Research Report #51 — Rock Dove

Rock Dove, Columba livia, or “Feral pigeon” © The Pingus / (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Read the Report: Rock Dove. February 1977. Daniel Smiley.

Rock Dove. © National Audubon Society, The SIBLEY Guide to Birds, by David Allen Sibley, 2000.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus: The introduced Rock Dove, Columba livia, or the “Feral Pigeon” (according to David A. Sibley) is to some degree an enigma. It is a member of the avian family Columbidae, which includes a wide assortment of pigeons and doves. But Rock Dove taxonomy and even its common name have been debated for decades. The origin of the Rock Dove in North America has been traced to its native Britain and Europe, being brought to the new world with early settlers to be raised for food. Escaped birds became feral, forming wild pigeon flocks breeding on buildings in developing small communities and cities. In 1844, James E. De Kay, in his Zoology of New York, listed the “extra-limital” species, which he called “The Common Pigeon,” as “introduced and domesticated.” Surprisingly, Dan found that the species was “not mentioned in ‘Birds of New York’ by E. H. Eaton, published in 1910.”

Columba livia © Ingrid Taylar / (CC BY 2.0)

In this Research Report, Dan Smiley referenced the unfortunate lack of knowledge about the occurrence and distribution of the Rock Dove, noting “as far as I know the history of this bird in Ulster County has unfortunately not been adequately recorded.” It was not included in the checklists of birds of the county prepared by naturalists with the John Burroughs Natural History Society in either 1951 or 1965, “yet we know that they have been resident in the area for many years.” However, the Rock Dove was included by Pink and Waterman in the “Birds of Dutchess County 1933–1964,” listing the species as a “permanent resident insofar as the local or semi-domestic variety is concerned….Very Common to Abundant….(but referring) solely to the common barnyard or city pigeon and does not presume to acknowledge the existence of the former cliff dwelling rock doves’ presence in the county.”

Fairchild aerial view of Lake Mohonk Mountain House and Sky Top across Mohonk Lake, 1925. © Courtesy Nell Boucher, Mohonk Mountain House Archives.

In the summer of 1930, naturalist and climber Howard H. Cleaves reported to Dan of finding the “plucked prey and feathers from pellet material” of two Rock Doves on the “Duck Hawk ledge on Sky Top.” Rock Doves, or “pigeons,” as they were called, were first heard on the Mohonk Mountain House in 1956, “billing and cooing on porches in the early a.m.” This, from porches on “the east side….of the stone section….which is a quarter mile from the Sky Top cliffs across the Lake.” In 1958 or 1959, “several nests” were seen on the Mountain House, and as Dan noted, he believed they were the “first nest record for Mohonk.” As a result, control measures were put in place. In one year, as many as “14 of 18 that came to the House” were shot by staff.

Peregrine Falcon © Christian Fracchia

In 1964, Dan “recorded the hypothesis that there might be a possible relationship of Duck Hawks to the recent arrival of rock doves at Mohonk.” On 25 May, a statewide survey for Peregrine Falcons revealed: “that no Peregrines had been found in this part of New York.” At a Federation of New York State Bird Clubs meeting also in May, Dan reported ‘Five years ago they (Rock Doves) began nesting on the Mountain House and on the cliffs of Sky Top. I wondered if the Falcons had previously been in control.” “At that time we considered it (the Rock Dove) a ‘domestic species.’”

Dan felt it unfortunate that the first “occurrences of ‘pigeons’ on the Sky Top Cliff were not recorded.” He noted in his detailed Species Card File, that his first observation was of hearing Rock Doves there on 8 December 1965 “near the Crevice,” where he felt they were “apparently….wintering.” Dan recorded “continuing trouble with nesting on the House” on 24 May 1966. Only on 10 June 1973, did Dan note, “None seen around House this year.” Dan hypothesized that a “resident population” of Rock Doves was likely on the cliffs of Sky Top “since the late 1950s.” “Depending on the population level there,” some, “one or more pairs reside for a while….and nest regularly on the Mountain House.” Of particular interest, is Dan’s observation that he had never seen “any of these pigeons” feeding on any food materials in the vicinity of Mohonk, even around the Mohonk Barn.

