Roger Ratcliffe: Hybrids of city birds that hang out on coastal cliffs

Rock doves are known to inhabit the Yorkshire coast. Picture by Terry Carrott.
Rock doves are known to inhabit the Yorkshire coast. Picture by Terry Carrott.
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It is easy to overlook rock doves. They are usually found mixed in with flocks of the ubiquitous feral pigeon, which most people never consider worth the effort of raising their binoculars to observe. But walking along the clifftop path a few miles north of Whitby last week I disturbed a flock of what I took to be pigeons and saw conspicuous flashes of white.

When they had landed back on spoil heaps left by the old alum mines at Sandsend Ness, I focused and found that a good number of the 80 or so birds sported the diagnostic white rump and black wing bars of the rock dove (Columba livia).

Their blue plumage also resembled the species as illustrated in my guidebook. However, other birds in the flock ranged in colour from reddish brown to light grey, clearly hybrids that have resulted from interbreeding with other members of the dove family. These constitute the familiar city pigeons and homing pigeons.

It is possible, though, that the birds I identified as rock doves were also of diluted stock.

My doubt was raised by another guidebook which said that it has become almost impossible to disentangle feral from wild birds and added: “While the former can resemble and behave like wild rock doves as far south as the Yorkshire coastal cliffs, few if any are of unalloyed native stock. Those found on the remote north-western coasts of Scotland and in the outer isles are usually considered the purest examples.”

However, a study of the birds at Flamborough and Bempton found that 70 per cent of the population were “blues” resembling the wild-type, while the remainder showed clear indications of domestic ancestry.

That was roughly the proportion of wild to feral birds I came across last week. And after checking the admittedly imperfect photographs I managed to take of the flock I can’t really see any difference between the “blues” there and illustrations of the classic rock dove plumage.

The birds have long been known to inhabit cliffs along the coast from Saltburn-by-the-Sea down to the chalk headland of Flamborough.

An old North Riding name for the bird is blue dove, and on some parts of the Yorkshire coast it also became known as the cliff pigeon.

Their fondness for precipices and ledges, in fact, is probably why rock dove hybrids have adapted so well to living on buildings like Leeds Town Hall and Salts Mill.

The opportunistic nature of rock doves/feral pigeons is undoubtedly the secret of their success. In towns and cities the latter continue breeding well into late summer, as do rock doves on the coast.

In fact, once the breeding season for seabirds like guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes is over at the cliffs of Bempton and Flamborough rock doves sometimes take over the ledges to rear another brood.

Like woodpigeons, they were a reliable and cheap source of protein for centuries and kept in cages to provide food, while others were shot at several locations along the coast.