As long as these carefree little pigeons are not left out in the cold, they are happy to perch and watch the world go by, says BILL NAYLOR – if you can spot them, that is!
THE zebra dove (Geopelia striata) from Indonesia and Malaysia is not as common in western aviculture as its smaller relative the diamond dove (G. cuneata), but in Thailand it has been a popular cage bird for centuries. There, it’s considered a good luck charm and a songster.
This popularity led to some wild populations suffering due to trapping, but it’s now increasingly captive-bred to meet demand. Singing contests, which should perhaps be called cooing contests, are held at major venues where single doves are housed in basket cages. When calling, they arch their back and lift their tails as they produce their call, but unlike the monotone coos of other doves they make a musical coo-cuckoo-coo sound.
Zebra doves have been introduced into Tahiti, the Seychelles, Hawaii and many other places. There they can often be found in urban areas, congregating around hotels and other places of human activity waiting for food. Their attractive plumage and small size make them a more popular attraction than the usual feral pigeons.
The cock and slightly smaller hen are both extensively barred. The most impressive barring is on the sides of the neck, where dark brown jagged striations cover a buff white background, and reveal the zebra markings that led to its name.
The alternative name of barred ground dove describes the feeding behaviour. In the wild, in pairs or groups, and indeed in captivity, they spend a lot of time foraging on the ground. Alerted to a noise or movement, they freeze and their barred plumage camouflages them perfectly.
Zebra doves have a reputation in captivity for being “branch potatoes”, because they will remain perched stationary for long periods while recharging their batteries.
They are good mixers with other small birds, and can be kept in a large flight with finches and softbills, and sometimes other doves – although pairs vary in their tolerance of other dove species.
Pairs are very devoted and will often mate for life. The male courts the female with a typical pigeon courtship display – circling the hen, bowing in front of her and cooing, while holding his tail aloft and fanning the feathers.
The flimsy nest is usually built in the fork of a tree. In captivity they will use trays and baskets. Although zebra doves are only 20cm (8in) long (and half of that is the tail), they will defend their nests against bigger birds, battering them with well-aimed powerful wing slaps. All members of the pigeon family from an early age do this as a means of defence.
One or more eggs (usually two) are incubated by both sexes for 11-13 days.Abandoned squabs can be fostered under other species of nesting doves, as long as those parent birds are producing pigeon milk for their own nestlings.
As the nestlings grow, regurgitated seed is phased in as a rearing food. Young leave the nest around 10 days old, and are duller versions of their parents. But as is often the case with doves, they may leave the nest prematurely, especially when flimsy nests provide little room. (Baskets have an advantage in containing nestlings as opposed to trays and flimsy nests.)
When young zebra doves end up on the aviary floor, being small and defenceless they are vulnerable to larger aviary inmates. They are fed for a long time after leaving the nest sometimes for up to a month, and roost all together.
Doves are often given a limited variety of seed, usually millet and other small seeds, but they benefit from egg-based and other softfoods, which will supply protein and other nutrients. Grain-eating pigeons have large gizzards and although they will pick up some grit from the aviary floor, they should also be provided with additional appropriate sized grit.
Like a lot of tropical members of the pigeon family, zebra doves will eat a variety of livefood and appreciate mealworms. Being ground-foragers, a good layer of tree bark on the aviary floor and a few low-growing shrubs will encourage natural livefood.
It was once the normal practice to over-winter imported zebra doves indoors. Although those available would almost certainly be captive-bred, long periods of cold weather are not to their liking, and heated inside quarters will safeguard their health in winter.
Breeding in brief
■ The first captive breeding was in Holland in 1864. The first UK breeding (according to Dave Coles’s First Breedings) came the following year at London Zoo.
■ A white mutation has been produced, which has a pink beak and feet, and almost non-existent barring, giving the bird a ghostly appearance.
■ Although hybrids have been bred with the Australian diamond and peaceful dove (the latter was once considered to be the same species), hybridisation should be prevented and avoided – it could affect the purity of this attractive dove species.
Leading aviculturist Bill Naylor has many years’ experience of working in zoos and bird parks in Britain and abroad.