A new invader packing a cute mug and a sweet coo is threatening to overrun Oregon, and wildlife biologists believe their best weapon against the hungry invaders will be shotgun-toting hunters.

A new invader packing a cute mug and a sweet coo is threatening to overrun Oregon, and wildlife biologists believe their best weapon against the hungry invaders will be shotgun-toting hunters.

Non-native Eurasian collared doves are starting to take hold in Northern California and appear to be spreading quickly in Western Oregon, threatening to make Oregon the 40th state saturated with these exotic birds since they first reached North America 25 years ago.

If left unchecked, the birds could out-compete native mourning doves for food and space or even dominate cityscapes like they have in some states, such as Florida.

These white doves with a black collar are currently afforded a measure of protection because they are lumped in hunters' bag limits with the very birds they threaten — mourning doves.

But not for long.

A state biologist charged with protecting Oregon's native fauna from outside species wants to reclassify Eurasian collared doves next year as an unprotected species, allowing them to be hunted year-round without any limits.

If not, they could turn into a bigger version of the starling — the veritable poster bird for what happens when exotic species out-muscle natives on their own turf.

"We need to jump on it pretty quickly before we get to a point of no return," says Rick Boatner, the ODFW's Wildlife Integrity coordinator who works on invasive species issues.

"My hunch is, at some point in the future, they'll be like starlings if we don't do anything," Boatner says. "It may be too late just with the population we have."

It may very well be too late.

Kirsten Barta, a Willamette University environmental science student, is in the midst of completing a risk assessment on doves, and early returns aren't promising.

Barta says the evidence points to them "essentially turning into the next wave of European starlings."

And like starlings, there are no tools available that can cost-effectively keep them in check.

"That's probably the best way to deal with them at this point — make them unprotected," Barta says.

That might seem like heavy-handed talk for a pretty white bird with a black collar that at one time would have been considered just another interesting fauna here.

There was a time when pretty birds would get the nod of public opinion, especially against ugly natives.

"That's why the pretty little ones are harder to get rid of," Boatner says.

Not long ago, a non-native species often earned the labeled "exotic," like it was a special present from another land or culture.

Over time, however, Oregonians and others throughout the West have grown to consider them as aliens.

In recent years, the term "invasive" has come to mean more than just nasty alien species such as feral pigs or starthistle. Even the good-looking aliens now get the invasive moniker because of their capacity to out-compete natives for food and space.

The starling explosion in Oregon has seriously stressed Western bluebird populations. Elsewhere, muted swans are doing the same with trumpeter and tundra swans.

Yet none seem as swift as the Eurasian collared dove.

A native of India, the bird migrated to Turkey and overran it in the 1600s. It did much of the same to Europe in the late 1800s.

In the 1970s, someone brought caged Eurasian doves to the Bahamas, where they escaped. By the mid-'80s they were documented in Florida.

Now, they're thick in the Midwest, and anywhere else there are grain fields, which they love.

They've recently been seen by the thousands in Siskiyou County, Calif., just south of Jackson County.

When first discovered in Oregon about six years ago, state wildlife biologists didn't declare war on them in part, Boatner says, because they look too much like mourning doves. So they were simply considered part of the dove bag limit, and only during the September dove season.

"The question was whether the average hunter will be able to identify them on the wing," Boatner says.

Boatner says he plans to recommend that the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission remove that protection when it sets 2011 game-bird seasons this summer.

Barta says just how damaging these invasive doves will be to the native doves is up in the air.

Since Eurasian doves seem to gravitate toward people, they could join rock pigeons as another addition to urban aerial blight and harm more statues than other birds.

But that would essentially trump their non-protected status because shotgun hunting is banned in city limits.

"That might make it hard for hunters to get away from city limits and shoot them," Barta says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.