Early bird when it comes to nesting

Collared dove BTO/Tommy Holden
Collared dove BTO/Tommy Holden
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One of the perils of not taking down the Christmas tree in good time is that collared doves might try to nest in it, as has happened in Thetford on at least two occasions, writes the BTO’s Graham Appleton.

Once the nest has been built it’s too late, of course, and the tree may be there for a few extra weeks.

The collared dove is one of the earliest nesting species but it is not on its own; robins, blackbirds, tawny owls and song thrushes can all lay eggs by the end of February, and sometimes in January.

As long as it does not get too cold and wet and there is food available, these early birds can raise youngsters that will have a good head start in the race for survival. If conditions become so harsh that the life of the sitting female is in danger then these are all species that have the capacity to give up and start again. Not for them, the ‘all the eggs in one basket’ strategy of blue and great tits.

Collared doves are well-known to most birdwatchers.

They might be relative newcomers, with the first proof of nesting in the UK being just in 1955, but they are very successful. BTO Garden Bird-Watchers report them on two-thirds of their weekly lists, with peak numbers in the breeding season and fewest in the autumn. If anything, records have been tailing off over the last ten years, coinciding with the period in which woodpigeon numbers have gone up.

If there is competition between the two species then it would not be surprising if the much larger woodpigeons are the winners. There are fat pigeons waddling around under my bird feeders most of the time these days, with collared doves appearing much less frequently.

Interestingly, and for the first time, I saw a collared dove successfully land on a hanging seed feeder today. I could swear that there was an air of smugness, as he or she ate the sunflower hearts and looked down at the pigeons. That’s a way to beat the big guys – and yet another example of how birds learn to adapt to the new foods and feeding opportunities that we provide for them.

It’s not just food that makes a difference. One of the things that enables birds to breed early is the availability of sheltered nest sites.

Watch carefully and you may well see your collared doves diving into a leylandii hedge, where they will avoid the worst of the weather and be relatively safe from the attention of cats. These non-native conifers are a much more common feature of gardens than 60 years ago when the first collared doves made it across the North Sea and started cooing to each other.