Colours of Wildlife: Blue Spotted Wood Dove

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Blue Spotted Wood Dove

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Blue Spotted Wood Dove by Willem

This is a painting I made to commemorate my first sighting of this delightful little dove a few weeks ago in Venda, thanks to our excellent bird guide Samson Mulaudzi. The Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Turtur afer, is a very rare species in South Africa, indeed only occurring in that region, the very far north-east corner of South Africa. But outside our country it is more common and widespread, occurring over most of tropical Africa, as far north as Ethiopia. It is a bird of moist woodland, forest and evergeen thickets. In other countries it occasionally ranges into gardens, farms and tree plantations, but here in South Africa it usually sticks to pristine habitats.

Blue-spotted wood doves belong to a group of small doves that are restricted to Africa. Two other species, the Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, and the Black-billed Wood Dove, are extremely similar to it, indeed being hard to distinguish in the wild. Two other species, the Tambourine Dove and the Blue-headed Wood Dove, are somewhat dissimilar in appearance but still closely related to it. Finally, the Namaqua Dove is also related to the wood doves, but differs in being smaller, longer-tailed, and with the sexes strongly dimorphic. It also occurs outside of Africa on the great island of Madagascar. It is usually classified in its own genus. All of the wood doves and the Namaqua dove have, in addition to the iridescent wing spots, bright chestnut primary feathers on their wings that show clearly when they fly. The wood doves and the Namaqua dove are possibly related to a group of Asian and Australian doves that often have iridescent feathers on their wings, such as the Emerald Dove and the Bronzewings.

Though they can be tame and confiding, these wood doves tend to be humble and shy, and thus don't draw much attention to themselves. Most of the time, their presence is given away by their call. All of the wood doves have similar calls, which consist of a series of low hoots, starting out slow and then speeding up, ending in a rapid staccato. While this tells you you're listening to a wood dove, determining which wood dove it is, is more tricky. There are subtle differences between the timing and the pitch of the calls, but in the field, this is not very reliable. To some degree, habitat helps: the blue-spotted wood dove inhabits moister woodlands and forests than the green-spotted wood dove does, but not the dense forests that house the tambourine dove. But there's some overlap between all three. Thus, it's best to actually see the dove and note its visual features. The tambourine dove has a striking dark brown and white facial pattern, distinguishing it immediately. That leaves, in South Africa, the emerald-spotted and the blue-spotted, which look extremely similar. The blue-spotted can, in good light, be seen to have iridescent dark purplish-blue spots on its wings, whereas those of the emerald-spotted are dark green. The blue-spotted also has a reddish bill with a yellow tip, while that of the emerald-spotted is black. We were lucky when we saw our dove that all these features were indeed visible, so we could confirm its identity.

Although it inhabits woods, the blue-spotted wood dove feeds mainly on the ground. Walking placidly about open spots such as clearings or forest paths, it pecks up seeds of grasses and some other plants, including the invasive castor oil bushes. It can sometimes feed in fallow cassava fields. It also feeds on some animal food such as insects and small snails. It typically feeds singly or in mated couples. When feeding is good in a particular area, doves may congregate in small flocks. When frightened, these doves will rise with loud wing claps and rapidly fly directly away into dense vegetation, ducking and diving amidst the branches and leaves.

Loud wing claps also feature in the wood dove's display flight. Indeed, it is similar to the display flights of many larger dove and pigeon species. First, audibly clapping its wings, the wood dove flies upwards at a steep angle; then, it stops clapping, instead extending its wings out sideways and keeping them stiff as it glides down again. This show is visible to other wood-doves to inform them of the identity of the territory-holder. Wood doves tend to be residents, but in some African countries, they are migratory, moving into certain areas only during the rainy season, such as Mali which is mostly a dry country, retreating southwards to moister regions when the dry season hits.

In their breeding behaviour, wood doves are similar to other doves and pigeons. Couples are faithful to each other, strengthening their bond by mutual preening and bill-touching. They build stick nests that look flimsy but are surprisingly stable, in trees or bushes not very high from the ground and typically at the edge of the forest. The nest can be lined with rootlets and soft animal hair or plant fibres. The female lays two cream-coloured eggs, and she and the male both incubate them. The chicks are fed on 'pigeon milk', a special secretion from the lining of the crop, which is a unique feature found in the entire pigeon-and-dove family. As they grow older, they're given progressively more insects and seeds to eat. They fledge at the age of about two weeks.

In the whole of Southern Africa, the blue-spotted wood dove is rare and restricted to small regions of suitable habitat. It is vulnerable to deforestation, but at least in South Africa forest and woodlands are fairly well protected. In the rest of tropical Africa it is common, only avoiding dry and treeless regions. It is not threatened with extinction.

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