NZ Forest Native Birds
Pigeons, Encyclopaedia Britannica on-line assured us, mate for life and take a long time to accept another mate when theirs dies or is killed. But our birds are determined to prove the experts wrong! The shenanigans of Peyton Place were mild compared with what goes on in and around our dovecote.

The story starts with the pair of “squeakers” that we bought from a bird breeder in the middle of November 2000. They were from the same brood and were, he assured us, one male and one female. He also assured us that such a close relationship doesn’t matter in the bird world and that breeders prefer to mate brother and sister to keep the breed “pure”. To make sure the birds would always come home, we kept them imprisoned in the dovecote for six weeks, as advised, by placing a cage around it. We named the birds Bertie and Gertie.

We released Bertie and Gertie the day before New Year’s Eve 2000. At first they frankly didn’t know what to do. Having their world suddenly expand and drop its protective borders was probably mildly frightening. We watched them look down at the ground and then back up. “Should I? Dare I? Oh, maybe it would be safer to stay put,” we could almost hear them thinking. “I’ll just wait for B/Gertie to go first. … Hmm. That’s not going to work. The little blighter is waiting for me to take all the chances!”

Eventually, however, one decided to be braver than the other. It flew into the nearest tree, while its mate, as though determined to prove it was braver, instantly took flight over the fence and into one of the paddocks. The excitement of all this daring must have been too much for both. And the sudden realisation that in all the kerfuffle they’d been parted made it all so much worse. Neither dared move for a very long time. When one did, it was the one in the paddock. Its mate’s choice of landing place, it reasoned, was perhaps much wiser. So they both ended up in one of the upright oaks, barely visible to me.

It wasn’t long, however, before they settled down on the dovecote. At night they would perch side-by-side on one of the platforms, facing the house, and go to sleep. All through the summer they enchanted us with their devotion to each other. It seemed they couldn’t bear to be out of each other’s sight. Finally, in their mating ritual, we were able to work out which one was Bertie and which Gertie. Bertie has a bigger tail (though Gertie’s is also splendid) and his feathers always seem to have dirty tips.

Gertie laid two eggs, only one of which hatched. A light early frost, unfortunately, killed the chick. Shortly afterwards she laid two more eggs. This time both hatched (while the weather was getting steadily colder) but the second chick died almost as soon as we realised it was born. The first chick continued to thrive. But …

… the chick (which we called Little One because we didn’t know its gender) was only half-grown when discord struck. Two strange birds decided our dovecote was a great place to get free food. For a long time we had no idea who owned them. Then Dorothy, the wife of the farmer next-door, got in touch with us. Somebody must have told her we’d bought the birds, and the strangers belonged to her. She had fooolishly bought two females (which she named Peace and Tranquility) figuring that at least she wouldn’t have unwanted eggs to get rid of. What she didn’t know (and we’ve discovered only by chance) is that females leave home to search for a mate. The male stays put, cooing, puffing out his chest until he looks twice his size, and strutting outside his door to display both what a fine handsome creature he is and what a grand house he owns!

Well, we didn’t really mind our birds having visitors … except our two birds started flying away in the evening with the visitors. No, they weren’t going to Dorothy’s dovecote. We later found they were roosting in another farmer’s hay barn! They left their half-grown chick to cope on its own as best it could. Fortunately it now had feathers so the cold didn’t seem to be a problem.

Finally the real disaster struck: Gertie rejected Bertie—violently. We’re both sure she was the aggressor. They wouldn’t stop fighting. It was terrifying to watch—even more so when they went into the nesting box where their baby was and carried on the domestic row. Roger reached in to grab one of the birds and so stop the fight, but it was very difficult. They weren’t going to fold their wings and meekly allow themselves to be caught! Eventually he drew one out. It was Gertie. She stayed locked in a cage for the rest of the day and Roger tagged one of her feet before putting her back on the dovecote. But she and Bertie never got back together again. We hardly saw Gertie until just recently.

