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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Perusal of Pigeons. Part 3, Australia.

This is the third (and finally the final!) part of a series looking at the world's pigeons and doves. If you missed earlier episodes, they began here with an overview. The second part looked at the five (or six) generally-recognised sub-families, three of which comprise only five species between them. We perused the sub-family of fruit-eating pigeons and doves (including some Australian ones) and began to look at the biggest sub-family of 'typical' primarily seed-eaters. This in the end proved too large a task for one posting, so I left the Australian members of the group to their own posting - many specifically Australian genera have arisen during the continent's long isolation, and I know a bit more about them than about some of the others.

However as I worked through this posting I found that a lot has happened recently with regard to our understanding of the relationships - the taxonomy - of Australian pigeons, so I hoped it might be useful to provide an updated overview as I went of where things stand with the latest thinking. In doing so I trust that I haven't obscured the more interesting topic, the birds themselves. Understandably, most of our field guides can't keep up with all this new thinking, so some of the names I use will not be in your favourite guide (though hopefully the next edition will have them). If at least two of the major authoritative international bird lists have adopted a name recently, I have too.
Spinifex Pigeons Geophaps plumifera with Euro Macropus robustus, Bladensburg National Park, central Queensland.
As with virtually everything else about Australia's biota, an understanding about our pigeons lies in the long period of isolation - from about 50 million years ago when we separated from Antarctica and South America, to the last few million years when we approached closely enough to Asia for an interchange of animals and plants to occur. The Australian fruit doves and imperial pigeons are recent arrivals - their ancestors came aboard as we (with New Guinea as the bowsprit) crashed into Indonesia. The seed-eating group in Australia (some of which do actually also eat some fruit) are old Australians and are for the most part quite different from equivalent pigeons in other lands.

Central to the the old Australian pigeons are the bronzewings, a group of nine fairly large species in four genera, which between them are found across the entire continent except for the extremely arid Great Victoria Desert and adjacent Nullarbor Plain in the central south. The longest-known of these (and the reason for the group name) is the Common Bronzewing - its familiarity is such that 'Pigeon' is deemed an unnecessary addition - Phaps chalcoptera, found across the virtually the entire continent. It was by far the first Australian pigeon to be named (aside from a couple occurring further afield and named from specimens collected elsewhere), in 1790, just two years after the founding of the first English colony at Botany Bay. Phaps, unoriginally but unarguably, just means 'pigeon'... The other bronzewing genera names are variations of this.
Common Bronzewing, Merimbula, New South Wales.
The glorious iridescent wing bars (see also below, in Canberra) are a feature.

The closely related and similar Brush Bronzewing P. elegans is a much less common bird of southern coastal scrubs and heathlands. 

The third member of the genus is a very different bird in all ways, including appearance and habitat. The Flock Bronzewing is a nomad of the vast plains of the arid inland, a true child of El NiƱo, appearing in vast numbers in good years and strewing the ground with their eggs (there are tales of sheep stained yellow by them, through lying on them at night) then vanishing again. Flocks of up to a million were reported from the 19th century but by start of the 20th it seemed that they may have gone for good due to relentless habitat alteration, especially over-grazing by sheep and rabbits, shooting and cat and fox predation on nesting birds and eggs. By mid-20th century they were making a recovery – perhaps related to rabbit control by the Myxomatosis virus? – and I’ve driven through big scattered flocks, though nowhere near what they were.
Flock Bronzewing Phaps histrionica, west of Windora, south-west Queensland.
The apparently odd species name actually comes from Latin for a mime performer, for the strange face mask.
Another three-species genus is Geophaps ('ground pigeon', though all the group fits this description), all birds of the semi-arid tropics and sub-tropics. The most colourful - and I have to shamefacedly confess, utterly endearing - is the little Spinifex Pigeon G. plumifera from the central and western deserts. Spinifex refers to a large genus (Triodia) of grasses, forming large spiny hummocks, which dominates some 20% of Australia; Spinifex Pigeons (along with many other animals) are almost always associated with them.
Spinifex Pigeon (above Bladensburg NP, central Queensland,
and below Kings Canyon, central Australia).

