The introduced rock pigeon is a common sight in New Zealand’s towns and cities. It is widespread in both the North and South islands, while the Barbary dove and spotted dove have only small discrete populations. All of these differ in appearance and habits from the native kererū, a much larger fruit pigeon.
Several attempts to establish other pigeon and dove species, including some from Australia, were unsuccessful.
Rock or feral pigeons
Northern hemisphere rock pigeons (Columba livia) are native to Eurasia. They were brought to New Zealand by early settlers as food, as pets and as racing or messenger pigeons, and they rapidly established large wild populations.
Habitat and foods
Rock pigeons prefer to roost and nest under overhangs on rock ledges. Their main populations are on coastal sea cliffs, inland gorges and bluffs, and urban sites offering sheltered ledges. They eat grains, legumes such as peas and beans, and sometimes slugs and snails. In cities they scavenge for scraps.
Rock pigeons are about 400 grams in weight and 33 centimetres long. They vary in colour, but most are contrasting shades of grey with glossy green, pink and purple neck feathers.
From 1897 to 1908 Great Barrier Island had a regular pigeon-post service to Auckland, and boasted the world’s first airmail stamps. Initially, the service was one-way, with birds trained to return to a dovecote in Auckland. They went back to the island on the weekly steamer. Up to five messages (including shopping lists) were written on lightweight tissue paper – known as flimsies – and rolled up in an aluminium capsule attached to one leg. The birds usually covered the 92 kilometres in less than two hours, but the speed record was held by a pigeon named Velocity who took just 50 minutes – an average speed of 125 kilometres per hour.
Rock pigeons are used for pigeon racing, and in 2005 New Zealand had over 70 pigeon-racing clubs. A good racing pigeon can travel from Invercargill to Auckland in two days.
The Barbary dove (Streptopelia risoria), originally from central Africa, is small and creamy-coloured, with a black collar around the back of its neck. It is about 140 grams in weight and 28 centimetres long. Found in only a few scattered sites in both main islands – mostly in Auckland, Northland and Hawke’s Bay – the population may be fewer than 100 birds.
The spotted dove (Streptopelia chinensis), or spotted turtle-dove, is a small pinkish-buff dove, with mottled brown wings and back, and a wide black collar speckled with white. It is found only in a few areas in the North Island – Northland, Auckland, the Bay of Plenty and Waikato – mainly in city parks and rural areas. Native to Asia, it was brought to New Zealand as a caged ornamental bird.