Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On your bike, Brown Pigeon!

Ok, there is no longer a bird called a Brown Pigeon on the official taxonomic bird lists in Australia.  It is a Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Macropygia phasianella 

To me it will always be a Brown Pigeon, because that's the name I grew up knowing it as, and because that's such a good name for it. Look at the head - it is 100% a "pigeon's" head. And what colour is it? Well, "brown" is almost an understatement. But it is brown, not green or blue or yellow, or anything else.

Brown Cuckoo-Dove - note head shape and soft feet
Pigeon or Dove? 
The bird we all know in the cities of Australia as a "pigeon" is officially the Rock Dove. That birds has a shorter tail, admittedly, and is a ground feeding bird, but both it and today's bird are undeniably pigeons. Similar head, and same soft feet (note image above). But in Australia we tend to use the name "dove" for the smaller, long-tailed varieties (of Pigeons), such as the Peaceful Dove. Some are ground feeders, others are not.

There are other Pigeons, larger birds, which feed on native fruits in the Illawarra rainforests. Those are exclusively birds of the tree tops. As they travel long distances between clumps of fruit-bearing trees, they are capable of flying very fast, for long distances. Just a few days ago by Bob McInnes,  reported to me a flock of 50 or so Topknot Pigeons at his place at Knights Hill. I have only ever seen just a few of these birds flying high and fast over Robertson, heading down to Kangaroo Valley. Occasionally I have seen them feeding in the tops of the rainforest below Lees Road Lookout. They are very partial to the fruit of Cabbage-tree Palms, which grow freely in the rainforests of the Illawarra and Shoalhaven districts.

Anyway, the taxonomists have a rule that any bird which is found in Australia, but is also found outside Australia, must be called by the accepted international name. There may be a question of "precedence" involved (which name was "first recognised" - by which they mean in the Scientific Literature). In the case of many Asian birds, they were known from there before they were known (in Europe obviously - because that's where the scientific naming authorities were). So the group of "pigeons" with long tails tended to be called "Cuckoo-Doves". Linnaeus named this one, and his Latinised name for it translates as "Pheasant Dove". This group of Doves (there are several closely related species) were first described from Ambon, in Indonesia. So, the name "Brown Cuckoo-Dove" is wrong in so many ways. But it is the official name, OK?

Now, what's this about the Bike?

Well, last Thursday a Brown Cuckoo-Dove had landed on the railing of my back deck, just outside the kitchen. Brendan was sitting out on the deck, and he whispered to me, as loudly and urgently as he could whisper (without disturbing the bird), "get your camera". I had no idea why, but I soon found out.
This is a male Brown Cuckoo-Dove.
It had landed on the hand-rail of my back deck.
You can note the subtle grey toning on the back of his neck.
Brown Cuckoo-Dove - male
By contrast, the female has a more bright reddish-brown (cinnamon) colouration on her head and neck.
Brown Cuckoo- Dove - female (note the reddish neck)
She was perched on top of my Barbeque hood, but it was quite safe.
That shot shows you the very long tail.
It also shows you how long-tailed birds can sit on the ground
(well, on a flat surface anyway)
without beiong troubled by their long tails. 
Rosellas does exactly the same thing. 
They both lean forward, and hold the tail flat.

Back to the discussion of what was going on last Thursday.

Both birds then moved around the side of my house, 
(still on the deck handrail).  
Then the male decided he quite liked my Bike's handlebars.
Brown Cuckoo-Dove - pair. Male on bike handlebar, female on post.
Both birds sat there quietly for some time, 
and then they spotted Lena (the dreaded "Attack-Schnauzer") 
who was going for a walk at the front of the house.
You could not find a more placid dog (and a more short-sighted one)
than Lena.
But the Brown Cuckoo-Doves didn't know that.
Hence the alert look on both of their "faces".
Lena wandered off on her walk, and the birds then relaxed.

This species is a regular bird around Robertson, but I have never had them perch around the house before. I hear them in the rainforest trees, and occasionally see them fly past. My friend George sometimes feeds grain to the wild birds at his place, and he gets them there as regular visitors. 

But George lives over on Fountaindale Road, and there is a subtle climatic and habitat difference between my street and his, on the next ridge east from here. Fountaindale Road is one ridge closer to the coast than my street. Therefore, they get slightly more fogs over there than I do, and probably 5 inches (125mm) more rain per year. Significantly, his road is lined with Lilly Pilly trees (Acmena smithii), which is a berry-producing tree. So the habitat suits these birds ever so slightly more than my place. 

