Ear to the Ground with Steve Blacksmith: Mild midwinter days see eggs hatching

The collared dove, pictured by Ear To The Ground's Steve Blacksmith
The collared dove, pictured by Ear To The Ground's Steve Blacksmith
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The Collared Dive is a little species of dove only colonised England in the 1950s.

The little black mark on its neck gives it its name. They are always this soft mushroom-brown colour, though white ones have arisen in captivity.

Like all doves and pigeons (one big family of birds) they can breed all the year round if it is mild enough weather and there is a plentiful supply of food. We are having a very mild midwinter at the moment, and no doubt someone is putting out a never ending supply of wild bird food, because they have chicks in the nest near my house. I know this because I found an eggshell on the lawn on Friday, January 17, and it is a fresh one.

Many birds carry away the eggshells from their nest when their chicks hatch. Others eat the shells as a friend of mine observed a Great Tit doing in her nest box with a closed-circuit TV camera in it.

One of the surest ways of knowing a pair of birds have young just hatched is to see one of them carrying an empty eggshell.

Blackbirds’ eggs are the ones I see most often in spring. They’re bluey-green and heavily freckled with medium brown marks. Then there are the Robin’s eggs; white with reddish spots. I used to see many Starlings’ bright blue eggshells, but very rarely now, since it became a scarce breeder. The huge winter flocks we sometimes see are visitors from colder places like Scandinavia and Russia.

Collared Doves and the much larger Woodpigeons’ eggshells are pure white. Country children used to climb trees to eat Woodpigeons’ or Ring Doves’ eggs raw, according to an old book I have. All this family tend to lay just two eggs, though I have seen three chicks in a Collared Dove’s nest.

Or rather on the nest, as they and the Woodpigeon build a flimsy platform of twigs. You can see the eggs through it sometimes when the bird is not sitting. The fact that they are white eggs suggests that they (along with Turtle Doves) have only recently changed from being hole nesters. I have an old nest of a Collared Dove I retrieved from some prunings made entirely of pieces of differently-coloured plastic coated wire. They bred across the road from the British Telecom yard in West Central Halifax. Turtle Doves are losing populations drastically in England, but a few still nest in south Yorkshire. They are our only migratory doves, and are relentlessly shot at in southern Europe.

Many hole nesting birds like kingfishers, owls and Sand Martins have white eggs, and two other species of dove we have, the Stock Dove and the Rock Dove, still nest in dark places; the former in hollow trees or holes in masonry; the latter on high ledges in sea-caves. The Rock Dove of course became the ubiquitous Feral or Town Pigeon on going wild again after being domesticated for food first, then sending messages as homing pigeons, for sport as racing pigeons and as fancy show varieties. You can still see a few pure Rock Doves around rocky coasts.

The Magpies and Jays seem to be merciless eaters of songbirds’ and doves’ eggs, but the victims must be and are well adapted to cope with these losses. They keep on trying until they rear a brood. Blackbirds are the most frequent victims, and they’re still very common. An eggshell that has been eaten by a magpie will be broken in an irregular way, with usually some of the yolk remaining. You know a chick has hatched from a shell when it has come apart in two equal halves, and with neat serrated edges, where the chick has worked its way round inside, pecking its way out.

You can see this in my photo of the Collared Dove’s egg. I found a Collared Dove’s nest in January once before, but nearer the end of the month, so this is the earliest evidence of chicks of wild birds hatching in Calderdale that I know of.

Collared Doves have now spread right up to the north of Scotland after first being seen nesting on a window-sill in Norfolk in 1956. Before they arrived here they had been recorded through the 20th century spreading across Europe from south-east Asia.

Its coo-coo call can be mistaken for a Cuckoo, especially now that bird is so scarce and not many people hear it. The Cuckoo’s call has two distinct “vowel” sounds – up then down – exactly as we say it. Collared Doves have their own special long call as well. It sounds like a long drawn out “Steeve” to me, but I would think that!

There are many species of dove all over the world including in the tropics. Many are tiny, some have long tails, others a crest on their head, but all that I have heard have soothing, soporific calls; just right as a background sound for a bit of shut-eye in the shade on a baking hot day when you’ve been up early.