On doves and memories

December 8, 2019

Three varieties of doves and their feeding, cooing, and courting

Relayed from far away Seattle, I watch a video clip sent by my cousin of her little toddler son, Adam. In stocking-ed feet, he stands in front of a mini whiteboard and box of markers in a playroom. He coos and emits a charming, ingratiating, guttural chuckle. Turning to the whiteboard, he announces, “I make a booo duck”, and with excellent motor skills, selects a blue marker that he carefully uncaps. After marker hits whiteboard with scuds, swirls and thumps, the video shows a mess of scrawls on the board.

At that moment, I look across my Lahore window into our garden in morning time. Where is my favourite ‘blue duck’? Little Adam has reminded me of our avian visitor that is not a duck at all, but a type of fakhta or dove.

Our garden has three varieties of doves that come to interest us with their feeding, cooing, and courting. One of these species is the ‘blue-headed dove’, our affectionate descriptor for the red turtle dove whose head, or mantle as it is properly called, is a subtle shade of blue-grey in the male of the species.

This is the least common of Lahore’s doves and comes into our open grassy patch in single or pairs to feed on the grain dispersed on the ground below our bird feeders. Groo-gurr-goo, groo-gurr-goo is repeated several times quickly and is distinctly different from other doves.

No wonder it is called the Seroti fakhta in Urdu, the dove that sounds like a serota, or the beetle-nut cracker. Its call is like the serrated sound from this cracking instrument as it crunches the woody nut in one’s hand to break it into small shards.

As if in a 3-D animated miniature painting, the red turtle dove’s sheer delicacy and colour draw the eyes to restfully watch it. Blue mantle plumage is separated from its rear body by a black collar, finely edged with white, as if with a thin, squirrel hair paintbrush. Its back and wings are a Kashmiri rose pink with a touch of purple on the chest.

This delicate bird is widespread in various parts of Pakistan along our five rivers through to the Indus Delta. Being a summer breeder in most of its Pakistani range, it resides year-round only around Kinjhar Lake and Thatta district. I am looking for my favourite ‘blue duck’ or fakhta at the wrong time of year in Lahore. I must wait till March when it might oblige us with its seasonal arrival from neighbouring regions across the border.

Now in winter, I can see the spotted dove or chitroka fakhta, more austere than the seroti, with grey upperparts and pinkish-brown body. Its ‘chessboard’ hind neck markings of white and black spots are leading clues to its identity. This elegant dove can become quite tame, and once I had close contact with a pair in Islamabad.

My parent’s building contractor gifted a caged pair, knowing the love of birds, but unaware of my aversion to captivity. Close to the Margalla Hills, I set about freeing these doves from captivity quite methodically. For ten days, the doves were weaned from their cage through release on our terrace and eventually felt confident enough to hand feed on seeds held in the palm of my hands.

The pair responded to my whistling call, and roosting in nearby trees, would come several times a day to feed. Slowly, they expanded their territory, flying further and further afield every evening, but still returning to my whistle and terrace. Eventually, their return flight ceased and my mission was accomplished as the doves habituated themselves to the woods and hills nearby.

The ringdove, or dor fakhta, a pale grey with black half-collar or ring on its hind neck, is the last of our threesome of doves. It calls in the typical dove fashion of kuk-koo-kook repeated in succession that we associate with this species. The largest of the doves, its courtship movements create amusement that we watch in the spring months.

The pretty part of the display involves rising vertically a few feet on noisily flapping wings and fanned-out tail, then gliding down in graceful spirals together with the female. The funny part is the ground-based dance, in which the male fluffs up his ruff feathers and hunches himself into a stoop. With wings floundering, head bobbing up and down, he pursues his lady with comical determination. A doubtful sort of charm, in my view.

Creating nests like skimpy saucers high up in tree canopies, both genders of dove share in domestic duties. The parent birds diligently regurgitate seeds gleaned from weeds, grasses and our bird feeders for their young, then dispense them as a soft pap, fed bill- to-bill from parent to the chick. Reminds me of our legendary Urdu niwala of softened food that is hand-fed to our children, to pamper, nourish and sustain them from toddlers well into young adulthood.

Red Turtle Dove image from oriental bird club database

The author is a Lahore based ecologist

On doves and memories