Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North – Rock Doves

Rock doves are  attractive blue grey birds with a pale grey back, dark bars on the wings and a conspicuous white rump.   The head and breast is darker and in the right light there is an iridescent green to purple sheen on the feathers on the sides of the neck.  The adult bird moults between June and November with the flight feathers being replaced gradually so that its flight is not effected.    The home of the rock dove is rock faces and cliffs with caves and often at or near the sea.  Suitable cliffs well inland are also utilised as long as they have caves or deep clefts.  The birds feed mainly on cereal crops such as wheat, barley and oats but they love peas and seeds of a wide range of wild plants.  The birds are found in colonies at breeding time and their nests are often in semi-darkness in caves. They sometimes share such sites with green cormorants and if such a mixed colony is disturbed the mass exodus from the cave of doves and cormorants is an impressive site.   The rock dove’s nest in such caves is a loose platform of grasses, seaweed and other suitable and local materials.  Although the normal clutch is only two eggs this is compensated for by the fact that several clutches may be layed in a year.  The young are called “squabs” and fed by a liquid called “pigeons milk” formed in the crop of the adult and the young take it by reaching inside the adults mouth.

The present distribution of the truly wild  rock dove in the Highlands is unknown because they have been interbreeding with feral pigeons.  Originally the birds were present in the Highlands as pure rock doves and then a long time  ago some of them started taking a liking for grain and were attracted to planted crops.   People then realised that the young pigeons were very eatable and started encouraging them to breed near settlements and in doocots.  Slowly the rock doves were brought into being domestic birds and they were soon being bred for their suitability as food, their plumage variations and their homing ability.   Despite all these variations including feathered feet, long tails and curious head feathers they were still rock doves and to this day share the same Latin name.  Meanwhile the rock doves were still breeding in caves along the coast but less and less at inland sites.  So two strains developed, the feral pigeon confined to settlements and doocots and  rock doves to the wilder areas of the Highlands.

Then a few decades ago the feral pigeons started to invade the home of the rock dove.  Even in the early 1970s you could still see rock doves along the coast raiding the old stooks in small crofters corn fields.   The changes came slowly but surely and flocks of rock doves had the occasional feral pigeon amongst them.   The die was cast and now there is a great debate as to whether there are any rock doves left under the old plumage.  Books still talk of rock dove flocks in the Western Isles and such places as Smoo Cave in Sutherland. Ten years ago a small flock of rock doves on the remote island of North Rona north of Sutherland had two feral pigeons amongst them.   Ironically the large flocks of feral pigeons that exist and scavenge in part of Inverness often have a few pure looking rock doves in their midst so the situation has turned full circle.  The days of pure looking rock doves flighting out of the Munlochy Cliff caves are long gone.