At the shop we frequently receive phone calls from people concerning a certain species in their yard. It may be perceived as a pest, often with a lot of validity. Many of these legitimate “pest” species are non-native birds brought to North America at some point in the past. Some have now been here for hundreds of years and are fully incorporated into local ecosystems, which often has devastating consequences on native species. We take these calls seriously. and try to guide the customer through the issue. Periodically, though, a sort of inadvertent bait-and-switch happens mid-conversation, and it ends very differently from where it started.
I’ve had this conversation many times, but just last week I had one that went something like this:
“I have some doves in my yard that are crowding out other species. They are grey and have collars on the backs of their necks. What do I do? How do I get rid of them?”
At this point I immediately inferred that she was seeing the Eurasian collared dove, a common non-native species introduced to North America in 1981. They have multiplied by the millions in the intervening time and now pose a very real threat to the future of our native mourning dove. They’re more aggressive and bigger than the mild-mannered mourning dove, and populations are reacting accordingly as they compete for both nesting and feeding locations continent-wide.
I started to explain some ways to help mitigate them, but it can be really hard to limit one species while providing a welcoming habitat for all others. As we navigated the conversation, some things started to seem weird. She kept referencing a “white collar,” which didn’t make sense because Eurasians have a black collar. After almost a decade of listening to people describe birds, I’ve learned that their memories often conflict with what they actually saw. So I didn’t question it at first. Other little details seemed odd, though: the description of the color gray was off, the description of size was off, the description of behavior was a bit off. But these can all be subjective details. I don’t know what was said that made it click, but I finally blurted out:
“Hold on, where do you live?”
She answered, “Near Groom Creek,” a small community south of town. The neighborhood is thoughtfully integrated into the surrounding Ponderosa forest at an elevation of about 6,000 feet.
At this point I have to instantly shift from helping the customer get rid of a pest to reassuring them that they actually have a really cool bird! She was hosting band-tailed pigeons. These are the last native pigeon in North America, and while they can still exhibit some of the negative bird-feeder decorum that their Eurasian cousins are derided for, band-tails are relatively rare and declining throughout their range.
The species is very social, and will often travel in flocks of 10-20 individuals. When I tell the person they are rare, the statement often falls on deaf ears at first. They are big pigeons and can sometimes monopolize a yard, but fortunately for the homeowner their presence is short-lived. They don’t generally winter this far north, retreating to the southern part of our state and Mexico. Their year-round range extends to the rainforests of Central America and western South America all the way to northern Argentina.
In Prescott we’re in the southern part of their expanded summer range. They will generally only be found in higher-elevation forests, where they dine on nuts, seeds and fruit.
Unlike other dove and pigeon species, they are not very tolerant of human interaction. They are much more at home in the top of a hundred-foot pine than on the ground, and much flightier. They have to be, as they must be wary of predators like the goshawk, which also inhabits our high-elevation forests.
A typical band-tail sighting is a group of them flying at very high speed just above the forest canopy. If you’re lucky, you may happen to see one perched conspicuously on an upper limb of a tall Ponderosa.
Generally, as was the case last week, the person gets interested and grows to appreciate the unique species. Aside from first-glance resemblance to rock pigeons and Eurasian collard doves, they distinguish themselves in several ways and are truly a cool “yard bird.”
Even the most initially mundane bird may be something special, even if it is eating all your seed.
The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.