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Cape Turtle Dove

Cape Turtle Dove

Latin: Streptopelia capicola (streptopelia = Greek ‘a collared dove’; capicola = Latin ‘an inhabitant of the Cape’)
Shona: Njiva (generic name for doves)


There are two doves we see often around where I live in Harare: the Laughing Dove (see last week’s blog ) and this one, the Cape Turtle Dove, which is significantly bigger and greyer, lacks the golden spotted breast and has a prominent half collar at the back of its neck.  If you see it flying away from you, which is often how you do see it, and there are broad white stripes on either side of its tail visible in flight, it could be this one – but it could also be the other smaller one, the Laughing Dove (sorry about that!  The tail stripes are not, in fact, a very helpful distinguishing mark!). 

The Cape Turtle Dove is very common, almost as common as the Laughing Dove, and widely distributed in Africa.  They are seed-eaters, with similar habits to the Laughing Doves: they also feed their chicks on that protein rich ‘pigeons’ milk’.  If you put out a seed-tray for them to feed, you need to use small grains; or perhaps crushed maize will also do (I have not tried).  Once the birds have discovered the tray (which might take some days), you can sit back and watch them early in the morning or in the evening frantically gobbling up all the seed within minutes, down to the last particle – and aggressively chasing away any competitors, particularly the smaller Laughing Doves.  Intelligence is not something that immediately strikes one about doves: some of them spend more time chasing other birds away from the seed than eating it themselves. 

 Why are they called “turtle doves”?  Does it have anything to do with turtles, those tortoise-like reptiles that live in water?  I think not: I doubt they are related!  I don’t really know, but I would guess that it is because the rather similar European Turtle Dove has as its Latin name Streptopelia turtur, and the word ‘turtur’ has been Anglicised into ‘turtle’.  When Europeans came and found this very similar bird they used the same name.  It could also be (but this is just another guess) that the word ‘turtur’, even in Latin, sounds a bit like their call i.e. it is an onomatopoeic name, like quite a lot of bird names. 

 Doves, as I said, are seed eaters; in their droppings, as is the case with other seed-eaters, there are sometimes to be found undigested seeds which were perhaps too hard to be ingested and have passed through the birds.  Some plants have taken this up and actually make use of such birds for their own propagation.  In some cases, the germination of the seeds actually depends partially on the action of the acids in the bird’s digestive system: without passing through the bird’s gut, the seeds will not be able to produce, so that the plant’s reproduction is dependent on its seed being eaten by birds.  Birds are a good way of dispersing seeds because they often excrete them at a distance from where they found them, together with a lump of nutritious fertilizer, which is of course exactly what the plants want in order to spread.  So the arrangement benefits both the birds and the plants.  Of course, although some of the seeds eaten by birds will be dropped in places that are good for the plants to grow, not all will.  In fact, doves – at least when they are nesting – just deposit their faeces in the nest.  But this unpleasant habit, the books say, also has a beneficial purpose: it helps bind together the  nests that doves build.  The nests of Cape Turtle Doves are rather flimsy and their eggs are noticeably small for the size of the bird, so eggs can and do sometimes fall through holes in the nest. 

 The eggs are small because the incubation period for this bird is only 14 days, which is to say that the chick emerges from the egg comparatively quickly, and hence at an earlier stage of development than other birds.  Its continued development to maturity is therefore completely dependent on the care, protection and feeding provided by its parents.  When you think about it, it is no different, in this respect, from ourselves: we humans too are born at an early stage of development, helpless and utterly dependent on our parents, unable to fend for ourselves.  But this stage of dependence, for humans, lasts a very long time, perhaps longer than any other creature.  I imagine that this is partly because in our case it is not only our bodies but also our minds that need to develop before we can look after ourselves on our own.  

Stephen Buckland

Dr. Stephen Buckland – Lecturer in Philosophy but also a keen amateur bird watcher.

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