In the meantime Dorothy acquired more birds—three this time, to make sure there was a pair. That meant between us we had eight birds. Sometimes we could count eight around our garden; sometimes Dorothy had them all.

With the coming of spring we found out that Little One is a male. He started behaving exactly like Bertie, staying home most of the time, puffing himself up and strutting up and down outside his nesting box door. Very often we found that Bertie and Little One were the only pigeons to be seen. But, strangely, they displayed in vain.

Then Dorothy rang to say she had nine birds in her garden, and she didn’t know who owned the visitor. Soon afterwards the ninth bird started visiting ours, staying longer and longer with each visit. It was a female. Then we noticed signs of nesting. But instead of choosing Bertie, the new female chose Little One as her mate—very surprising to us since Bertie is a much better-looking bird and we’ve never understood how birds with such splendid tails as those owned by Bertie and Gertie could produce an offspring with the virtually fanless tail sported by Little One. Little Stranger (as we had come to call her) laid an egg. She (or sometimes Little One) sat on it so diligently it was a long time before we were able to ascertain there was only one.

Unfortunately Bertie heard of the prospective birth. He ransacked the nest and threw the egg out onto the ledge. When Roger found it, it was quite cold, so he threw it away. Almost immediately Little One and Little Stranger started courtship behaviour again. That was too much for Bertie. He started chasing Little One. He also started chasing Little Stranger—but in a different way. Before we knew where we were, Bertie had actually lured Little Stranger into his nesting box! Little One was frantic, wanting his mate back again. We felt so sorry for him.

However, before we’d even seen any courtship behaviour between Bertie and Little Stranger (we might simply have missed it) we saw Little Stranger making up to Little One again! It looked to us as though he was feeding her, as he would a chick. At this very moment they are behaving all lovey-dovey to each other. We have no idea where all this is going to lead. So long as we don’t have to put up with domestic violence, and so long as we get more birds, we don’t really care!

I’ll keep you posted with further developments as they occur.

7 January 2001:
Well, it seems that there is at least one egg again (though we hope there will be two) but we can’t check up because there is always a bird sitting in the box. And the population of pigeons in our garden continues to fluctuate so wildly that we never know how much food we need to put out!

25 January 2001
We haven’t managed to get near the nesting box again until today, when the absence of both parents meant we could safely take a look. And there, side by side, two chicks sat blinking at us. They looked much the same size but I imagine if we could examine them more closely we would see the difference. They appear to be well-developed and healthy but have yet to grow all their feathers.

17 February 2001
We have now managed to get the chicks out of the nest and band their legs. One was banded on the left leg and the other on the right. They recently left the dovecote but had trouble getting back. Although they could fly, they couldn’t gain enough height—and of course they didn’t have the sense to realise that if they moved further away from the dovecote their flight would be shallower and therefore not so much effort! One eventually managed it and Roger had to follow the other around the garden, his raincoat held in front of him ready to throw over the bird. It took several attempts before he was successful. He then returned the bird to the nesting box, out of the rain. We think the mother is again sitting on eggs. We may let her keep these two, but certainly no more. We still have no idea where she came from.

20 March 2001
Well, I guess it was only a matter of time before tragedy struck. Yesterday morning one of the only pair of chicks we’ve managed to rear wandered into the carport, which we recently closed in with a sliding glass door, and was caught by Krystal. Roger was too late to save the bird, which died in his hands. Strictly speaking, he was to blame. Not only was he leaving the margarine tub (which he uses to fill the pigeons’ feeder) in the carport instead of bringing it inside and dropping it and its remaining contents into the container of seed in the laundry, but he also left the glass door open. A virtually trapped bird has little hope of escaping a dog, and rescuing a bird from a dog, as opposed to a cat, is seldom successful; dogs kill instantly. Our dogs usually ignore the pigeons on the lawn (and the birds ignore them, even if the dog is little more than two feet away) so maybe we were getting too careless. But at least we didn’t take away the eggs mentioned above, one of which was infertile anyway, and the chick from the one that hatched is so far doing nicely.

