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Wildlife watch: the stock dove

David Chapman / 09 September 2019

The stock dove is an endangered British bird that often passes undetected in flocks of more common wood pigeons and feral pigeons.

Stock dove
Stock dove photographed by David Chapman

The stock dove is an enigma. It looks so similar to two very common species, the wood pigeon and feral pigeon, that we tend to overlook it. It might be that many people are not even aware that there is such a thing as a stock dove and those who do are seldom prepared to search through flocks of commoner pigeons and doves on the off-chance that they might spot one.

Being less well-known doesn’t make it less important. In fact the UK is an incredibly important refuge for this species with about a quarter of a million pairs, that’s more than half of the European population. Given that astonishing statistic it becomes clear that more of us should recognise it and that we should be doing what we can to protect the humble, unassuming stock dove.

How to tell stock dove apart from wood pigeons and feral pigeons

It isn’t too difficult to distinguish between the stock dove and wood pigeon. The latter is a plump, bulky bird which walks with a waddle, makes an irritating ‘my knee hurts, Betty’ call and has white feathers in the plumage of its neck and wing.

In contrast the stock dove is a delicate bird with a petite profile. Its plumage mostly grey with black tips to the wings and tail and a suffusion of pink on its breast and iridescence of green on its neck. Unlike the wood pigeon, it has a dark eye and a small rounded head profile which give it a pretty appearance. Critically, for identification, it lacks any white in its plumage which makes it easily distinguished from any wood pigeon. Though a little extra care needs to be taken with young wood pigeons which lack the white patches on the neck but still have white on their wings.

Feral pigeons are incredibly variable, so in any flock there might be one or two which look a little like stock doves but they will always be hanging around with a gang of hybrid brothers and sisters who have inconsistent plumage which give the game away.

Where to see stock doves

Within the UK stock doves are resident, though their European counterparts have a migration from north to west in winter. They can be found in England, Wales and southern Scotland and are generally recognised as a bird of the countryside rather than urban areas, though they will come to gardens and will take food from underneath bird tables. They nest in cavities wherever these can be found in walls, trees, cliffs and even sometimes in the ground. For this reason they are most common in parkland where mature trees are allowed to develop significant holes.

Nesting habits

It seems hard to believe but at one time when they commonly nested in rabbit burrows people would put sticks across the nest entrances which allowed the adults to continue feeding the young but would prevent the youngsters getting out. When they were big enough the young birds would be put in the pot.

Like the wood pigeon, the stock dove has a long nesting season which can start in February and continue until autumn, so they have the potential to raise three broods each year and although each brood may only contain two young this still presents the opportunity to increase the population relatively quickly.

After breeding stock doves tend to gather in flocks for safety but their flock size is very small compared to wood pigeons with which they sometimes mix. They can be seen on arable farmland but also like woodland where they feed on tree seeds which have fallen to the ground. They tend to be more wary than wood pigeons though I have seen them in parks where they can get accustomed to people.

Their fortunes within the UK have been mixed. Stock doves were hit hard by our use of organochlorine chemicals in the 1960s with their population declining through the 70s and 80s. Since then there has been something of a recovery in most of the country though there seems to be a continued decline in the western part of the country.

Because of their historic decline the stock dove is still included on the Amber List of species which are of conservation concern.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.