Spinifex Pigeons have an always-surprising habit of materialising from the landscape; one moment you are alone,
the next there are up to a dozen scuttling about on whirring little legs.
Squatter Pigeons G. scripta (here at Cobbold Gorge, north-central Queensland) are found in the dry east coast
hinterland from far northern New South Wales to near the tip of Queensland.
Squatter Pigeons from further north (such as this one from Mareeba) have a red eye ring.
The third Geophaps, the Partridge Pigeon (named for their habit of running along the ground in jinking flocks, then flying up in a burst from the ground when disturbed) G. smithii, has a much smaller range across the Top End of the Northern Territory and the adjacent Kimberley district of far northern Western Australia. It has a very striking visage!
Partridge Pigeon, Kakadu National Park, east of Darwin, where they can be quite
confiding around visitor centres and picnic areas.
There are two species of the unusual-looking rock-pigeons, which are limited to the sandstone escarpment country of Kakadu (for the Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon Petrophassa rufipennis) and the Kimberley to the west (for White-quilled Rock-Pigeon P. albipennis). They can only be seen by climbing into their rugged stony fastnesses, though they are not uncommon in their limited range. However it seems that feral cats could be a real threat, given their small distributions.
Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon, Burrunggui (formerly known as Nourlangie Rock), Kakadu NP.
Both species are often seen out on bare rock, like this. They are most striking birds.
Last of the bronzewing group is the now extremely familiar Crested Pigeon Ocyphaps lophota, the only one of the genus. I say 'now' because they have expanded dramatically to the south and east in recent decades, to the point that they are now abundant and ubiquitous throughout much of the country and in all mainland capital cities except Melbourne (where they are making inroads). In Canberra for instance they regularly appeared as drought refugees from the west, then disappeared again. In the drought of the early 1980s however they came again - and for reasons uncertain, became established. Now it is pretty much impossible to walk or drive anywhere in Canberra without encountering them; a pair come daily to our bird bath. And I have to add that I find them a delight.
Crested Pigeon bathing in the sprinkler in our Canberra back yard.
(The cage is actually to keep green vegetables in and possums out!)
I have another reason for using this photo too. Below is a (very grainy) close-up of the opened wing; look at the narrowing of the third feather from the outside. This is the origin of the very distinctive whistling whirr that Cresties make when they take off - it is an automatic warning to others feeding on the ground that there may be danger approaching.

Another familiar and widespread genus is Geopelia, whose three small long-tailed ground-feeders cover most of Australia except for the south-west. They superficially resemble the turtle-doves (see the last posting) but it seems they are old Australians which branched off from the bronzewings. Diamond Doves have a huge range across virtually all of Australia except for the south and south-east coasts (where most of the human population lives). They can be seen at any watering spot in the deserts and semi-arid lands, and are limited to Australia.
Diamond Dove G. cuneata at the Diamantina River (perhaps appropriately!),
far west Queensland. This is a tiny dove, only 20cm long.
Equally tiny is the Peaceful Dove G. placida (though often called G. striata in Australia - see below), more familiar as it occurs more often in populated areas than does the Diamond Dove. I think it of as integral to the riverine River Red Gum forests (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) of the inland, where its incessant 'toodle-OO' reminds me of soporific warm afternoons, though it is found more widely than that. However there are strong signs that the introduced and aggressive Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis is displacing it in urban situations.
Peaceful Dove, Longreach, central Queensland.
It is also found in New Guinea, and closely related doves are found in Indonesia and south-east Asia. There has been a tendency in the past to regard all of these as one species (G. striata) but most authoritative lists, including the IOC (International Ornithological Congress) and Handbook of the Birds of the World, now recognise three species. In addition to the Peaceful Dove, these are the Zebra Dove G. striata of much of south-east Asia and Indonesia (though it's unclear which are native birds and which have been introduced), and the Barred Dove G. maugei of the Lesser Sunda Islands (which included Timor and Flores). Irrespective of their status, it would seem that these derived from Peaceful Doves which crossed the ocean straits northward in relatively recent times.
Zebra Dove, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
The third Geopelia is the Bar-shouldered Dove G. humeralis, whose musical but insistent 'let's go to school!' can be heard throughout woodlands of the east and north coast and hinterlands. It is half as big again as the two smaller species.
Bar-shouldered Dove, suburban Darwin.
That leaves us with four species, each in a separate genus, whose relationships are uncertain, not least because at least three of them are members of the seed-eating sub-family which eat a lot of fruit.  

Chalcophaps comprises three species, one of which is confined to New Guinea, Sulawesi and the Solomons, while another, the Common Emerald Dove C. indica, extends from India to Indonesia. (Note that this is a recent understanding - until then the Australian Emerald Dove was included in this species.) Now emerald doves in Australia, New Guinea and associated islands are known as Pacific Emerald Dove C. longirostris (though this is not of course universally accepted). More vexed a question is what they actually are - the Handbook of the Birds of the World helpfully tells us that they "appear to be intermediate between the African spotwings and the Australian bronzewings", so their origin is anyone's guess! Irrespective they are lovely birds, found in Australia in rainforests and vine forests of the east and north coasts. Given their evident island-hopping skills it is unsurprising that they've found their way to Lord Howe Island.
Emerald Dove, Lord Howe Island.
The cuckoo-doves, genus Macropygia, are about 10 species of large long-tailed fruit-eating rainforest pigeons found widely from China and India to Australia, where there is just one species - a pretty good indication that they didn't arise here but arrived fairly recently. Until recently the cuckoo-doves from eastern Australia were in fact known as M. amboinensis, a species found from New Guinea to Sulawesi and islands between, but are now given full species status as Brown Cuckoo-dove M. phasianella.
Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Nowra. These are active and acrobatic pigeons whose long tails help them balance
as they scramble through branches, especially in rainforests, for fruit (though their primary purpose is
doubtless as a rudder when flying through dense vegetation).
The final two Australian species are undoubtedly home grown, though their relationships have long been debated. Perhaps this contributes, albeit subconsciously, to them being among my favourite pigeons, though you may observe, with some justification, that I have rather a lot of those.