16 April 2001
Easter has just gone and the temperatures are beginning to drop. We’re fast losing track of which pigeons are ours—although only one of ours isn’t banded. But at the moment we seem to be feeding between ten and twelve birds every time we put food out, and only five are legally ours. We think one pair is nesting but it’s doubtful they will successfully rear a chick now that the warm weather is over.
Later (5 pm) same day: Well, I “spoke” too soon. Roger has just fed the pigeons and while the parents were down feeding he looked in the nesting box and reports that there are two chicks. We just hope they can grow some feathers before the next frost!

23 April 2001
Well, last night it went down to 5 degrees C and the parents are no longer staying overnight with the chicks. So, as well as covering the door of the nesting box with a thick piece of foam plastic as he did the previous night, Roger also blocked a gap at the back where draughts could enter, and covered the chicks themselves with a thermal balaclava. He’s done the same tonight, although so far the temperature has reached only 7 degrees. The chicks do have some downy feathers, but it will be a week or two before it will be safe to trust these to keep them warm when there’s frost on the ground.

24 April 2001
Well, our thermometer just outside the carport registered almost zero last night, so it was a good thing Roger still covered the chicks and sealed the entrance and the place where draughts could enter.

29 April 2001
Yesterday we banded the chicks’ legs. They are reasonably well feathered, with baldish patches here and there, but are still rather ugly. They’ve been pushing Roger’s balaclava away (and sitting on it!) so we’ve stopped covering them at night.

9 May 2001
Well, a few days ago we discovered that the mother of our chicks was sitting on yet more eggs, which Roger took away because it really is getting too late in the year for rearing baby birds. We found out simply because one of the chicks was on the ground and didn’t appear to be able to fly very well, so obviously couldn’t get back to the nesting box. The other chick seemed to have disappeared, but we later realised it must have been hidden by its mother. Last night both chicks were on the ground and their parents stayed with them, trying to encourage them back to the nesting box so they could fly away to roost. In the end, as it would soon be too dark for them to fly, we put the chicks back ourselves. Within minutes the parents took off. We also found a few days ago that another bird is sitting on a chick in one of the other nesting boxes, so we’ll have to keep an eye on that or it might not survive.

17 May 2001
Our outside thermometer registered -2°C last night. We don’t know if a parent was sitting on the single chick, but it was fine this morning. When we took it from the nesting box to band its leg its little body was lovely and warm—and fortunately my hands were also warm. Two of the older pigeons went to the bird bath for a drink but found it frozen solid. It was so funny watching them sliding along and trying to break the surface with their beaks. Roger, after trying to take a photograph of them, broke it for them, but said there wasn’t much water under the ice crust. The sun will soon melt it, anyway. The morning might be cold now but it’s going to be a lovely warm day of the type that only Autumn can bring.

11 July 2001
I can’t believe it’s nearly two months since I wrote the last entry here! Deep winter is now upon us. The frosts are consistently heavier than any we’ve experienced since moving here from Auckland. So far July has been very dry, with frosty mornings heralding brilliantly sunny days. We could actually do with a little rain. And Roger hasn’t been vigilant enough. Some time after I warned him of courting behaviour among the pigeons he checked the two occupied nesting boxes. Two little chicks stared out at him from one and he wasn’t able to check the other because a bird was inside it. But he reported that the nesting material in it was surprisingly thick and tidy. Most nests until now have looked woefully inadequate and very untidy—to us anyway. As soon as he can Roger will check the box and remove any eggs. We “legally” own seven birds (not including the chicks) but are often feeding at least 15, so we don’t think it’s a good idea to allow more breeding when we have only four nesting boxes.

13 July 2001
Two eggs were removed today. We hope there won’t be any more, at least until Spring!

28 July 2001
We banded the legs of the new chicks a few days ago. It looks as though there are more eggs, but Roger hasn’t been able to get to the nesting box concerned to remove them. In the meantime, we have another worry. Some time ago a wild pigeon, mostly black and white and looking rather as though it had mated with a magpie, invaded our garden and started making a nuisance of itself. Roger had to shoot it. We now have another, similar visitor. So far it hasn’t caused our birds any bother and hasn’t managed to get any of their food. It leaves after a while and we’re hoping it will go away permanently.

