On a Saturday morning in 2009, my brother, Jim, called from northern Utah. “So it sounds like this Camel-smoker of a pigeon is growling at me—Haaaa, haaaa—from a tree!” That’s a pretty accurate description of the gruff-voiced excitement call of the Eurasian collared dove, Streptopelia decaocto. At the time, the dove my brother was watching was a newcomer, part of an explosive North American range expansion like no other ever seen in zoogeography. So what led to this bird invasion, and why should a shotgunner care?
As an “invasive species,” Eurasian collared doves are classified as nuisance, or unprotected, wildlife in most states. That means they can be hunted without seasons or bag limits as long as licensing and safe shooting regulations are followed. Most mourning dove hunters already are familiar with collared doves, which often fly in the same areas that the native doves use. But the fact that Eurasian doves can be hunted at will, so to speak, offers great opportunities with greater responsibilities. The challenge? Shooters must first identify their targets on the wing. An illegally killed mourning dove is a serious violation of state and federal law. It’s definitely, “Ask questions first, shoot later.”
Physically, the Eurasian collared dove is almost pigeon size but slimmer, with a black, semi-circular “collar” around the back of the neck. It also has dark eyes, a black bill, reddish feet and uniform, tannish-gray, chalky plumage. The tail is long and blunt—not pointed—and underneath is black, then white on the outer third. Both sexes look almost the same—the female being a tad smaller—and they somewhat resemble their smaller cousin, the darker-brown mourning dove. Unfortunately, color can’t be seen in backlit silhouette and size against the sky is relative, so my best identifier of a collared dove is the blunt tail. It is fan shape when flared and not pointed like the mourning dove’s.
No one is really sure why the Eurasian dove, which originated in warm, subtropical Asia—from Turkey to southern China and India—was so successful invading the north. That it was successful was recorded first in 1838 in its move to Bulgaria, where it was found and scientifically named. From there it moved northwest, overspreading the Balkans by the late 1930s and reaching Germany by 1945. By 1953 it had crossed the waves to Britain, and by 1959 it had traveled to Ireland. By the 1970s it had reached the Faroe Islands, 200 miles north of Scotland, and even Iceland (possibly hitching a ride on ships). It spread northeast from Britain to Scandinavia, up to the Arctic Circle, and then east to the Urals of Russia. Finally, it occupied most of central and northern China by the end of the 20th Century. At the same time it was found in Japan, possibly having been introduced.
But the bird’s most impressive dispersal started in December 1974. That’s when “less than 50” Eurasian collared doves escaped a pet-store breeder in Nassau, The Bahamas. By the next year they were breeding wild there. It’s impossible to tell exactly when Eurasian doves hit mainland Florida, because a similar-looking, quasi-domestic species, the ringed turtle dove (S. “risoria”) already was established there. Ornithologists assumed the burgeoning dove population they were seeing was the ringed dove. Then in 1986 two experts took a closer look. Herbert W. Kale and P. William Smith determined that, no, the increasing doves were in fact Eurasian collared doves (S. decaocto). It seems they’d been breeding wild in Homestead, Florida, since at least 1982. By 1987 it was estimated that there were 10,000-plus Eurasian doves breeding throughout Florida. In 1989 they showed up in Arkansas, and by 1997 they were in Provo, Utah. By 2001 they’d made it to California—in essence having spread from coast to coast in 20 years. But they weren’t—and aren’t—done. On July 26, 2015, one was seen in Anchorage, Alaska, and they are expanding into Mexico. So far the twice-as-fast-as-Europe expansion rate has not seen them reach the Northeastern US. So far . . . .
As of yet, scientific literature doesn’t provide concrete evidence showing that collared doves are competing with and displacing mourning doves. One study looking at the two species in captivity demonstrated that mourning doves can hold their own in a competition for food (T. Poling 2006). My own observations lead me to believe collared doves are harming mourning dove populations. US Fish and Wildlife Service data shows a decline in mourning dove numbers nationwide from 2003 to 2017, while winter census data shows Eurasian doves increasing. A field biologist in Arizona reported a mourning dove repeatedly attempting to nest in a tree where a Eurasian dove was doing the same. The mourning dove failed; the Eurasian dove was successful. Regardless, biologists agree that collared doves benefit from human association, especially suburban development—and we all know there’s no lack of that . . . .
While I revere the mourning dove, the opportunity to hunt Eurasian doves has been too great to ignore. They fly a little less nimbly and are widely available, so for newcomers to the sport they can provide a great introduction. Hunting methods are simple: Find birds, get permission to hunt, and then pass-shoot with or without decoys. I find collared doves to be a bit harder to bring down than mourning doves and that more, bigger shot isn’t a bad thing. Collared doves aren’t super wary, though, so only minimal concealment is necessary; but do remain motionless. If a location is over-gunned, Eurasian doves will quickly adapt and avoid. Mourning doves, to me, are the best on the table, but collared doves are a close second. Your favorite dove recipe will suffice for both, so take advantage!