This pretty little dove is now ubiquitous across Britain, but it has been a British resident for barely half a century . . .
Collared doves are so common today that we don’t give them a thought. These little pigeons with their pink-buff plumage, black collar and gentle coo-ing call, are ubiquitous in every city, town and village across the country. They are so much a feature of modern life that even the oldest birdwatcher can find it hard to recall that just a few decades ago they were unknown in Western Europe.
This success is unquestionably one of the great environmental triumphs of the past century, but it masks a mystery. Before the Second World War, collared doves were birds of the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, as recently as 1932, you couldn’t have found one west of Hungary or the Balkans. No one knows quite what happened in the 1940s (for humans there were other distractions), but the birds began to rapidly expand during the latter parts of the decade. It seems probable a hardy genetic mutation suddenly emerged that allowed the birds to expand rapidly north and west.
By the late 40’s they were thriving in eastern France and the first pairs reached Norfolk in 1955. Two years later they were breeding in Kent, Lincolnshire and Scotland, followed soon afterwards by Ireland (1959) and Wales (1961). By 1970 there were about 20,000 pairs in Britain and now the most modest estimates put numbers at 250,000 pairs.
Their success is particularly interesting because just as their numbers have boomed, so those of their close relative, the more colourful turtle dove, have plummeted. This beautiful migrant seems unable to cope with life in modern Britain, even though it is the same size and has exactly the same diet as its collared relative.
The problem is probably due to turtle doves being creatures of open farmland where they depend on weed seeds. Modern farming with its monoculture and heavy use of herbicides has drastically reduced the range of arable weeds. In contrast, collared doves dislike open country, but are often found around farm buildings where they cash in on spilled grain. More importantly, however, they can exploit that important new ecological niche to have sprung up over the past half century: suburbia. Here the mix of flowers, shrubs, trees and bird tables provide an easy living for any small, pretty, bird that is sufficiently docile to live alongside man – and collared doves fit the bill perfectly.