Harriers are large rather slender raptors (the body about 50cm long with a wingspan of over…
Latin: Streptopelia senegalensis (streptopelia = a collared dove; senegalensis = from Senegal) Shona: Njiva.
This is a very common bird around us, both to see and to hear: a sound very evocative of Africa (or so it seems to me).
They are widely distributed about Africa, and you will certainly recognise the call and the sight. They are common in the wild and have adapted fully to urban and suburban areas: so common, indeed, that we hardly notice them. They can seem dull viewed from afar, but when you look at them closely, you will see some very beautiful soft greys and browns and pinks, with a dramatic necklace of dark golden spots: this comes out well in the picture above.
Doves eat mostly seeds from grasses and other shrubs and trees, as well as sometimes fruits and roots. Their nests are rather untidy platforms of twigs and grasses, which can be quite low down in the tree; you wonder, sometimes, how the bird fits in and does not fall out. I have seen a number of nests quite low down in trees, with the birds sitting on them: they can be surprisingly hard to see. Like most birds they stay very still on the nest when danger approaches and fly away only when they judge the danger to be too great. If you haven’t realised they are there, the sudden explosion of flapping wings can give you quite a fright: doves and pigeons make a distinctive sound when they take off into the air, clapping their wings together quite loudly to make a clattering noise.
How does a bird who lives mainly on seeds feed its young? You can’t imagine grass seeds, which are hard and sometimes sharp, being easy food for a new-born chick. Birds have evolved to be as light in weight as possible, to make it as easy (i.e. energy efficient) to fly as possible, and so they have dispensed with the strong and heavy jaws of land-based mammals and reptiles that have rows of teeth to crush and grind their food before eating. Birds have to do without teeth, but some do have strong beaks which can crack open seeds and even nuts to get at the nutritious kernel inside.
You can see that the dove’s delicate beak is not well suited to this task (it is better for probing and picking up): these birds cannot break them open for themselves or their chicks and have to swallow the seeds whole. The parent doves get around this by doing part of the digestion themselves before they feed it to their chicks. The bird has a kind of pouch or ‘crop’ in its throat where it stores seed that it has collected. This gets broken down and transformed into a white fluid, like milk, which they then feed to their offspring. That’s why you will sometimes hear talk of ‘pigeon’s milk’ (for pigeons do the same): doves do not of course produce milk from glands like mammals but some, like these doves, prepare it in their crops, just as a mother cooks food for her baby. Just like our mothers’ cooking, this needs water. Since their food is mainly dry, these doves get very little moisture in what they eat, which is how many birds take in the water they need. They need, therefore, to drink quite a bit of water; you will often see them around water holes or bird baths.
Doves are often a symbol of peace, even of the Holy Spirit. If you watch them for a while, however, you will see that, like most birds they can be quite aggressive towards each other when it is a matter of food or sex. Just like many other species of animals, you might say, one of which we know well and from the inside: ourselves.
– Stephen Buckland –