BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Doves

Well, this shouldn’t take long, should it? After all, there are currently only two species in the family Columbidae on the Regular list of Minnesota species, and what misidentifications could a Rock Pigeon or Mourning Dove possibly be involved in? Not many, perhaps, although I suspect the good old pigeon has at times been mistaken for at least a few other species. And I still have fond memories of a certain rank amateur in the early sixties in suburban Chicago hearing the cooing of a Mourning Dove for the very first time and assuming it had to be an owl.

The potential for Rock Pigeon misidentifications exists mostly among less experienced birders unfamiliar with the plumage variations possible in oft-domesticated pigeons. One of these atypical pigeons appears a uniform dark reddish-brown — and it is virtually certain that years ago a report received of a Red-billed Pigeon in the Twin Cities was actually of one of those Rock Pigeons.

Another frequent variation is a mixture of black and white, and I think it possible some of these are mistaken for White-winged Doves. I also strongly suspect it is even more common for a black-and-white Rock Pigeon to be misidentified as a magpie. Yes, of course the tail is all wrong, but a bird’s size and shape are often completely disregarded by those with too much enthusiasm or not enough experience.

As for the Mourning Dove, even if you’d never hear one cooing and be tempted to call it an owl, I’d be willing to wager there are times you still catch a glimpse of a gliding Mourning Dove and initially think a raptor just went by. With their pointed-wing and long-tailed profile, speedy flight and steady glide, they can bear a strong resemblance to a small falcon.

But there are six other pigeons/doves in Minnesota to consider — sort of. One of these is the extinct Passenger Pigeon, which, of course, is no longer an identification issue. Another is that domestic bird known as the Ringed Turtle-Dove, which apparently occurs nowhere in the wild in the world and is no longer recognized as a real or “countable” bird by the American Birding Association. Or by the MOU, for that matter, even though this dove can show up here and present a real ID problem. For example, in February 2000, three turtle-doves — initially thought by a Minneapolis home owner to be Eurasian Collared-Doves — were eventually identified as Ringed Turtle-Doves. More on these two doves later.

Then there are these four Minnesota Accidentals: Band-tailed Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Common Ground-Dove, and Eurasian Collared-Dove. Given any sort of a decent view, the Band-tailed Pigeon is not easily confused with anything else. Though there are fewer than ten state records, it has been spotted in fall at Hawk Ridge in Duluth at least four times, so be sure to take a second look at any pigeon you see cruising down the North Shore this fall.

There are only two White-winged Dove records: both in fall and both in Duluth. However, this species has been spreading north in recent years, and additional Minnesota records seem inevitable. Its ID would seem to be straightforward — but see the comment above under Rock Pigeon.

Even more unusual is the Common Ground-Dove, which has only been documented once in the state: it was — of course! — at Hawk Ridge in the fall. (In addition, an undocumented ground-dove from Carlton County was reported a few years ago, and a documented report from this year in Freeborn County is currently under review by the MOU Records Committee.) As for the ID, the only other similar dove to consider would be the Inca Dove; though there are no records yet in the state, it is to be expected here eventually since there are a few Ontario records.

The fourth “Accidental” dove is actually on the verge of Regular status. Though the first state record occurred only two years ago, the rapidly spreading Eurasian Collared-Dove now has been recorded from at least eight locations, all of these along, or south of, the Minnesota River Valley, between the town of Ortonville and Mower County. And it is with this dove that we arrive at the main topic of discussion in this article.

[Author's Note, July 2016 – There is now one Inca Dove record; White-winged Dove is classified as Casual, with records nearly annual in recent years; and Eurasian Collared-Dove has become widespread and Regular in southern and western Minnesota.]

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To begin with, this journal has already presented information on collared-dove identification: once in a Hindsight article three years ago about this and other species representing potential first state records (, and again in the account of that first record in 1998 (The Loon 70:199–200). These articles also refer to some ID points published in two other journals: primarily “The Eurasian Collared-Dove Arrives in the Americas” (American Birds 41:1371–1379), and the shorter note “Identifying the Eurasian Collared-Dove” (Birding 20:311–312).

There is probably no need to repeat all the ID information in these references, although some clarification and updates are in order. To begin with, Eurasian Collared-Dove ID should be less of a problem now that it is included in the third edition of the National Geographic field guide; it had been such a recent arrival in the U.S. that it was only mentioned in passing under Ringed Turtle-Dove in the second edition.

