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Part 18 - The Stock Dove and the Blackbird

Stock dove – Columba oenas

This is a bird that some may not even have heard of, even though it’s common enough in Sussex (about 8000 pairs) and indeed throughout Britain other than northern and western Scotland. Normally, the British population of any particular species of bird is relatively insignificant in international terms but like the gannet, the stock dove is an exception to this general rule: about 50% of all the stock doves in Europe (c 550,000 breeding pairs) live in the UK.

Stock doves closely resemble wood pigeons, but lack both the white collar and the prominent wing bar of their larger cousins. They also have a greenish patch on the neck and two broken black bars on the wing. The most distinctive thing about a stock dove, however, is its call which, once heard, can surely never be forgotten! There is, however, the usual difficulty of accurately representing sounds in words. One book will tell you that stock dove call resembles “oo-roo-oo”, with “the first syllable being usually emphasised”. Confusingly, another says that it makes “a grunting double coo, with accent on the second syllable”! To my ear, there are actually two lots of two syllables and the whole thing together sounds a bit like “orra orra”! What makes it memorable is that the bird sounds as though it’s getting transported with delight by this faintly ludicrous song which tends to rise in pitch as it goes on.

At least two stock doves call in most years in Kingston, one from the wood at the top of The Street and the other near the junction of Church Lane and The Avenue. Although rather shy, stock doves do visit gardens where they may take seed from the ground like other members of their family. They nest as early as February, which explains why they begin calling so early in the year.

Blackbird – Turdus merula

A photo of a Male Blackbird taken in April 2008 by Rhys Haden   A photo of a Male Blackbird taken in May 2008 by Rhys Haden

When I first began to take an interest in birds I learned that some species remain here all year round – residents – while the stay of others is just seasonal – summer and winter visitors. Then there are those which merely drop in on their journey north or south – passage migrants. But the picture is far more complex than this and most bird species - woodpeckers and a few others being a general exception – are extremely mobile.

Species that we think of as residents are often, like linnets and goldfinches, partial migrants, with large numbers moving south in winter. At the same time, the resident population of starlings and robins can be swelled in winter by birds from colder parts of Europe. Blackbirds, though more sedentary than some other species, do nevertheless move around within their breeding area and this probably explains why the winter population of blackbirds in Kingston far exceeds the summer one. But can it also account for the fact that the proportion of male blackbirds in the village in the winter months appears to increase? I say “appears to” since I have not kept strict count and this is only my impression but it is nevertheless a strong one and one that I always receive, year on year. And if this is true, is it because “our” females are more inclined to move south or because males migrate here in disproportionate numbers? I’d be interested to know what others think. Do you see equal numbers of male and female blackbirds in winter?

Regardless, blackbirds are flourishing in Kingston, as they seem to be elsewhere in areas of human settlement and so much so that it is difficult to accept that their colonisation of urban areas is a relatively recent – in bird terms – phenomenon, having begun in earnest only in the second half of the nineteenth century. On farmland, the story is one of recent decline as it is for most other bird species, the move to winter-sown cereals and the loss of hedgerows probably being the main causes.

Many people in Kingston will have had blackbirds nesting in, or near, their garden and some will have befriended particular individuals with distinctive markings such as those caused by partial albinism – lack of black pigment – which is relatively common among dark-coloured birds. Blackbirds can be particularly susceptible to the lure of currants and one bird that bonded with my neighbour would come tapping on her window if her ration did not appear at the appointed time! If anyone has a comparable local blackbird story, I’d be glad to have it.

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