RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Stock doves spotted

To my surprise on this week’s walk I counted no less than 11 stock doves singing in the Bedham woods. These birds are smaller than Wood pigeons and have no white patches on them so you can tell the two apart.

Their song is distinctive so do listen out for them during the summer on this walk. It is a double- note drone, repeated over and over again and quite distinct from the long dreamy sequence of the wood pigeon’s song.

Sussex folk used to call them blue rocks, or rock-doves, because they do resemble that bird of the craggy cliffs of Scotland but which did once-upon-a-time breed on the Isle of Wight and possibly Beachy Head. Town pigeons around Chichester cathedral, which sometimes get in the way of a peregrine’s claw, vaguely resemble the Rock and perhaps the Stock doves too, being derived from them with bits of fancy breeds built in.

Stock doves are less common than Collared doves. Only about 150 confirmed pairs breed in the whole county. They are amber listed, of medium conservation concern. The rarest dove in Sussex is red-listed, and that is the Turtle dove, which all birders will listen for this week with great concern as the beautiful bird is in line for extinction here in Britain and Europe too. Please listen out for Turtle Doves very carefully over the next two months and report records of which you can be certain to the Sussex Ornithological Society website.

I wonder how many, if any, one would hear on this week’s walk? They had not arrived from Africa on migration when I did the walk on 23 April, but by the time this appears in the paper they will be in the middle period of migration, this lasting till about 3 June. I hardly need to describe the turtle dove’s song. But just in case you are not sure, it is a loud purring call, which can be heard 400 yards away, and can be heard till late July. The bird nests in thickets and overgrown hedges, often in hawthorns over ten feet tall.

Birch, firs, elder and clematis have also made effective cover for the very flimsy nest which takes only about an hour to build and is a network of thin black twigs through which one can usually see the two eggs from below. Shakespeare knew ‘the song of the turtle’ and because of the bird’s famous constancy and faithfulness as a partner to its mate, included it in perhaps the most famous of all his poems: The Phoenix and the Turtle. In Troilus and Cressida he also tells us: ‘As true as steel, as plantage to the moon / As sun to day, as Turtle to her mate.’ The species therefor has an invincible place in our island culture.

The fact that it is shot out of hand by Maltese and Italian gunners en route to the breeding grounds is infamous and must be stopped. It also has a less than happy time at the hands of our own agriculture as it requires weed seeds for its diet, especially those of the Vetch family.

Field headlands of rough grass can provide some relief, and so can corners of your gardens if you live near woods and hedgerows.