are records from the ancient Egyptians and Romans and studies of the Neolithic period have found evidence of the farming of these birds. The fact that they breed so prolifically made them a very useful source of meat in the past and their droppings, gathered from the dovecotes, were used extensively as fertiliser. Inevitably some of these domesticated Rock doves escaped into the wild and the result is what we see in our towns and cities world-wide today. Although some still resemble their ancestors there are many different colours and markings to be found amongst the feral populations due to interbreeding with escapees from pigeon lofts which fanciers have bred for colour and shape. The birds have adapted well to urban life, nesting on the ledges and window sills of buildings, which are similar to the cliff-side nesting places of the original Rock dove, and feeding on more or less anything; some people can’t be bothered to find a litter bin and the birds feast on discarded remains of take-away – or should I say throw-away – food.

Pigeons are intelligent birds and have been taught to know which button to press to be rewarded with food, recognise human facial expressions and even recognise themselves in a mirror. They are mostly known for their ability to navigate home from considerable distances and were used in both world wars to deliver messages from behind enemy lines. Pigeon racing is still popular and the Queen has a royal loft at Sandringham.

A happy marriage, Sheila Sims
A happy marriage, Sheila Sims

Pigeons mate for life although some will occasionally stray. They usually have two young at a time which they do not feed in the same way as other birds. Instead of finding food for the chicks, called squabs, they produce a substance called crop milk from special glands which the young birds will take directly from the crop; the only other bird known to do this is the Flamingo. People often puzzle about why we don’t see any baby pigeons. This is because they stay in the nest for about two months by which time they will look quite mature.

Another thing that pigeons do differently from other birds is the way that they drink. They are able to suck up the water, whereas other birds will take a beak full and then tilt their heads back to swallow.

If you haven’t already done it, January is probably the last chance you will get to clean out nest boxes. Birds will have started pairing up and will soon be looking for places to rear their families. New boxes are best put up in the autumn as some birds will roost in them during the winter but they can be put up this month in time for spring and should face between north and east to avoid strong winds and being over-heated by the sun.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Activities for January include:
• New Year’s Day ramble & guided walk on the newly aquired land – both at Cley Marshes. or 01603 625540.
• Wildlife photography for beginners – or 01485 210779.
• Breydon Water to Berney Mill, winter boat trip & Wild Walk. or 01603 715191.
©    Sheila Sims 2017