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Pacific emerald doves giving the cold shoulder

Clifford B. Frith | Guest Contributor

The following is an extract from the full story appearing in Australian Field Ornithology 2024 volume 41: 55-58.


My good friend, Margit Cianelli OAM, kindly invited me to lunch a couple of times over the 2023-24 Christmas New Year period in her delightful Lumholz Lodge home garden, amidst upland tropical rainforest between Malanda and Herberton on the southern Atherton Tableland, North Queensland.

On both occasions she asked if I did not agree with her that the white shoulder patch on the Pacific Emerald Doves attending her constantly-available, and seed-laden, bird feeders might be more intensely-white than on birds of the species elsewhere in the Atherton Tableland area. Certainly, the birds at her feeders, often five or six at a time, did appear to have strikingly-bright white shoulder patches, but I thought it unlikely that they could be any brighter than on birds on my rainforest property near Malanda, or elsewhere in the region.

I decided to spend a few hours watching and photographing the doves attending Margit’s feeders. Because seed is constantly available, doves are present most daylight hours. This species is typically encountered as single birds, or as bonded pairs, walking quietly across the dim forest leaf-litter. The artificially-induced density of birds at bird feeders, however, results in frequent aggressive interactions, raised-wing displays, and vigorous chasing of one bird by a more pugnacious one.

As I watched the activity of the Pacific Emerald Doves at, approaching, and distant from, the feeders, it struck me that those birds close to others of their kind looked far whiter on the shoulder than those further away.

In photographing them I then came to fully appreciate that birds distant from the feeders, and thus others of their kind, held their wings in the manner to which I was accustomed to seeing them, with the wing tight against the body and with body contour feathers overlapping the edge of the bend of the wing (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: With the wing bend held against the body and the white shoulder patch exposed in a limited and normal way by lone or unconcerned birds. Photo by Cliff Frith.

Birds closely-approaching others at the feeders, however, held their wing joint slightly away from the body and a fraction downward, and therefore with body contour feathers not overlapping the bend of the wing and thus exposing the full extent of their white shoulder patch — making it appear much more strikingly white (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: With the wing bend held slightly away from the body and white patch fully exposed by birds nervous as they approach potential rivals. Photo by Cliff Frith.

The artificial density of Pacific Emerald Doves attracted to seed constantly available to them results in frequent aggressive encounters. Because of this, I was witnessing birds attempting to establish or defend themselves within the hierarchy of competing individuals, by fully exposing their white shoulder patch while simultaneously holding the wing slightly away from the body in case they needed to take flight – thus performing a “fight or flee” or “flight intention” posture…. A case of presenting a ‘whiter shade of pale’ to one’s peers and competitors.


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