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Invading dove remixes Alaskan soundscape

08DOVE

The Eurasian collared-dove favors the utility lines near Halibut Point in Sitka. (Flickr photo/Sergey Yeliseev)

The Eurasian collared-dove favors the utility lines near Halibut Point in Sitka. (Flickr photo/Sergey Yeliseev)

One of the most rapid and successful invasions of a continent did not happen in any war. It’s happening now — maybe right outside your window.

The Eurasian collared-dove first came to North America in Florida in 1982, and was seen in Alaska as early as 2009. In Sitka, there are about 30 of the doves, and that number is multiplying. According to the experts, the Eurasian collared-dove represents no threat to the environment or to native species. The dove is bringing change, however — to how Alaska sounds.


Listen to iFriendly audio.

Birdsong: Swainson’s thrush, Hermit thrush

I’m no sourdough, not born-and-raised in Alaska, but I have lived my entire adult life on this island, listening to these birds all summer long.

This is weird: I have never seen this bird, a Swainson’s thrush. Could not pick one out of police lineup. One spring, though, a Hermit thrush landed on my windowsill every morning, to spar with the rival he saw reflected in the glass.

I have no doubt, as with some other species, his mate saw past his limited intellect, and was won over by his great song.

I’ll add Varied thrush to this list of songbirds that define our soundscape, along with the Ruby-crowned kinglet, song sparrows, juncos, and chickadees. Eagles and ravens are the icons of the audible environment — and also the most visible. But the monster of song is this little guy, about the size of a golf ball:

Birdsong: Winter wren

That’s the Winter wren.

I’m waxing on about how Sitka sounds, because it’s starting to change.

“It’s a cooing that kind of progresses. So cuckoo-koo-koo in a way. Something kind of like that.”

Paul Norwood is a local naturalist. He’s talking about the Eurasian collared-dove. This bird was a part of his childhood in France, only because it got there just before he did.

“Nobody really brought them physically from one place to another. But people changed the environment to where it was good for the doves, and they started spreading. And next thing you know, by the time I was little, they were common everywhere in France. Everywhere that there are houses or fields.”

"Dove Chasers" Bill Foster (l.), grandson Foster Walk, and Paul Norwood. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

“Dove Chasers” Bill Foster (l.), grandson Foster Walk, and Paul Norwood. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

And now, it turns out, my house. While working on this story, I persuaded a small team of birders — let’s call them “Dove Chasers” — to help me find some of Sitka’s collared doves. We staked out their favorite utility lines along Halibut Point Road, and hiked the fringes of our nine-hole golf course — with limited success.

The Dove Chasers disbanded after two days. On day three, I was sleeping with the window open early one morning during Alaska’s June heatwave, when the collared dove came to me.

Two of those doves just flew by my window….

I just had time to get my recorder going before the doves left, but this bird is so common now in the lower 48 and in Europe that good recordings are not hard to come by.

Birdsong: Eurasian collared-dove cooing

This is part of the collection of the Macaulay Library of wild sounds at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York. It’s where I found the songs of the birds we heard earlier.

David Bonter is an assistant director at the lab.

“Yeah. I just pulled up Sitka on Google Earth. It’s pretty remarkable that they’re there. You’re separated from other communities by vast expanses of forest and water, which is certainly not conducive to these birds.”

As indicated by the purple, the Eurasian collared-dove's range is now throughout Europe and North America. The bird is native to the Indian subcontinent. (image/Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

As indicated by the purple, the Eurasian collared-dove’s range is now throughout Europe and North America. The bird is native to the Indian subcontinent. (image/Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

The first recorded sighting of the Eurasian collared-dove in North America was in Homestead, Florida, in 1982. This was three or four years after the initial release of doves in Nassau, Bahamas, during the burglary of a pet store. The doves are native to India, they were introduced in Turkey, and from there colonized Europe in the 1940s at a pace of about thirty miles a year.

View a larger map of the Eurasian collared-dove’s range.

Read about the Eurasian collared-dove in Sitka, on Matt Goff’s Sitka Nature blog.

The first dove sighted in Alaska was in 2009, along the Denali Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, about 4,500 miles from Homestead, Florida. That’s a pace of 166 miles a year.

Bonter says collared doves are programmed to move from the moment they are hatched.

“After young birds become independent from their parents, in many species they disperse a set distance. In something like a chickadee, it may only be a mile or two. But in collared doves they seem to have this remarkable ability to go great distances from their natal area. So we see these huge movements from year to year. Back in the 1990s birds were going from Florida to Oklahoma to Oregon very, very quickly. So we’re seeing this expansion continue on up into Alaska, and it’s most likely being driven by these birds that are traveling hundreds of miles from where they’re hatched.”

In warm climates, where the dove’s preferred diet is readily available — principally seeds — they’ve been observed nesting 11 months of the year. Cold climates are no barrier: They’re already in Scandanavia, and in Iceland.

Paul Norwood says the collared dove — like the dandelion and the starling — will make its home wherever we have made ours.

“The collared dove is essentially taking advantage of a niche that people created. So they’re not really moving into a native one. We created this spot for doves to be in by having feeders out, by certain ornamental plants, by having maple trees and other trees that they like to nest in. That’s not something that they’ll find on Kruzof. They may go to Kruzof, but they’re not going to like it. So they’ll just come back to Sitka, or go to say, Pelican.”

Birdsong: Varied thrush, Swainson’s

As it happens, I’m recently back from several days on Kruzof Island and it remains dove-free. I thought about that a lot while I was hiking — maybe too much.

David Bonter, at Cornell, says that his lab has processed thousands of reports of this bird as it has invaded our continent over the past two decades, and I represent a certain minority.

“I hate to say it, but you’re the first person I’ve ever heard complain about the song of the eurasian collared dove. A lot of folks really enjoy it. Really appreciate it.”

Birdsong: Eurasian collared-dove

I’m not saying it has a bad song. I think of it as the soundtrack of another part of the world.

Collared doves are not hard to spot (unless you’re a member of my elite Dove Chasers). They’re similar to a mourning dove, grayish-white, and larger than our urban pigeon — which is also an invasive species — and you might almost mistake them for a small gull. But they have a small head, and beady red eyes.

Alaska has always been a little rough on newcomers. Paul Norwood says some inhabitants of this island may find the dove soothing. Others may find it tasty.

“We had a goshawk eat a chicken on Merrill St. last year so you never know!”

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