Unfortunately, however, the new Geographic guide does not mention one of the two most diagnostic features of the collared-dove: its vocalizations. As summarized in that Hindsight article on potential first state records, the Eurasian Collared-Dove has a “three-syllabled plain cooing song (transcribed as ‘kuk-kooooooo-kook’, accented on the second syllable), and its loud and harsh single-syllabled call note. By contrast, note the Ringed Turtle-Dove’s. . . more rolling or trilled two-syllabled ‘kook-krrrroooo’ song, and its softer chuckling call notes."

It is also unfortunate this new edition fails clearly to address by text or illustration the other diagnostic field mark separating collared-doves from turtle-doves: the pattern on the underside of the tail. As is mentioned in the articles and notes in American Birds, The Loon, and Birding, from below the bases of the rectrices (tail feathers) on both the Eurasian Collared-Dove and the Ringed Turtle-Dove are black. However, on a collared-dove this black extends all the way on to the outer webs of the outermost rectrices; on a turtle-dove the outer webs of the two outer rectrices are entirely white.

Of course, it is often not that easy to get a decent view of the undersides of those outer rectrices to determine the exact pattern, and, more importantly, there are two additional features to be aware of when examining them — features which are not pointed out in any of those four articles. One of these is to note how the black on the outer webs on the collared-dove extends farther down towards the tail tip than it does on the rest of the tail. As illustrated in a recent article on Eurasian Collared-Doves in North American Birds (53:348–353), this creates a black “W” or “M” pattern on the underside of the tail not present on the Ringed Turtle-Dove.

A second and potentially confusing thing to be aware of regarding the black on those outer webs on a collared-dove’s tail is that it may not extend all the way to the very outer edges of the tail. There is typically a very thin but visible whitish edge outside the black, which might lead to a genuine Eurasian Collared-Dove being passed off as just a turtle-dove.

I have clearly seen this narrow white outer edge in the field on more than one occasion, and it is quite visible in some photos illustrating some of the collared-dove articles: see American Birds 41:1371 and 1373, Birding 20:311, and North American Birds 53:349. The point is that if the two outer webs are entirely white with no black, you’re looking at a Ringed Turtle-Dove; if those webs have any black on them, then it’s a Eurasian Collared-Dove.

Some other things to keep in mind when seeing — and documenting — a Eurasian Collared-Dove:

• While trying to view the under tail pattern, note the dark gray tail coverts which are typically darker than the rest of the underparts; whiter under tail coverts on a turtle-dove, often paler than the rest of the underparts.

• Also note the black on the rectrices reaching about to the tip of the under tail coverts; the black tends to stop short of the end of those coverts on a turtle-dove.

• The contrasting blackish outer primaries; also somewhat darker on a turtle-dove, but not as blackish or contrasting — and probably never as black as shown in the second edition of Geographic!

• The overall darker and grayer or browner plumage; paler and more creamy or buff on a turtle-dove.

• The “three-toned“ upper wing surface (see Birding 20:311), with a paler grayish area between the dark primaries and the medium grayish-brown secondary coverts; however, more information is needed on this — turtle-doves might show a similar three-toned pattern.

• The larger and bulkier size compared to a Mourning Dove; turtle-dove about the same as — or a bit smaller than — a Mourning Dove.

• The somewhat wary behavior; turtle-dove tends to be tamer and more approachable.

• Beware of the potential for collared-dove x turtle-dove hybrids (which do occur in the “wild” and would show intermediate characteristics), and of changing light conditions and angles (which affect the apparent shades and darkness of the plumage features).

• Be skeptical of, take a second look at, and carefully document any apparent collared-doves in central or northern Minnesota, since there are (so far!) no accepted records north of the Minnesota River.

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By the way, remember that beginner who had trouble telling a Mourning Dove from an owl? He went on to bigger and better misidentifications. Like the swimming adult Bonaparte’s Gull he saw on Lake Michigan which he thought to be a goldeneye. Since when, he reasoned, does any bird other than a duck swim? Or the time on the California coast when he assumed that distant Black Oystercatcher was a dark Rock was asleep, you see, with its bill and legs tucked out of sight.

Years later up in Churchill he glimpsed a wheatear out of the corner of his eye and tentatively called it a Solitary Sandpiper (there was, after all, a visible flash of white in the tail as it flew by and it began bobbing its rear end after it landed). And then there was that distant group of swimming pelicans initially passed off as just an ice floe. . . .

But I digress. The point is this novice went on to author several articles in more recent years on bird identification. So when he says that birds like doves with straightforward field marks still present some ID difficulties, listen to him. He knows all about misidentifying things.