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When frost and snow set in, the last resource of the ring-dove is the turnip-field. Even in deep snow the turnip-tops are not beyond reach, and are generally its staple food in winter. I rather think these doves never devour the turnip itself, although wild geese do, and even ducks, when pinched with hunger. In a country where there are few turnip-fields, ring-doves are seldom seen in large flocks after the beech-mast is consumed. But in the lowland counties, they continue to resort to them in multitudes until they pair in spring. I could never see any diminution in their numbers, nor signs of migration. When they begin to feed on the turnip-tops, their flesh is bitter and ill-flavoured, but the beech-mast and acorns improve it much.
Early in February, should the weather be fine and sunny, the ring-dove begins to coo. At first there are only a few low notes in the morning and evening, but very soon this soothing sound is to be heard with greater power from every corner of the coppice. The doves may also be seen rising in the air to a considerable height, and then allowing themselves to fall with outstretched wings, repeating this motion several times, as if in exquisite enjoyment of the genial season. The coo of the ring-dove continues in a less degree during the summer, but chiefly in the morning and evening. They. build very early-the nests being generally about halfway up the evergreen trees, and composed of a few twigs so loosely put together that you may see through them. Many have two broods in the year, but I should imagine not all, at least if we may judge from the decrease of those that coo and soar in summer and autumn. Numbers of branchers scarcely able to fly are to be met with
in August and September. I have also found their nests with young in June, but most likely these were birds that have had their spring hatching destroyed. The nest of this bird is easily discovered, and most people who have lived in the neighbourhood of hanging woods are familiar with its sudden rush through the branches when startled from its eggs.
Five years ago I had some fancy pigeons of various kinds, croppers, tumblers, fan-tails, and carriers. It was a pleasure to feed them every morning after breakfast. One day a ring-dove most unexpectedly appeared and claimed a share of the barley. At first he was rather shy, but in a week or so became the boldest of the company. For two months, "the stranger," as he was still called, was never once absent at morning feed. He always flew over the wall into the garden where the dovecot was placed. Sometimes, after filling his crop, he lingered with the other pigeons nearly the whole day, but never stayed over night. I had the curiosity to watch him in the twilight, in order to find out his sleeping quarters. After several "doubles," he at last roosted on an old apple pollard in a neighbouring garden, returning every night to the same branch of the same tree. At last he became tame enough to pick grain out of my hand. As he was evidently a bird of the year, I rather think he must have been taken from the nest, and kept in a cage, but, having made his escape, hunger may have forced him to beg a meal. Poor fellow! His departure was as sudden and mysterious as his advent. We missed him one morning, and he was never seen again.
The next in size to the ring-dove is the wild pigeon,
or stock-dove. Considerable mistakes seem to have arisen about this bird, some fancying it altogether migratory, and others confounding it with the rock-dove, and tracing it as the origin of the domestic pigeon. The habits of the stock-dove are very different from those of the latter. They are always in summer met with in pairs, perching upon old trees, and building their nests in the decayed hollows. I found two myself in the grounds of Park-place in Berkshire, where a few stockdoves flock and roost with the ring-doves every winter. I had several times seen one of the pairs before the hatching time. They were very wild, and flew more rapidly than ring-doves. About a month after, I stumbled upon the nest in the fork of an aged tree. It was only about ten feet from the ground; and I might have shot the female at any time flying off-the other nest was near the top of an ivy-girt birch. These birds, as well as most of the pigeon tribe, lay two eggs, generally a male and female. Hence the Scotch phrase, when there are only a son and daughter of a family, "a doos nest."
The stock-dove is gregarious in winter, like the ring-dove, and feeds on beech-mast, &c., in the same way. They are not found further north than the midland counties of England. They are beautifully shaped, a blueish grey colour, the males having a fine golden neck. Unlike the other wild pigeons, their voice is a failure, being only a sort of grumbling sound.
The rock-dove (the true wild pigeon) is smaller than the preceding, and has a white spot above the tail. I have often met with them among the rocky caverns of the coast. They fly with great rapidity, which may account for the name blue rocks," applied by the admirers of that cruel
sport, pigeon-shooting, to their fleetest birds. Both in the Caithness and Morayshire cliffs, I noticed some brown and light-coloured; these, most likely, had joined their wild associates from some pigeon-house, although there were none within the distance of several miles. This is the more likely, as the habits of the rock-doves are exactly those of the domestic species. Their nests are never fixed in trees, and, when tame pigeons leave the dovecot, they always hatch in similar places; viz., old ruins, and sheltered rocks and cliffs. In fact, I have little doubt they are the same bird in a wild and tame state.
One word for the turtle, that fairest of doves, and most welcome harbinger of spring. There is a plaintive murmur in its coo, connected as it is with the idea of constancy and truth, that has made it, in all ages, par excellence, the bird of love and song. One peculiarity of this gentle creature is its concealing itself among the most impervious places of the wood, so that it is not easily seen. It generally builds near the top of thick evergreen trees, and, as it does not come to this country till the end of April, and returns in September, it only rears one brood, taking its journey as soon as the young ones are able to travel.
On first arriving here, they often frequent the green corn-fields in pairs; after they begin to build, however, they keep more to the woods, where nothing but the coo betrays their retreat. In some parts of England, I am told, they are gregarious after they have hatched their young, and frequent the corn and pea-fields like other doves. But I have never seen above four or five in company. I once traced out one by its coo, and had the satisfaction of seeing him perched on the topmost branch of an
old oak, lowering his head at intervals, and pouring forth his tender notes. When partridge-shooting in Suffolk, a pair of turtles rose off the stubble, and settled upon one of the top branches of a high tree. I continued my range in their direction, and killed both at a shot. Neither had the patch on the side of the neck, so were most likely hatched that year.
Turtles are often met with in the northern counties of England, and are not unfrequently found in Scotland. My brother shot one in Dumbartonshire a few years ago. It was evidently very young.