Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dove City

Tucson, Arizona must be the Dove Capital of North America. There are at least four species that can be seen now, and throughout the warmer months, right in the heart of residential neighborhoods.

There is, of course, the ubiquitous “rock dove,” better known, if only dismissively, as the domestic pigeon, Columba livia. Native to Europe, but domesticated around the globe, this species can form large flocks of multi-colored individuals. The standard plumage is shown here. They are not unattractive birds really, especially when the light reveals the iridescent nature of their neck feathers. Still, the most obvious and obnoxious result of their presence is their excrement. Lack of rains to wash away this mess means that the guano can breed all manner of pathogens, easily stirred up by wind gusts. Further, many of the electrical and telephone wires in Tucson stretch directly above the pedestrian sidewalks. I’d really like to strangle the idiots who designed and installed this arrangement.

The next most abundant member of the family Columbidae is the almost equally widespread mourning dove, Zenaida macroura. These are sleek, handsome birds, generally very tolerant of humans approaching them closely. Their nuzzling behavior during courtship is also endearing. I spotted this female on her nest in Greasewood Park, a city park on the very western edge of Tucson. You do find mourning doves in those natural habitats where apparently the pigeons fear to tread.

Perhaps the most elegant of our local doves is the white-winged dove, Zenaida asiatica. Despite the name, this is a decidedly native species, but it only strays north of Mexico during the warmer months, usually appearing in Tucson sometime in April, and leaving again in the autumn. I know it is spring when I see my first white-winged dove. They are striking in flight, as that narrow, white edge to their wings at rest becomes a broad white band as they fly away from you. They occur all over town in a variety of settings, but are perhaps most obvious when perched atop a blooming saguaro cactus, their heads buried deep in the flowers as they sip the rich nectar.

Last, and appropriately least, is the diminutive Inca dove, Columbina inca. They resemble small mourning doves at first glance, until startled, when they take flight from almost under foot, making a distinctive noise with their rapid wingbeats. The rusty red patches on the wings immediately identify them when they go airborne. At rest, the scaly appearance of their plumage helps you to recognize them. Kenn Kaufman says that he has rarely seen this species outside of cities and towns. Indeed, this pair was in a “utility easement” (read “alley”) between and behind houses in my own midtown neighborhood.

Who knew that such diversity could be found amongst what many consider “trash” birds? I’m delighted to learn that Tucson holds some secrets that only the persistent observer can decipher.

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