Another Life: Close call for our last few rock doves, wild originals of the west coast

The arrival on Inishbofin of domestic pigeons – birds that are a result of thousands of years of selective breeding – could have been a calamity for the island’s wild flock

Inishbofin comes and goes on our horizon, its silhouette often hazed in mist or spray — veiled sometimes, too, in rain, but not for long. On clear autumn mornings, on the other hand, a rising sun blazing down the Killary fiord picks out every gable of the East End village, every white shirt flapping on the line.

As the crow flies, Bofin floats just 10 kilometres from our tideline, but its ravens don't bother roaming this far. They share in an avian community that seems to grow richer every summer, as more and more visiting birders zero in on everything that flies. Take the blog last June from Galway's expert Dermot Breen — "at least a dozen" singing corncrakes, a rare turtle dove flying with collared doves, great skuas breeding on neighbouring Inishark, that island also "alive with wheatears. . ."

What more could a birder want? This year, it appears, a new resident on Inishbofin decided he missed his fancy domestic pigeons and brought some 30 of them to fly around the island, returning to feed and roost in a loft he had built for them. To ornithologist Anthony McGeehan, from Belfast, summer bird guru and guide on the island, this was a"near-calamity". He explained why in the autumn issue of Wings, the BirdWatch Ireland newsletter.

Out at the wave-torn northern cliffs of Inishbofin live a flock of some 40 rock doves, Columbia livia, nesting in clefts and dark sea caves. These are wild originals of all domestic pigeons, racing, fancy or feral. They once lived as close to Dublin as Howth, but in their pure form survive in Ireland now only on islands strung out from Donegal to Kerry. Some field guides to birds, indeed, forget the species exists at all.


I have watched the doves, not on Bofin, but north Mayo’s Inishkeas, flying with fierce speed above the swells. They have their own pale shade of blue, with black wing-bars, and the dashing, steep-angled beat of the wings and the urgency of flight seemed specially at home in that swirling, battered landscape. Many of today’s street pigeons, while generally so much burlier, still show a similar plumage pattern. But Mc Geehan’s photographs in Wings, of birds in the Inishbofin flock, show the petite rounding of the head, the delicacy of the bill. Such niceties have disappeared in the dove’s genetic extinction, across most of Europe, through the myriad generations of domestic breeding.

The Inishbofin pigeon fancier “is not to be criticised for his own passion”, insists McGeehan. He withdrew his birds to Dublin or wherever, having heeded the amicable persuasion of some “concerned local inhabitants.” The island’s peregrine falcons, while taking their annual share of the rock doves, might have also stooped even more keenly on the incomers, still finding their way around.

"With such a near miss," writes McGeehan,"the fate of the rock dove is more clearly a human responsibility than ever." But, as Earth's species, large and small, beautiful and ugly, disappear 1,000 times faster than they would in a world without people, there is some irony in reflecting on the role of fancy pigeons in the research of Charles Darwin, as he worked towards producing On the Origin of Species.

Humans have selectively bred wild doves for food since early Egyptian times, so that escapes from domestication have rejoined wild populations for many centuries. Even the nesting places of Columbia livia were exploited, as men built extra platforms in caves or engineered the crevices of dovecotes. But even apart from food, breeding “fancy” pigeons became a widespread and competitive hobby.

By the time Darwin came along, in the mid-19th century, most pigeons — like other livestock — were showing changes in form, skeleton, plumage and colour resulting from selective breeding. Their domesticated variety in Britain, India and elswhere was already astonishing. In the pigeon clubs of English cities, the carrier, short-faced tumbler, runt, barb, pouter and fantail now each looked so different as to seem a different species.

But Darwin was convinced of their common descent from the wild rock dove, their changes developed from myriad tiny and natural variations intriguing to experienced breeders. His own research involved years of breeding and messy dissection of pigeons (“it really is most dreadful work“) and many evenings in “gin palaces”, eavesdropping on the arguments of pigeon fanciers.

People unaware of Darwin’s pigeons can be taken aback by their prominence in chapter one of On the Origin of Species. Even the publisher’s reader who first commented on the manuscript thought it might be turned into a handbook on how to breed the birds: “Everyone is interested in pigeons. . . ”

Inishbofin, meanwhile, is settling in for winter. There is nothing to be done about the frogs already imported to the island’s lakes. The introduced pheasants, on the other hand, are being culled, one by one. And its doves (“cliff pigeons”, as McGeehan would prefer) stay wild, by appropriately peaceful accord.