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Pigeons belong to a remarkable and diverse family of birds

 

Photo by Karen McSharry • This rock pigeon made a recent visit to a home in Bristol, Virginia. Not native to North America, the pigeon has been here almost since the first Europeans arrived on the continent.

Karen McSharry, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me recently with some photos asking for help in determining an identification of the bird depicted in her photos.

“This fellow made a sharp descent and landed on my deck with a thud,” Karen wrote. “He just stood there, seemed stunned and didn’t move or make a sound.”

After an hour or so, her husband picked the bird up and set him in the wooded area behind their house.

“He doesn’t seem to be there now, over a week later,” she added.

Karen said that at first glance pigeon came to mind as she tried to identify her visiting feathered friend. “But his head is bigger and black,” she wrote. “There didn’t seem to be any iridescence.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) is a striking wild pigeon in appearance that is found on small islands and in coastal regions from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, east through the Malay Archipelago, to the Solomons and Palau.

I wrote back and told Karen to trust her instincts. The bird she photographed was indeed a pigeon, known more formally as rock pigeon.

Once also known as rock doves, this pigeon is not native to North America, but the species has been here almost from the time the first Europeans began to sail to the shores of what eventually became the United States and Canada. The rock pigeon is native to Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, but the species has long been domesticated. Pigeons display a lot of variety in their appearance. Through artificial selection, the rock pigeon has been bred into all sorts of other patterns and colors beyond the wild bird’s standard appearance.

I don’t usually get pigeons at my home, although I did once have a domesticated bird visit my feeders for a few days. This particular bird had a band on one leg. I found out later it was a “homing” pigeon, which are pigeons trained to carry messages. After they deliver their message, they return “home,” hence the term “homing pigeon.” But they are still basically just a domesticated variety of rock pigeon.

Gordon Randall Smith, a resident of Saltville, Virginia, might be one of the region’s foremost authorities on pigeons. Eighty-one years old, he has bred pigeons for the past 76 years. He’s also raised game chickens and described his place as once being “like a zoo.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is a large, bluish-grey pigeon with elegant blue lace-like crests, maroon breast, and red irises. A wild bird, this pigeon shows that nature is just as inventive as humans at giving some birds unusual and outlandish appearances.

Gordon has understandable difficulty naming a favorite domestic pigeon strain. “With hundreds of breeds available, choice becomes overwhelming,” Gordon wrote. “Throughout years of close relationships and interested involvement, preferences creep in.”

After consideration, he identified the Bohemian fairy swallow as his favorite variety of pigeon, followed by Chinese owls, crested helmets and Budapest muffed stork tumblers, as well as Lahore and Indian ribbon tailed fantails.

An uncle, Landon Smith, introduced him to the love for the propagation of a variety of domestic pigeons. “I’ve been a fancier, breeder and vivid admirer of birds throughout my amazing and very fruitful life on this planet earth,” Gordon wrote in a letter.

“I was introduced to a covey of ringneck mourning doves and pigeons at uncle Landon Smith’s passing,” Gordon noted. He described his uncle as a very dedicated person who kept various birds, animals and even exotic creatures of nature.

I looked up some of these whimsical names online. Although the basic pigeon stock is apparent in their makeup, these fanciful breeds truly show how enthusiastically the rock pigeon has embraced domestication.

In the wild, rock pigeons display an affinity for nesting and roosting on cliffs and rock ledges, hence the bird’s common name. Feral pigeons in large cities like New York have merely substituted high rises and skysrcapers for craggy cliffs.

Pigeons and doves constitute the avian family Columbidae and the order Columbiformes, which includes about 42 genera and 310 species. North America is home to several native doves, including the mourning dove, Inca dove, common ground dove, ruddy ground dove and white-winged dove. The latter was made famous in a refrain in the song “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks.

Other doves and pigeons found around the globe include such fancifully named birds as pink-necked green pigeon, lemon dove, silvery pigeon, black cuckoo-dove, pheasant pigeon, purple-tailed imperial pigeon, topknot pigeon, common emerald dove, blue-headed wood dove, ruddy quail-dove, red-billed pigeon and Victoria crown pigeon. The diversity of form and function among wild doves and pigeons rivals anything that has been produced in their domesticated kin.

The now-extinct dodo was arguably the most famous member of the diverse family that includes pigeons and doves.

