Bird Watcher's General Store

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Where To See Dovekies

Dear Bird Folks,

Last week I read a story in another newspaper (which shall remain nameless) about a bird called a “Dovekie.” Dovekies were being seen all around the Cape. This bird fascinated me, but the story didn’t tell me where I could see a one. Where should I go to see Dovekies?

– Ted, Barnstable, MA


Don’t worry, Ted,

You can tell me the name of the other newspaper you read. It doesn’t have to remain nameless. I won’t judge you. Which one is it? The New York Post? The Daily News? The National Enquirer? It’s the Enquirer, isn’t it? Don’t be ashamed. I read it, too. The Enquirer is the one true source of news that matters such as celebrity divorces, the latest Elvis sightings, and who has been captured and probed by aliens. I buy the Enquirer every week to find out if I’m having an affair with Halle Berry. So far, there have been no stories that suggest that I am, but why take the chance? This is one of those things that I’d hate to have happen without me knowing about.

For anyone who has missed the stories about the recent Dovekie invasion, let me fill you in. Over the last few weeks of December, healthy and not so healthy Dovekies were popping up all over the Cape. People found them on the beaches, walking on the side of the road and in backyards. Dovekies are super-cute black and white seabirds that spend most of their life in the open ocean. They are ridiculously small, especially for a seabird. Dovekies are about the size of a Drake’s Devil Dog, or if you can afford French food, an éclair. It’s amazing that something so small, and so yummy, can survive in the open ocean, but they somehow manage. In fact, these little birds are totally built for a life at sea. They are well-insulated, extremely buoyant and excellent swimmers. Their adaptations for a life at sea have one significant drawback: Dovekies can’t take off from land. Even though they are decent flyers, if they somehow end up on dry land, their wings become as useless as a stop sign in Boston.

Few of us will ever see a Dovekie because they typically spend the winter far out at sea where they feed on their favorite food, copepods. Copepods are tiny crustaceans that are so small most other birds don’t even bother looking for them. At one time it was thought that the Dovekies only came near the coast when massive storms drove them in. Researchers now feel that a search for food may also contribute to this coastal migration. Every few years the birds can’t seem to find enough of their beloved copepods and head out in search of a meal. If they happen to be passing along the coast when a big storm hits, the hungry and tired birds may be pushed over land. This is not a good thing. Eventually, the exhausted birds will be forced to land and will not be able to take off again. Without assistance from a helpful human, the Dovekies can quickly fall victim to starvation, dogs, cats or anything else hungry for a fresh éclair.

Right now you might be wondering, if Dovekies can’t take off from land how do they breed? Do they somehow lay their eggs under water like the illusive Nautilus Ducks do? No, they don’t lay their eggs under water. They lay them on land, but the nest location is critical. Dovekies build their nests in rock crevices located on the sides of ocean cliffs or on mountain slopes. When the birds want to become airborne, they simply leap off the cliff and away they go. Just don’t go looking for Dovekie nests on any ocean cliffs around here. The bulk of North America’s Dovekie population breeds above the Arctic Circle. They form large colonies along the coast of Greenland, which evidently is part of North America. Barren Greenland seems like a lousy place for any species to breed, but it definitely works for the Dovekies, as their population is enormous. While it’s impossible to get an accurate count of this often-inaccessible bird, it is estimated that the worldwide population of Dovekies might be as high as 100 million birds. 100 million? Man, if I could only teach them to eat birdseed.

In addition to being small and cute, Dovekies are fairly tame birds. Last year my friend, Greg, found one of these little birds while he was hiking in Truro (MA). While most wild creatures bolt at the sight of a creepy human, especially one of my friends, this Dovekie walked right over to Greg. The bird then stopped and stared up as if to say: “Dude, if you get me out of here I swear I’ll catch you all the copepods you want.” Not one to turn down free copepods, Greg scooped up the tiny bird and took it to Wild Care, the local wildlife rehabilitation facility. The folks at Wild Care gave the Dovekie a quick check-up and returned it safely to the sea, but not until the bird handed over a ten dollar co-pay.

It’s hard to predict when or where another Dovekie fallout (called a “wreck”) might happen again, Ted. Wrecks only occur occasionally and are typically associated with storms in November or December. And the odds of actually finding a Dovekie wandering around your yard are pretty slim. Not as slim perhaps as Halle Berry having an affair with me, but they are still pretty slim.