2 August 2001
On Tuesday, 31 July, we lost another pigeon to tragedy. On Sunday afternoon when Roger was out in the car a noise from outside my office made me look around. Krystal came in and she looked sheepish to say the least. Puzzled, I went out into the passageway—to find two or three feathers scattered along it. “Oh no! Oh no! I left the ranchslider open!” (That’s a sliding full-length glass door, usually with an aluminium frame.) I rushed out into the carport to find it strewn with feathers. I saw I hadn’t left the ranchslider open (Roger had left the window gaping) but couldn’t find the dead bird. Only when Krystal rushed out of the “doggy” door onto the ramp we made so the dogs don’t have to use the steps did I see it— right outside the flap. It was alive but wounded. Strangely, Krystal made no attempt to grab it. I picked it up and put it in a cardboard box with a rag to sit on and we brought it into the house. When he got home Roger made a makeshift cage for it. It seemed relatively perky and at one stage even poked its head through the bars as though wanting to get out. Roger took it outside but it made no attempt to fly, merely stretching its wings. On Tuesday afternoon he noticed it was looking sleepy and shortly afterwards it died. PS: The coloured bird did go away, much to our relief.

17 May 2002
We have had some serious problems lately. Our birds disappeared—all fourteen of them. They have disappeared before, returning after little more than a day. However, this seemed much worse. First, Roger discovered a large pile of feathers by the front gate. They had no blood on them and he searched the paddocks but couldn’t find a little white corpse. Then the following morning I was about to start getting breakfast when there was an almighty bang! It sounded as though either a small bird had hit the kitchen window very hard (in which case it would definitely be dead) or a rather large bird had done the same. There was a suspicious-looking white mark on the window, however, and after a diligent search we found one of the pigeons hiding under the large camellia bush. It seemed fine but wouldn’t come out. There were no other pigeons around. Then Roger saw what must have spooked it—a young hawk in the nearly bare walnut tree. It was no bigger than the pigeons themselves so can’t have been more than half-grown. There was no way it could have carried off the pigeon that lost so many feathers. It didn’t mind us going right up to the tree. Later, when Roger told me it had flown off, I looked up to see that it was chasing one of our birds. I leapt from the dining room to the living room but couldn’t see where they had gone. It was as though they had winked out of existence. We’ve seen hawks around before but have never had one come into the garden itself. At the moment our birds are returning spasmodically, but only for food and only one seems to be staying. She has an egg and, though Roger said it was quite cold, we’re letting her keep it. For the rest, we’re having to accept that we might lose nearly all our birds. Roger would like to build a proper house for them, so they can be shut in at night and can flee there if spooked, but we want something that won’t be an eyesore in the garden and the cost of the materials for this sort of thing is prohibitive.

18 May 2002
One bird came home for the evening feed yesterday so I hurried out to give it some seed. This morning 10 or 11 turned up, half an hour after Roger normally puts out the seed, so he hurried out to feed them. They seemed very hungry but all flew away after feeding except one, which roosted up on the carport roof, from where I soon heard it cooing, though more softly than usual. However, this didn’t last. In a sudden flurry of wings it disappeared. We couldn’t see any reason why. We will put food out for them any time they return; it’s the only way to entice them back permanently. But we have to accept that they may never return except to be fed. We miss them so much. Our garden feels empty and unnaturally quiet without them.

19 May 2002
They didn’t return for their evening meal but there were seven this morning. Once again they came long after their normal feeding time. They are normally all there by 7 am. All seven sat up in the walnut tree where the hawk had been, but came down to feed. They still appear a little nervy, but maybe we’re imagining this. They didn’t stay long anyway.