My dominant trees are Blackwood Wattle and Sassafras. They are both dry seed producers, not berry producers. So my place is a better habitat for Wonga Pigeons than the Brown Cuckoo-Doves. 

Many people in Robertson do not realise that a difference of less than one kilometre can make a subtle, but significant difference in rainfall and climate - resulting in a habitat change. But the Pigeons of Robertson know the difference.


Snail said...

I can't get such good photos of this species, Denis! I hear them all the time, but they do not like the camera. They're much more cooperative at your place than they are at mine.

The problems you highlight with multiple common names is why we taxonomists are so focussed on Latin names! I think the story is even more complicated because of the several subspecies. As far as I can tell, Linnaeus' name was Columba amboinensis, which is Ambon pigeon/dove. But later Temminck described what he thought was a different species from NSW. He named it Columba phasianella, essentially little pheasant pigeon/dove. The principle of priority gives Linnaeus' name precedence over Temminck's. Unless --- and I'm not sure what current ornithological thinking is --- the Australian birds belong to a different species from the Indonesian ones.

Macropygia was a subgeneric name established later to distinguish these birds from yer bog standard Columba. It was subsequently elevated to generic status with Columba amboinensis designated as type species.

From what I can gather, Temminck's NSW/S Qld birds are actually a subspecies of Macropygia amboinensis, so retain phasianella as the subspecific epithet, ie Macropygia amboinensis phasianella (Temminck).

Reading over this comment, I don't think I've added anything except an extra layer of confusion! I probably should have left well alone.

I'm backing out of the comment box now. I've got my hands up and I'm going quietly.

mick said...

Beautiful plumage detail in your photos of those birds, Denis. You were lucky to have them come down so close and to have extended views of them.
Interesting about the changes in habitat so close to you. I am more aware of the differences that planting different trees and shrubs can make.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Snail.
My brother is with me, and we both enjoyed your comment. He says it is a long tale, to match its long tail.
I read up Harry Frith's book on Pigeons and Doves book, and found out about the ssp business, but Harry died before the whole DNA analysis thing developed, and before Christis and Boles revised everything!
My regular sources on the internet were inconsistent, giving me M. amboinensis and M. phasianella. I opted to link to the second one, as its website had a better photo attached.
Thanks fo your comment.
I really enjoyed your expose.
Clearly you've missed the cut and thrust of taxonomic debate.

Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Mick
Well, it was a "first" for me - to get them here, so close. And they didn't come in to the feeder, which had watermelon on it at the time.
I was happy with the photos, too.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Mick - again.
I forgot to say that where I am, I don't have to plant trees, they grow by themselves.
In my garden plantings, the native plants are taking over. Kangaroo Apples are the forst and fastest, but they don't live long. Blackwood Wattles are the biggest and second fastest to establish. Sassafras are more slow to establish - they only self-seed in shade of other plants. But eventually they shade everything else out.
I agree, though, in new housing settlements, the challenge is to get trees established, to create habitat.
I am living in partially cleared rainforest habitat. Snail has gone the whole way, and is living right in the middle of it.

Snail said...

Clearly you've missed the cut and thrust of taxonomic debate.


I have, indeed, Denis. I think I was trying to work out the taxonomy as I was typing. Should probably have done that before!

And I envy you your opportunities to get such good pics of these lovely birds. There's a subtle beauty to that brown.

Le Loup said...

A beautiful looking bird, & great images. Sadly I have never seen any doves or pigeons in our forest, and I do love to see them.
Good post, thank you.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Le Loup.
I am surprised you appear not to have any pigeons or doves.
On the coast, east from you they are thick on the ground.
But if your forest is drier, I would still expect Bronzewing Pigeons. I know they get them in Canberra, and much further west as well.
Glad you appreciated the post, anyway.
I was going to ask if you had eaten them all, but that would be unkind, eh? ;-))


Denis Wilson said...

Hi Snail
Glad to have provided the opportunity for you to show your style as a taxonomist, then.
You done good!
I was very pleased with the colour, and, although I didn't go on about it in the text (the post was already too rambling), the sex characteristics are clearly evident - just as old Harry Frith said in his (old) book.
Male has grey back of neck, and is duller. Female has a hot cinnamon head, and also speckled breast.
Both features clearly evident.
Above all, how co-operative of them to pose together? A rare opportunity.