Sighting points out the weakness in relying on field guide range maps


Photo by Rodney Krey/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The double-crested cormorant is a water bird designed for preying on fish. The population of this cormorant has increased in recent years.

 

For those interested in learning to identify the birds they see during trips or that show up in their gardens or yards, a good field guide is an indispensable tool. But for whatever the reason, I’ve got to add a slight caveat to my recommendation to obtain a field guide for bird identification help: The range maps in many of our field guides are in need of a good update.

As a case in point, I recent received an email from reader Beth Webb, who had a question about an observation she made recently.

“While at South Holston Lake this weekend, I saw about 12 or 18 birds in a tree,” Beth wrote. “I could not identify them.”

She noted that her binoculars were not the best and the boat was rocking. Nevertheless, she had an idea on the identity of the perched birds.

“They had the silhouette of a cormorant,” Beth wrote. “My field guide is older and it does not place cormorants in this area, but I am wondering if they have been sighted here.”

Beth added that several years ago she saw a cormorant at South Holston Lake and was able to watch it dive in one spot and come up several seconds later in another.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Loving • This photo taken on June 14, 2019, probably shows some of the same cormorants that Beth Webb saw on South Holston Lake.

I emailed Beth back an answer to her query, telling her that double-crested cormorants have not always been a common bird in our region. For the past couple of decades, their numbers have been increasing nationwide, not just in our region.

The fact that she saw so many of them in a single tree makes me think she probably came close to a nesting rookery. Cormorants often nest near wading birds like great blue herons, which are also known to nest at South Holston Lake.

So, even with a rocking boat, Beth did a great job identifying the cormorants. Beth’s observation points out a weakness in some field guides. Birds are not static creatures. They have the power of flight and are constantly using that ability to expand into new places, Publishers of bird identification field guides are often challenged to keep pace.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A double-crested cormorant dries its wings after a swim.

For instance, the region’s birders birding in the 1970s would have considered the now ubiquitous Canada goose a rare bird. Before the 1980s, the tree swallow hardly ever nested in the region. Another swallow – the cliff swallow – has abandoned the faces of cliffs to nest beneath concrete bridges and has gone from being a rare swallow in the region to one of the most common summer nesting birds in the entire region in just the last couple of decades. Species ranging from cattle egret to Eurasian collared dove may not appear on the range maps in your guide books, but they can be found in the region.

Most bird identification guides follow a simple format: illustrations (photographs or paintings) that are accompanied by brief, precise text and maps showing a particular bird’s expected range, sometimes delineated by season. Many birds may be absent in summer but present in winter, for instance, so a color-coded range map designating year-round, summer and winter residency is highly desirable.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Field guides are an essential tool for bird identification, but features such as range maps can quickly go out of date.

A good field guide should also be small enough to be easily carried and consulted in the field. One that slides into a pocket is ideal. Many tech-savvy people are relying on their smart phones as an alternative to a field guide, but the printed page is hard to beat in remote areas where a phone experiences difficulty finding enough signal bars.

Hopefully future field guides will include updates to the range maps that show cormorants do indeed reach Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Two of the field guides that I recommend for beginning birders are the Golden Guide to Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins and the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson.

The cormorants are certainly a bird worth knowing. The double-crested cormorant belongs to a family of 40 birds consisting of species referred to as both cormorants and shags. Some of the world’s other cormorants include the flightless cormorant, black-faced cormorant, white-breasted cormorant, crowned cormorant, little cormorant, pygmy cormorant and the imperial shag, which is also known as the blue-eyed shag.

Besides the double-crested cormorant, North America is home to five other species. The great cormorant lives along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean from Canada down to southern Florida. The pelagic cormorant and the Brandt’s cormorant can be seen along North America’s Pacific coastline. The red-faced cormorant lives in the southern regions of Alaska out into the Aleutian Islands. The most southern of these North American cormorants is the Neotropic cormorant, which is found along the southeast areas of Texas down into Mexico.

All cormorants primarily fish for their meals. They have strong legs to propel them though the water when they dive for fish. They also have a serrated bill with a hooked tip that is excellent for grasping slippery fish.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A double-crested cormorant rests on a fallen log after a swim in a lake near Atlanta, Georgia.

On the recent Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, a total of 82 double-crested cormorants were found on area waterways. Those birds provide a good indication that cormorants are now an established species in the region.