Climber leading the climb High Exposure (5.6) at the Trapps © Frank Tkac

In this Research Report, Dan wondered how widespread on the ridge the Rock Dove might be with the major decline of the Peregrine Falcon. While some “pigeons” were observed each year “flying across the ridge or parallel with the cliffs,” they were thought likely “to be wanderers from the valley populations at farms and villages.” Dan made contact with rock climbers who he knew regularly had experience ascending routes on Sky Top and the Trapps cliffs “for ten or more years” to see if any of them had “encountered rock doves on the ledges of the cliffs.” The only two records came from Brad Snyder. One, on 2 August 1976, was of “two pigeons ‘inspecting ledges’ adjacent to the climb ‘High Exposure’ on the Trapps Cliff.” The second, of a nest with one nestling on Sky Top, Brad observed on 21 October 1976. Brad reports, “Nest was about 3/4 way up the cliff, in a gap about 6” high….with no vegetation….about.” As the adult flushed out it gave the lead climber “quite a scare.” Brad noted, on climbing past the nest, the “one youngster, (was) lightly feathered, but far from being able to fly.” Dan wondered if an increase in climbing might be the cause for this nest location. When young Peregrines were “hacked-back” on Sky Top during the summer of 1976, the “falcons at least harried, if not actually caught, the cliff pigeons. This may have tended to delay their nesting, till after the released falcons had left….” As to “why the rock doves have seemed to prefer the Sky Top Cliffs above all others remains a mystery to me. Perhaps this ‘U’ shaped escarpment resembles their ancestral habitat on the coast of Europe.”

Rock Dove © Nicholas Turland (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After Dan’s Research Report was released in February 1977, observations of widely variable numbers and locations of Rock Doves have continued up to the present. In some years few were noted, and during others, like in the fall of 1985, over 30 were seen in the vicinity of Mohonk. I think of particular interest were the new locations where they were observed. These included at the Cliff House at Minnewaska in July 1977, and at Spring Farm in November 1977, where “several….roost regularly in the cupola of the newer (1887) barn.” In the summer of 1981, Rock Doves were recorded nesting under the high ceiling of the climbing route “Twilight Zone” in the Trapps, with their “droppings causing difficulty for climbers.” Noting, “This problem (was) absent 10 years ago”. “Increased population perhaps because of change in farm use at foot of mountain to more intensive grain/corn farming….” In April 1983, they were heard, “apparently nesting in the water tower at the former Cliff House site (at) Minnewaska.” By 1985, Mohonk Preserve Head Ranger Tom Scheuer reported to us “a few regularly at climbing areas of Undercliff (the Trapps Cliff), 1 nesting.” In April 1990, the Mohonk Preserve Research staff noted 15 birds at the Mohonk Testimonial Gateway, on what is now the Preserve Foothills. In September 1991, a flock of some 60 Rock Doves were seen in flight by observers at the Near Trapps Hawk Watch and included with their “other than hawk observations.” In April 1992, 6 were recorded along the escarpment above the Palmaghatt Ravine on a hike to Gertrude’s Nose.

Feral Pigeons in Flight © Jude (CC By 2.0)

The records of the Rock Dove at the Daniel Smiley Research Center over the last 20 years or so, reveal that Rock Doves have been regularly noted, mostly on Mohonk Mountain House nature walks, hikes, and guest nature programs, and on the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, conducted by Mohonk Preserve staff, and held in December, in part, in the vicinity of the Mohonk Mountain House.

Feral Pigeon or Rock Dove — 4 on a cliff ledge © Philip Goddard (CC BY-NC 2.0)

However, since the spring of 1998, wild breeding Peregrine Falcons have returned to nest on Shawangunk cliffs after an absence of some 40 years, their loss due principally to the extensive use of hydrocarbon pesticides like DDT, and their bioaccumulation. Both wild Rock Doves and bred domestic pigeons have been clearly documented as prey species for the Peregrines. Peregrine eyries are now found on three Shawangunk cliff areas. Nest ledge reconnaissance by Mohonk Preserve staff and volunteer climbers after seasonal Peregrine nesting has documented domestic homing and racing pigeon remains, as revealed by leg bands.

One wonders, as Dan did, that if the Shawangunk Peregrine Falcon population increases over time and known ancestral cliff locations are selected once again by adults for nesting, like at Sky Top, if Rock Dove numbers will again be reduced as in the past.

Read the Report: Rock Dove. February 1977. Daniel Smiley.

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With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.

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Mohonk Preserve

Mohonk Preserve

With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.

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