It’s not exactly a secret that I’m busy researching and writing a new book – something on a larger, grander and more sparkly scale than Orchid Summer. My subject matter, this time around, are the hummingbirds of the Americas – arguably the most remarkably colourful and dynamic bird family in all the world.
They’re found throughout North, Central and South America, from Alaska in the north to the shore of the Beagle Passage in Tierra del Fuego, in the very far south. They’ve evolved to endure in almost every habitat the Americas can throw at them; and their plumage is nothing short of jewel-like. They’re bewildering and beguiling in equal measure – adjectives that we would not, offhand, use for members of the pigeon family.
When we think of pigeons, it’s hard not to think of those grey birds that stutter around our feet scavenging fallen fast food in railway stations, that sit on the guano-encrusted ledges of Victorian railway bridges, so ubiquitous in our towns and cities that they’re (almost) invisible to us. And those who do notice them have barely a kind word to say. “Flying rats” goes the tired, thoughtless refrain.
Those birds came to mind recently when I was in Cuba spending time looking for Bee Hummingbirds. I spent a while exploring the Zapata peninsula and there I found myself face to face with pigeons quite unlike any back home in Europe – although, as an aside, our beleaguered, persecuted Turtle Doves give them a run for their money where good looks are concerned.
I visited a feeding station where, every morning, scraps of leftover rice are scattered on the forest floor. It’s just a few metres from a busy road where rainbow-hued 1950s Oldsmobile and Plymouth cars cruise by taking children to school and families to work but, with the low morning sun barely penetrating the thick trees that surround and arch over us, we might as well be in another, remoter world. At first there is nothing to see… and then, shyly to begin with, but then more brazenly as they perceive no threat, the quail-doves emerge from the surrounding undergrowth.
Blue-headed Quail-doves make up most of the feeding party – nine bold birds walked around me, right up to and then even between my feet, too close most of the time to focus my camera upon their eponymous cobalt blue crowns. Shyer still, a grey form slipped out into the ride leading to the clearing in which I stood. A Grey-fronted Quail-dove, like a ghost on the edge of vision. It finally crept a little closer, revealing a rich violet saddle and back. Not such a shrinking violet after all.
Later in the morning, walking through forest at the edge of a swampy area looking for roosting nightjars and owls, we found a familiar form standing motionless on the forest floor nearby – hoping its muted colours would act as camouflage. A Ruddy Quail-dove – unlike the two previous species, not an endemic to Cuba, but all the same, another striking bird.
The day seemed to deliver more and more pigeons and doves – rich cinnamon Zenaida Doves haunted the forest margins, barrel-chested White-crowned Pigeons streamed overhead as the light bled from the sky in late afternoon, and of course, there were feral pigeons too – those selfsame descendants of Rock Doves that we know from British city centres are in Cuba too. My last bird of the day was altogether more special, though. Common Ground Dove is, as the name suggests, not the rarest of its tribe – but they’re tiny, compact doves of immense character, with delicate scaly plumage about their breasts and heads and an iridescence about their crown and nape that makes them look as if they’ve been dipped in opals.
No, none of them can hover, they can’t fly backwards, they’re generally plain and rather drab compared to hummingbirds. And yes, they belong to a family of birds that we tend to look beyond. They’re all just pigeons.
Except they’re not.