Life

Take on Nature: The collared dove carries an olive branch from afar

Collared doves, Streptopelia decaocto, on an electricity wire. Perhaps because of its monogamous lifestyle, the dove is associated with love and faithfulness

THE soothing calls form a collared dove, perched on my neighbour's television aerial last Sunday, mirrored the mood of calm on a blue sunlit morning which followed days of incessant rain.

Streptopelia decaocto gets its name from the narrow black, white-edged, half-collar at the nape of its neck. A medium-sized dove, it is uniformly coloured pale grey, with dark outer wing feathers. A recent colonist in Ireland, it only arrived here in 1959, after a rapid expansion from the Balkans through Europe in the preceding decades.

Now a common bird throughout Ireland, it is estimated that as many as 30,000 pairs breed here (Cabot; Irish Birds; 2004), showing a marked preference for suburbs and small towns. It breeds in the thick foliage of trees on a nest platform of loosely built fine twigs. The bird's Irish name, Fearán baicdhubh simply means ‘black-naped turtledove' referencing its black collar and its smaller cousin, a rare summer visitor.

Doves and pigeons have been highly valued as messengers since early times, with the first known use of pigeons as postal messengers thought to have been in ancient Egypt, where in 2,900 BC, incoming ships released pigeons as an announcement of important visitors arriving.

Pigeons also carried messages in ancient Persia and Greece, where the names of Olympian winners were carried back to their cities. German-born Paul Julius Reuter, who founded the famous Reuters News Agency in 1851, had previously used pigeons to fly stock prices between Aachen and Brussels.

Their effectiveness as messengers is due to their natural homing abilities, something which was also used to great effect in wars. During the two world wars, pigeons were a very reliable way of carrying important messages behind enemy lines. Over the course of both wars, 32 pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for valour given to animals.

One such bird was an Irish pigeon, born and raised in Carnlough, Co Antrim. It received the medal in September 1944 for being the fastest pigeon to reach England with a coded message from the battle-front beaches of Normandy about the Allies' progress. The bird flew across the English Channel in four hours and 50 minutes.

A dove appears as a message carrier in the Old Testament story of Noah when he sent out the bird from the Ark to see if the floodwaters had receded. On its return, the dove carried an olive branch, which showed it had reached dry land and indicated God had forgiven mankind. The olive branch thus became a symbol of peace and friendship.

The dove is also the symbol of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, a sign of peace, strength and purity in Christian iconography. In Irish Christianity the bird has strong links to St Columba from Gartan, Donegal, who adopted his name from Colm or ‘dove‘ to later become known as Colmcille, ‘dove of the church', a man of war and peace who famously said before he left for Scotland that he wanted to "save as many souls as he had doomed".

Perhaps because of its monogamous lifestyle, the dove is also universally associated with love and faithfulness, a symbol of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and of Venus, her Roman counterpart.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the collared dove more fully, enjoying its repeated trisyllabic coo calls and spring flight display, when the male flies steeply upward, clapping his wings, before descending with tail spread and spiralling down to its perch. As Keats says, a "sweet bird", calming and peaceful.

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