Maine has a pigeon shortage. There are over 300 species of doves and pigeons in the world, and we’ve only got two of them: the city-loving rock pigeon and the ubiquitous mourning dove.
For about a week, we had three species. I learned of this on Dec. 11, 2015, when I received an email from Diane Terry of Frankfort. She described an unusual bird that was coming to her feeder and wondered whether it could possibly be a white-winged dove. Her bird appeared to be a perfect match for the one shown in her field guide, but all the books said that this bird belonged in the desert southwest. She sent me a photo. There was no doubt about it.
Pigeons and doves are all part of one big happy family. The names are somewhat interchangeable, but larger species tend to get tagged with the pigeon name, and smaller birds generally get called doves.
In New Guinea, there is one pigeon species that is nearly the size of a turkey. In the southern U.S., the common ground-dove isn’t much bigger than a sparrow.
The pigeon name comes from the French, and it seems to be a reference to the peeping sounds made by the chicks. Dove is a word of Germanic origin that comes from the same root as dive. I guess there was something unique about the bird’s diving flight in Europe that led to the name.
The dove family has several interesting adaptations. They can suck and swallow water without tilting their heads back. They feed their young a milky secretion produced in their crops. They bob their heads while walking in order to keep their vision on a constant plane.
The American Birding Association recognizes 19 dove species in North America, though one of those is the extinct passenger pigeon. At one time, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird on the planet. But habitat change and overhunting sent it hurtling into extinction. The last of her kind was a passenger pigeon named Martha. She died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
The white-winged dove has a reputation for roving. I wasn’t really surprised to hear that one had showed up in Maine. Their wandering habits have allowed them to expand their range. It is widespread across the tropics. In the U.S., it was originally a denizen of the Sonoran Desert, where it subsisted on seeds and the fruits of the saguaro cactus. As urban sprawl pushed into the desert, the doves adapted to people and began sharing suburban habitat. Ornamental fruit trees substituted for cactus. As they continued to become accustomed to western feeders and bird baths, they expanded northward all the way to Canada.
White-winged doves are not established in most of the east yet, but perhaps it’s just a matter of time. They were introduced in southern Florida and are now common. I saw my first in Homestead in 1996, but on my last visit to the Everglades, there were many more than there used to be.
These birds look like mourning doves, but they are slightly larger and have shorter, squared tails. Mourning doves prefer to feed on the ground. White-winged doves typically feed high, on trees and feeders. The crescents of white in the wings are unmistakable. Though it has been two decades, I still vividly remember the sight of my first bird flashing off a telephone wire. They coo incessantly, and it sounds like a whispering barred owl. The cooing was so common, it nearly drove me nuts during a visit to Tucson.
An ability to live around humans, a fondness for bird feeders, and a tendency to roam are all signs of a bird that could someday become a Maine resident. However, the white-winged dove is not fond of cold weather. Most western birds head south to Mexico or into the cities for winter.
So, we still have a pigeon shortage, and we’re back down to two species in the state. Diane Terry’s white-winged dove flew the coop shortly after we paid her a visit. I was one of the last people to see it in Maine before it disappeared on Dec. 13. I hope you realize what this means. Most rare birds disappear before I visit. This one hung around and waited for me. Perhaps 2016 will be different. Perhaps this will be the year when I arrive to see a rare bird in Maine, and don’t hear the words: “Too late. You should have been here yesterday.”
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.