Only A Pigeon

Small single daisyI have discovered (as I imagine that many (very) amateur naturalists do) a strong strain of speciesism in my makeup. It’s only a daisy, when looking for wild orchids at Fulbourn Fen; it’s only the collared doves, eating the nyger seed intended for the goldfinches in the garden; it’s only a mallard, when looking for the elusive kingfisher along Hobson’s Brook; it’s only a wood-pigeon, when looking for hawks on the telegraph lines. (Incidentally, what do telegraph lines now carry?)

It used to be only a sparrow in my youth, though these days, of course, sparrows are quite a rara avis, whereas goldfinches (which I’d never seen until about five years ago) are common. But my point is that all the above species are in fact amazing: it’s the usual thing about familiarity breeding contempt (originally observed by Aesop, apparently, in ‘The Fox and the Lion’).

fox and lion

Thomas Bewick’s illustration for Aesop’s ‘The Fox and the Lion’.

Take the daisy (Bellis perennis). The most composite of the Compositae (or the most starry of the Asteraceae, if you prefer), it produces flowers all year round, which are so unaffected by light levels that they will open their petals on even the gloomiest days of winter.

Several daisies

And as the Reverend Andrew Young remarked in 1945, you never see a withered daisy. Well, I expect you do, but not very often: declining or squashed, yes, but not actually withered up. Where do they go, and what do the seeds look like?


A nineteenth-century botanical drawing of the daisy, complete with seeds.

Daisies are also brilliant at breaking up the hideous and sterile monotony of the English lawn, surely the most boring horticultural development ever.


The only part of Cambridge University Botanic Garden which could ever be described as boring.

One question, are the pink-edged varieties a subspecies, or do they appear late in the year?

Pink edge.jpg

The slightest tinge of pink …

The collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto, named by Frivaldszky in 1838) is a relatively new arrival in Britain, and was probably hugely exciting and exotic to mid-1950s birdwatchers when the first pair turned up, liked the place, and stayed. But now I have a relative who is regularly driven to distraction and wicked thoughts of high-pressure water-pistols by the monotonous ‘coo, coo-coo’ of the doves who sit on her roof all summer long.


A pair of collared doves in the big city. (c) Horia Varlan

And, as I said, they eat the nyger seeds, though it is quite enchanting to watch a pair, on either side of the feeder, bobbing their heads alternately like those wooden Russian chicken toys. And they are so pretty – that lovely pinky-beige colour, with the neat collar at the neck and never a feather out of place.


The neck markings.

‘From troubles of the world, I turn to ducks’, said F.W. Harvey, DCM, ‘the Laureate of Gloucestershire’, in his best known poem, published in 1919. Captured in France in August 1916, he spent the rest of the war in various German prison camps. At Holzminden (where he was in distinguished company), he was put in solitary confinement after a foiled escape attempt, and when he emerged, a friend, ‘E.M.’, had drawn a picture of ducks in a pond over his bed. Look at this picture, by my talented friend Jenny di Marzo: beautifully observed mallards (named Anas platyrhynchos by Linnaeus in 1758) preening on the bank.


The birds are absolutely remarkable for their iridescence: the male’s heads usually appears a shimmering green, but in bright sunlight, at some angles, they turn blue, an even brighter blue than the white-barred lozenge under the wing which both sexes share but which is not always visible except when they are flying or ‘up tails all’ in the stream. And the drake’s tail-feathers, so perfectly curled – do they have a function in evolutionary terms except for pure display?

Mallard sun 2

Up tails 2

‘Up tails all’, as Kenneth Grahame put it in The Wind in the Willows.

As for the wood-pigeon (Columba palumbus, ‘dove-dove’ as Linnaeus put it, also in 1758), yes, they are greedy, and yes, they eat brassicas, and yes, they squash my plants when they land on them or when they’re fighting, but again, they are lovely: look at the ruffled iridescent patch about the white splodge on the neck, and the sheen of the wings and tail feathers.

Columba palumbus


Thomas Bewick’s wood-pigeon.

I admit to finding the beady eyes quite unnerving, but their ‘song’ is the pure, distilled sound of summer – and quite likely what Tennyson had in mind when he described ‘The moan of doves in immemorial elms, / And murmuring of innumerable bees’.


Wood-pigeons can have a slightly mad stare…

Unless, of course, the Laureate meant turtle doves, which I have never seen (and am not likely to as long as our fellow EU citizens keep blasting them out of the sky as they migrate north, justifying this illegal act as in keeping with the time-honoured traditions of their culture). But turtle doves seem to prefer hedgerows and bushes to trees, whereas, back in the days when we had elms, the ones in my family’s garden were home to a noisy flock of wood-pigeons. Dialect names for the bird in Wright’s Dictionary include ‘cooscot’ and ‘coushot’, both indicative of their call, I imagine.

The moral of this discursive ramble must be to see Heaven in a wild flower, as William Blake so wisely demanded. But to end with a touch of the exotic: while musing on the abundant wood pigeons to be spotted from the train to London this week, I was astonished and delighted to see a pair of red kites dancing just above a field near Baldock…


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