Wonga Pigeons Leucosarcia melanoleuca are big striking blue-grey and white pigeons of dense understorey, especially rainforest, along most of the east coast. Their incessant 'woo woo woo' (they have a very high boredom threshold) is a familiar sound of the wet forests, often emitted from a perch above the ground, though they generally forage on the forest floor where they take more insects, worms and snails than most pigeons. Some believe it to be of ancient Australian pigeon stock with no close relations, others that it was an early side-branch of the bronzewing lineage. Clearly more DNA work is required.
Wonga Pigeons, Nowra, New South Wales.
The name is presumably onomatopoeic, from an Aboriginal language, but as is so shamefully often the case
we don't know with certainty which one, though we can deduce that it was likely to have been
one of the Sydney area tongues. It was originally recorded as Wonga Wonga or Wanga Wanga.
Finally, the Topknot Pigeon Lopholaimus antarcticus. There is no consensus as to which of the sub-families it even belongs (though if it is of the fruit pigeon sub-family, all other Australian members of which arrived here recently, its origins require some interesting explanation). It is a big (45cm long), strange-looking pigeon with a unique double crest and very seldom-used voice (when it is used it utters either a low grunt or screech) which lives in highly mobile flocks in rainforests of the east coast, following the fruits.
Topknot Pigeons, Bunya Mountains, southern Queesnland.
So, pigeons, in many more words and pictures than I'd expected. I've learnt a lot in putting these postings together, and I hope you've found it worth while. At the least I hope it contributes in a small way to your enjoyment of these delightful and fascinating birds.



John Gordon said...

Hi Ian,

A very interesting and informative series (as usual).

We are fortunate to have three of the pigeons as year round visitors at our place in the foothills of Mt Dromedary (Gulaga) 8km west of Narooma. Each morning I scatter two cupfuls of millet on our entry track for seedeaters (this prevents the argy-bargy that designated "feeders" can provoke. As there are no sunflower seeds the parrots are largely uninterested but we get 10-15 Wongas and 15+ Brown Cuckoo Doves each morning with a small flock of Red-browed Finches. One memorable morning there were 34 Brown Cuckoo Doves. The Wongas are the most wary of us but move around on their long legs quite aggressively among the other birds. The Brown Cuckoo-doves are quite tame and you can move close to them as they feed on their short legs - they are beautiful birds. If it rains they squat down and lift alternate wings to maximise their exposure to the rain drops. White-headed Pigeons come intros or threes most days but as they are common in Narooma suburbia I don't think they relish the extra flight into the bush to pick up what we provide.

The finches and pigeons above (being seedeaters, I guess) are keen visitors to our birdbaths. As we are away 2-3 months each year we are always delighted when the birds quickly pick up on our return and restart their visits.

Topknot Pigeons are regular visitors to fruiting trees about but mostly glimpsed flying by.

aaardvaark said...

Glad you like pigeons - for some reason they seem to divide opinion and many dislike them for reasons I can feel, but not identify. But I love 'em ... especially Brown Cuckoo Doves and Partridge Pigeons and Spinifex and, it turns out as I think about it, many others. Peacefuls for the same reason you say. I can see why northern hemisphere Doves became a symbol of peace, there is definitely something pacific about them.

Ian Fraser said...

G'day John, and nice to hear from you after all this while. Thanks for this report - your place sounds as much a haven for the pigeons as for you.

Hello Aardvaark; I think the problem with most people's perception of pigeons is that they only know the feral urban ones. How could anyone not love the ones you list, as well as all the rest?!

aaardvaark said...

erhhh - Forgot I'm signed up as aaardvaark - this Julian here speaking. You'd probably agree that even feral pigeons are not totally bereft of beauty and their special place in the universe, including that they make such good peregrine food. I forgot to mention too that I also love Spotted Doves. I like their call that always reminds me of holidays and tranquility in lush Brisbane, as we escaped from our dry north qld home every 3 years.

Ian Fraser said...

Ah Julian, hi there. That's a courageous confession! I don't dislike any animal per se, but am implacable in my bias against ones in the wrong place, vis a vis the animals which belong there. Feral Pigeons probably don't offer much competition to natives, occupying as they do generally only artificial habitats (and, as you say, feeding Peregrines). Spotted Doves however... In Australia I loathe and fear them, having seen them take over Adelaide in my life time, pushing Peaceful Doves entirely from the vicinity of the city. I think, and have oft expressed the opinion, that we're far too complacent about them in Canberra. But, to each their own...