22 May 2002
On Monday (two days ago) we found out that the half-grown hawk has definitely been killing our pigeons. We received a phone call from farmer Keith Bell to tell us he had chased a hawk from one of our pigeons on some property he bought from a neighbour. The pigeon was injured, but did we want to come and get it and nurse it back to health? He even took Roger to where the bird was. Now, Keith is an extremely busy farmer and also runs another business as an electrician. Also, farmers tend to be rather “hard-bitten” and he could easily have ignored the whole incident as being just one of those things that happens in nature. He even promised to look out for the hawk and despatch it for us. We placed the bird in a make-do cage in Roger’s office. For the best part of the day it looked quite dozy. It also had some blood around its mouth, which could have indicated internal injury. We didn’t hold out much hope for it. But yesterday it got onto its feet and took some food. It even shook itself. There was no evidence of fresh blood around its beak. This morning it seemed just as perky and moved backwards when we approached. Surprisingly, it didn’t try to escape. However, we thought we would see if it would like to be free. It flew onto the carport roof the moment Roger took it from the cage. If it had lost any feathers there was certainly no evidence of it. Within a minute it was on the walnut tree with its mates. There are about seven (eight including the rescued bird) that now hang around for most of the day.

31 August 2002
There have been only seven birds every day since my last entry. The young hawk obviously managed to kill a total of eight. We hope it’s now too big, and therefore too slow, to continue its carnage. About a week ago, however, we found that one pair of pigeons had two eggs. Today we discovered both have hatched and must have done so during some of the nastiest frosts we have had this year, despite the fact that spring has arrived. We are hoping the chicks will survive. If so, they will be good strong birds.

18 September 2002
This morning we saw the chicks out on the dovecote ledge for the first time, being fed. They survived a couple more nasty frosts last week so it looks as though everything should be fine. We just have to hope that the hawk is either now too big to catch pigeons or has moved off.

24 September 2002
Yesterday morning we saw one of the chicks out on the ledge trying its wings. This morning they were both out, but only one tried its wings before quickly deciding, as it did yesterday, that it still wasn’t ready to fly. J

26 October 2002
My goodness! I didn’t realise it was so long since I made my last entry. The chicks were fledged with only a little help from us, when one was obviously having trouble flying back to the dovecote and we had to pick it up and put it there. This usually happens as they’re learning to fly and our only concern has always been that it might happen when one of the dogs is around. Almost before the chicks were able to cope for themselves, their mother was sitting on eggs again. She now has another pair of healthy-looking chicks. We think they might be about ten days old and already they are sprouting downy feathers. After these two, however, we will start removing any eggs.

15 May 2003
Once again I am surprised at how long it is since I made my last entry. We now have a digital camera and can therefore show you our latest pair of baby pigeons. As you can see, they are still not fully feathered. Not exactly pretty, are they? By contrast, here is an adult.

20 May 2003
I have just heard from Wingspan that the bird that killed our pigeons was almost certainly a juvenile New Zealand falcon. It’s just as well neither Roger nor Farmer Bell managed to shoot it. The last thing we would want to do is kill a bird from an endangered species, no matter what crimes it committed against us. I must admit as I stood at the foot of the walnut tree on that fatal day I thought how much it looked like the picture of the falcon on my web site. But, I told myself, rare endangered birds just don't pop into people's gardens, never mind let them get so close. But of course they do when there are so many easy meals in the garden!

17 January 2004
Apparently a Mr Andreef of Waitomo Adventures uses homing pigeons to deliver memory sticks to his office for processing. This means that by the time tourists arrive back from their caving adventure the photographs he and his staff have taken for them are ready. But recently (probably December) he lost some birds and traced the problem to Karearea (the New Zealand native falcon). Pigeons apparently fly at a cruising speed of 65 kph, 100 kph if pushed, but native falcons fly at up to 250 kph! (Mind boggling, isn’t it?) Mr Andreef grounded his flock of 50 pigeons until Karearea’s nesting season was finished. If efforts to save Karearea from extinction are having some success, I wouldn’t like to bet on his chances that he won’t lose birds out of the breeding season because (as you can see above) it was May when a falcon halved the population of our birds.

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