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Chimney calls of the ring-doves


Speak softly: A pair of wood pigeons

Speak softly: A pair of wood pigeons

Speak softly: A pair of wood pigeons

I can hear the dawn chimney calls coming down to where fires once flickered on wintry mornings. The fireplaces are not in use now - and the soothing 'coo-coo, coo-coo-coo' brings a pleasant drift of countryside to a leafy suburb.

The sounds are from wood pigeons (Columba palumbus), or woodquests as they were called on the Dublin-Meath borders, where the Delvin meanders and brown trout could be pulled using earthworms for bait in a 'fresh' after a rainstorm. 'White' or sea trout came in to a tidal pool below a bridge marking the county boundary, where the fly-caster plied his skills to tempt with exotic imitations the new fish from the Irish Sea.

The plump, alarm clock pigeons patrol gardens, poking about for whatever pickings there might be. They are wary and will take off at the first unfamiliar shadow. Their flight is strong and swift, the pinions sounding as they cut the air: "At first she flutters, but at length she springs/ To smoother flight, and sports upon her wings." (Dryden)

On the ground the bird moves easily and gracefully, head nodding at every step. This 'ring-dove' is one of man's favourites, historically an emblem of peace and conjugal fidelity. This bird brought the olive branch to Noah.

WH Hudson calls it the handsomest of doves, its feather tints being "singularly delicate, soft and harmonious". Writer John McEwan remarks on its neck's white flashes and "petrol-stain iridescence", the pink breast and white wing coverts, though, being "a fatal semaphore" for its enemy, the peregrine falcon.

As they feed mostly on the ground (but are also acrobatic performers clinging to scoff bush berries) wood pigeons are serious agricultural pests and consume cereals, clovers, brassicas, peas and such. With about one million pairs widespread they are a problem for farmers, but no satisfactory system has been put in place to control numbers.

The birds are regularly shot at as they come in to roosts - but they are always wary as they drop to settle on the edges of woodland. The hunters are usually 'rough-shooters' who earlier may have been lucky with a cock pheasant or a couple of rabbits and look for a final high shot before darkness falls.

However, they don't give themselves up as easy shots: one writer has remarked that he did not know another bird that "turned more quickly at the sight of a gun".

The birds nest usually high up on the edge of rural plantations or on individual trees closer to houses, lanes and roads. Two eggs are laid in a loose assortment of twigs; sometimes more than two broods are raised.

The parents regurgitate food for the young, a time-consuming method which produces what is described as 'pigeon-milk', from special cells in the crop. In my schooldays, sometimes the small white eggs were taken - obviously as early as possible - and cooked to make delicious eating. Another rural activity best forgotten about!

Sunday Independent