Doves are calm, gentle birds that often stay still and allow birders to get great views, but unfortunately many dove species have similar plumages and can be difficult to tell apart. Learning the clues to identify doves and pigeons properly can help birders of all experience levels feel more confident about identifying every dove they see, despite difficulties from hybrid doves or escaped pet doves.
Equipment to Identify Doves
While these are often larger birds with bold markings, subtle clues are the key to tell tricky species apart, and having the proper equipment will help you know which doves you have seen.
- Binoculars: Birding binoculars are the best optics for dove identification. A wide lens provides more light into the optics to show true colors and small details, which can be critical when many doves prefer shaded areas that can obscure their identity. Because many doves are found in wooded or shrubby areas, a spotting scope isn't always convenient for watching them.
- Camera: A digital camera can help you capture a dove's image to review later, when you have more time to study markings, color shades, shapes and other small details that can separate similar species. If possible, take photos of the bird from different angles or in different postures for the best comparisons and easiest identification.
- Field Guide: A good field guide that shows doves in multiple postures, including both perched and in flight, is essential for proper dove identification. Many doves have unique wing patterns that can help make identification easier, but if the field guide does not show the birds in flight, those clues will be lost.
- Feeding Station: Many doves and pigeons will readily visit large platform feeders or bird feeding stations where cracked corn, sunflower seeds and grains are available. This can give you clear, up close views of the birds many times, allowing for great observations and proper identification.
Identifying Doves by Sight
When you see a dove or pigeon, what clues should you look for to properly identify the bird? There are many details that can help you puzzle out which bird it is.
- Size: Is the dove large or small? How does its size compare to more familiar birds? How round is the body? Is the head proportionally sized?
- Nape: Does the bird's nape have a scaly pattern or a color patch? Is there a band around the neck? Are any spots or iridescence visible on the nape or the sides of the neck?
- Bill: What color is the bill? Is the tip the same color or a different color? How visible is the crop?
- Wings: What color are the tips of the primary feathers? Are there any bars or spots on the wings? In flight, do any color patches show on the wings?
- Tail: How long is the tail? Is it tapered, pointed or curved? What color is the tip of the tail? Are any bands visible?
- Plumage Pattern: Is the bird's overall plumage smooth looking? Does it show any overall spotting or scaly patterns?
- Plumage Color: What unique colors show on the bird's plumage? Are there specific patches of color or just washes and blurred patches? What markings stand out? How bold are the different colors? Where are color patches located on the head or body?
- Eyes: Are the eyes light or dark colored? Is there a visible eye ring, and if so, what color is it?
- Crest: Does the bird show a visible crest? Is it sparse or thick? What color is the crest? How big is it? Does the bird use it to show aggression or dominance, or is it always in the same position?
Other Ways to Identify Doves and Pigeons
While it can be easy to identify doves and pigeons by looks alone if you know what to look for, some visible characteristics can still be hard to judge between similar species. Knowing other traits to observe can help you properly identify doves even if you don't always get the best views of the birds.
- Sounds: Many doves have soft, cooing calls and songs. Learning the most common dove sounds can help you sharpen your birding by ear skills to include these birds. Also listen for flight noises such as any sounds the wings or tail make when the birds take off abruptly.
- Range and Habitat: Doves and pigeons can be found in a wide range of habitats, from forests to jungles to deserts as well as both urban and suburban areas. Because many species of doves do not regularly migrate, where exactly the bird was seen geographically as well as the habitat is was in can be a prime clue for its proper identity.
- Foods: Many doves have unique diet preferences, and noting whether a dove is eating fruit (a frugivorous bird) or grain (a granivorous bird) can help you identify the species. While this is not always a clear indication without other details, it can help with tricky dove identifications.
Above all, it is important to be patient when trying to identify doves and pigeons. Escaped birds from collectors or pet owners, hybrid birds and feral pigeons can make these identifications even trickier, but with practice, it is possible to feel confident about every dove you identify.
Still unsure about a particular dove you've seen? Submit a photo for dove identification help!