The Television Dove

By Alwyn Jackson

I wonder if any other members are woken in the early hours by the call of a Collared Dove? The slightly monotonous and mournful song of this species is sometimes transcribed as a bored football fan singing: “United!, United!” Other people in the UK refer to it as the Evostik bird because to them the call sounds like “E-vo-stik”. In Germany the species is often referred to as “The Television Dove” because it always seems to be calling from rooftop tv aerials. My local birds seem to use my neighbour’s aerial for this purpose and have also found my Sky dish very useful for a site to build their nest!

The scientific name of the Collared Dove is Streptopelia decaocto. The “decaocto” part of this name refers to the number eighteen (deca = ten; octo=8). But why eighteen?

According to a Greek myth a poor maid, who was a servant to a very hard-hearted lady, was only given no more than eighteen pieces a year. The maid prayed to the Gods that she would like it to be made known to the world how miserably she was paid by her mistress. Thereupon Zeus created this dove which proclaims an audible “deca-octo” to all the world to this very day, announcing the inadequate salary of the maid.

The Collared Dove has achieved a spectacular rate of colonisation in Europe since 1930. At the end of the nineteenth century it had a slender foothold in Europe, being restricted to Turkey and the Balkans. Over the next two decades the species undertook a north-west expansion in excess of 1,600km to the North Sea. It is ironic that such an archetypal symbol of peace achieved much of its territorial expansion during World War Two.

The species first bred in the UK in 1955 and 1956 in Norfolk. Michael Seago found three Collared Doves on 3rd July 1956 at Overstrand in a large walled garden containing extensive lawns, shrubberies, evergreen oaks, pines, Spanish chestnuts and also a poultry run. The species has a marked preference for human habitation and it is more at home in parks, gardens and churchyards of towns and villages than in open farmland. That summer the known pair raised three broods and five young fledged. Nearby at Cromer two pairs nested and three young flew from the nests. The following year details came to light of a pair which had bred in 1955 at Cromer and reared two young. Within a decade of discovery the species had outnumbered what was then the familiar Turtle Dove in many areas and became so widespread and locally numerous to be taken for granted by British birdwatchers; a measure of the remarkable rate of expansion across an entire continent.

The exact mechanism triggering the spread is not fully understood but the bird’s propensity for multiple broods certainly aided the process. In the early years of its British residence doves were doubling their numbers annually. The increase has slowed but the expansion continues nationally and internationally as released birds in the Bahamas are now spreading across the southern USA.

When you are next awoken by this remarkable coloniser just spare a thought for the poor servant girl’s pay deal! Her predicament is certainly getting plenty of publicity.

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