Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are thriving in Pittsburgh’s suburbs. This flock of 14 feels right at home in a Kathy Saunders’ backyard.
Meanwhile, where have all the city turkeys gone? A decade ago they were easy to find in Schenley Park and Oakland but I haven’t seen one here in three years. This vintage article describes an impromptu Turkey Day at WQED when six came for a visit in November 2011.
On Labor Day, when I honor working birds, homing pigeons come to mind because they’re willing to try almost anything their keepers invent.
For centuries homing pigeons made themselves extremely useful by carrying messages, especially during wartime. The messages were carried in a pack strapped to the bird’s chest or inserted in a message tube strapped to the bird’s leg.
Then in 1907, German apothecary Julius Neubronner, who used pigeons to deliver medications, decided to try aerial pigeon photography. He designed an aluminum breast harness and a lightweight time-delayed miniature camera to fit on a homing pigeon. It worked so well with his own pigeons that he applied for a German patent.
But, as Wikipedia explains, the patent office rejected his claim until he sent them pigeon-made aerial photos. They granted his patent in December 1908.
Pigeon photography held great promise for World War I but was overshadowed by the invention of portable dovecoats to improve messaging and airplanes from which humans could do their own surveillance. So the fleets of camera-carrying pigeons just didn’t take off.
After World War II the CIA briefly flirted with the idea of pigeon photography but it, too, went nowhere. Now they have drones.
I wonder if people realize that pigeons were the original drones.
Last Sunday while Bob Donnan was at the Pirates’ game, two young birds nestled in the windshield wiper well of his car.
Yesterday [13 August] when our Chevy Bolt was parked at the South Hills Village – Public Rapid Transit garage, two young [Mourning] Doves nestled into the lower windshield area. We didn’t even notice them until exiting the garage into brighter light!
The car is so quiet that their short ride didn’t alarm them. After I stopped the car and waited for all traffic to pass, I waved my hand toward them and they flew off, back toward the parking garage.
— email from Bob Donnan, 14 August 2023
I could tell by the birds’ appearance that they are juvenile mourning doves because they look spotty rather than smooth. Juvenile body feathers are so new that each one has a pale tip, giving the bird a scalloped look. Compare the top photo of a juvenile with this one of an adult.
Why did the two birds hang out together?
Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) nest multiple times per season and at each nesting the female lays two eggs that hatch in 14 days and fledge 12-15 days later. Just before they fledge the father completely takes over feeding duty so his mate can cycle and lay a new clutch.
The siblings are dependent on their father for 12-15 days after they fledge (26-30 days old). During this period they stay together in the same area during the day, never straying far, waiting for dad to show up. In the nest they learned to associate his voice with a feeding so if he calls they come.
Interestingly they have good homing skills even at this young age. If juveniles are forced from their “reference area” before they are 21 days old — i.e. while still dependent on their father — they always return within 24 hours.
Why at the parking garage?
Mourning doves nest in trees, shrubs and even on the ground but they have no problem nesting near humans and, according to Birds of the World, “may use unusual human-made substrates for nest sites, e.g. rain spouts, mops hanging on walls, immobile car accessories.”
Hmmm. “Immobile car accessories.” These two are probably not the only baby doves who’ve been taken for a ride.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons, video by Bob Donnan)
It’s spring and our local pigeons (Columba livia) are prancing in courtship. The males bow and coo to their chosen mates and accompany their ladies in flight. When their courtship is successful the males clap their wings.
You can hear cooing and wing clapping in this audio clip …
Wild turkeys introduce themselves to each other on a personal basis but when it comes to where they live humans get involved.
Last summer eBird revised their species maps to show “introduced” versus “native” ranges of all the birds. For North American species that have been introduced elsewhere in the U.S. the results were bi-colored orange and purple maps. See maps for introduced house finches and bobwhites at Common Birds, Exotic Ranges.
Apparently wild turkeys were introduced, too. So how do the native turkeys stay neatly on their own side of the Washington-Idaho border? Don’t they introduce themselves to the other guys?
according to ebird turkeys are hyper-aware of political boundaries, and i imagine there is a brutal ongoing conflict between introduced turkeys (in orange) and native turkeys (in purple) for control of the west pic.twitter.com/Lu9x6tTkKg
Wild turkeys are ancestors of the domestic turkeys we eat on Thanksgiving. Understandably, wild turkeys avoid humans but in rare instances a male becomes aggressive toward people. This happens because turkeys are social birds.
Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) flocks have a social structure called a pecking order that’s especially important during the breeding season in March to May. Dominant males puff and strut and confront other males to maintain their own dominance. If a subordinate gets out of line the dominant turkey struts and gobbles at him, pecks him, or flies at him with spurs exposed. Notice the spur below.
A dominant male who is acclimated to people may mistake us as subordinates and try to put us in our place. Occasionally one becomes fixated on bicycles and the cyclists riding them(*).
In one case in Livermore, California an aggressive wild turkey made a motorist’s day. A policeman stopped a speeding driver and was going to issue a ticket but a wild turkey saw the motorcycle and challenged the police officer.
Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has advice on how to prevent wild turkey aggression toward people.
Aggressive behavior towards people occurs when turkeys have become overly comfortable in the presence of humans, usually over several months or even years, in areas where turkeys are fed. [For this reason] Never intentionally leave out food like bird seed or corn in attempts to help or view turkeys.
If our city pigeons were this beautiful, would we take them for granted?
The pink-necked green pigeon (Treron vernans), a native of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, is a fruit-eating forest bird well adapted to human landscapes. Graced with the colors of a pastel rainbow, the male is sometimes called the rainbow dove.
Despite the female’s camouflage, nesting safely is a challenge. When she sees a threat approaching she opens her wings to look larger but her display doesn’t scare off the male Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus) who successfully steals her eggs. (Despite their appearance Asian koels are cuckoos, not crows.)
As for the pigeons, they will court and lay a new clutch very soon.
In spring a change occurs in mourning dove behavior as large flocks we see in winter disperse to nest. Some flocks move north while locals break up into couples and fan out to choose a territory.
It is hard to notice when the change occurs so I graphed my eBird count of mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) in Frick and Schenley Parks, January 2021 through 9 April 2022.
The change is pretty dramatic. Just 1-5 birds from March through September, then over 40 December through February. The largest flocks were at the Frick Environmental Education Center where they sunned in the trees above the feeders. 100 mourning doves in January!
This year the count dropped below 10 in early March as they paired up. Some pairs maintain their bonds throughout the winter. Others get to know each other in the spring.
According to Birds of the World: To build the nest he brings small twigs, etc. which he delivers to her while standing on her back(!) She arranges them around her while using her body to form a simple bowl. Nest building usually takes 7–10 hours spread over 2–4 days.
The loosely built nest looks messy. Sometimes you can see through it from below.
And they mate. She lays her first egg within 2 days of nest completion. Subsequent eggs are one or two days apart.
Mourning dove pairs share incubation as they wait for the eggs to hatch in 14 days. Surprisingly neither bird has a brood patch but it works anyway.
The chicks are fed by regurgitation and grow up to resemble their parents. They fledge in 13-15 days, sooner if frightened.
Juveniles remain in speckled plumage through August. By winter they look like adults.
And in October mourning doves gather in flocks again. The process starts over from flocks to nests.
UPDATE 13 April 2022: Today at Frick Park I talked with someone who has a mourning dove nest in their yard while 16 mourning doves hung out near the feeders. Flocking and nesting were simultaneous today.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)