British Wildlife of the Week
With almost a million pairs breeding in the British Isles, it is difficult to imagine that the collared dove was ever anything other than a common resident of our suburban gardens and parks. But surprisingly, this species has only existed as a wild bird in Britain for the past 65 years. It’s lived here for less time than Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne.
The collared dove is one of the greatest natural colonisers in the bird world. At the end of the 19th century, it lived in warm regions of Asia, from Turkey through to China, but during the early 20th century, it suddenly began to increase its range north and west, expanding into Europe and colonising increasingly temperate countries. The first recorded wild sighting of a collared dove in Britain was a single male bird in Lincolnshire in 1952. However, the species was widely kept in captivity at the time (in fact, a dealer had recently imported some birds a mere 30 miles away), so this individual was almost certainly an escapee.
But it didn’t take long for the collared dove to arrive here under its own steam. In 1955, a pair turned up in a garden on the Norfolk coast and bred. Enthusiasts rushed from all over the country to catch a glimpse of this rare, exotic bird – including a teenage Bill Oddie! The following year, more birds arrived, and the trickle soon turned into a flood. Within a decade or two, collared doves had spread throughout the country, increasing at a rate of 100% a year. By 1972, they could be found from the Isles of Scilly to Shetland. Today, around 990,000 breeding pairs call Britain home.
The collared dove’s takeover of the British Isles has been extraordinary, but it has been just one small part of this bird’s conquest – merely the next in line in an inexorable western advance. Within the past 100 years, it has spread dramatically from its original Asian range and has managed to naturally colonise almost the entirety of Europe faster than any other recorded species. At its height, it was expanding at a rate of 44 km per annum.
By the start of the 21st century, the collared dove had started travelling southwards as well, reaching the Canary Islands and North Africa. And across the pond, in North America, the species is in the middle of another great expansion. From fewer than 50 birds that escaped captivity in the Bahamas in 1974, the collared dove can now be found in nearly every state in the U.S. In an age where many animal populations are falling, it’s refreshing to see a species that is doing quite well for itself. The collared dove is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable avian success stories.
In the next Britisih Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at the national tree of England – the mighty oak tree.