"Are you a birder?" the man said.
"Well," I said, "that's a matter of some debate."
We were walking opposite ways on the Greenway north of Ashland, and he'd seen my binocular. He said he'd lived in Ashland all his life and had recently started seeing this bird, some kind of dove that's bigger than a mourning dove and lighter colored, with a slash mark on the back of its neck.
Told that his bird was a Eurasian collared dove — that strikes people as an interesting name — he repeated it with the sense of delight that comes with learning the name of something. I would have added, had I known it then, that the bird has colonized North America faster than any other bird, ever.
I was able to tell the guy I've had a pair hanging out among the usual finchy suspects in my backyard in Medford since last summer, as has a friend in Grants Pass.
Other queries have trickled in since then, and the word on the bird is a little long for the MT's Since You Asked feature, so here's the deal.
There's a good chance you'll hear the Eurasian collared dove before you see it. Its song is a hooted coo-COO-cup, coo-COOO-cup. To term its call a raucous squawk would be a compliment. A moaning croak might be closer to the mark. The bird often seems to make these vocalizations right before landing on a fence or a wire in a flash of white.
Look up at it and you'll see a mostly white tail with gray near the base and a swash of black at the outer edges. The bird is a little longer than a mourning dove, but in birds as in boats, a little length can translate to a lot of volume, and this bird is noticeably larger than mourning doves, about 7 ounces to 4 ounces.
Nancy Freeland at Medford's Wild Birds Unlimited store says people from around the valley have been seeing and talking about the birds.
"I had one feeding with the mourning doves in my yard, and the little mourning dove would just run at it," she says.
The Eurasian collared dove has been expanding its range for a long time. It spread from India in the 1600s and was soon established in the Middle East and Europe. It was introduced to the Bahamas in 1974 and turned up around Miami in 1982. By the early 1990s it had reached Oregon.
In courtship the male performs a ritual flight, making a big show of going straight up and gliding down. Then, in an avian equivalent of "Hey baby, look at this!" bows deeply to his intended, showing off the collar on the back of his neck (note to any slumming ornithologists: please consider this an apology for the dreadful anthropomorphism, but what the heck else is he doing?).
Other cool Eurasian collared dove tricks include drinking water by sucking it up (none of that tipping back of the head and trickle-down watering for them) and feeding their young "pigeon milk," a substance produced in the crop (both sexes) that's higher in fat and protein than cow's milk.
So what's the deal with the sudden population explosion? With many American bird species declining and more than a few battling extinction, it hardly seems fair that a rank outsider, introduced yesterday, should have such astonishing success. But nobody claims nature is fair.
Non-native and invasive species are worrisome, especially ones that are super-successful. Little colonies of parrots in California and Florida probably don't figure to do a lot of ecological damage, for example, compared with starlings and house sparrows, both of which compete aggressively with native birds for scarce resources, especially cavity-nesting habitat.
We think of human-caused changes to the environment as being harmful to wildlife, and usually they are. But changes can have winners as well as losers. Just ask those ring-billed gulls hanging around municipal dumps, or the Brewer's blackbirds at McDonald's. Some invaders or range expanders are successful because they're adapted to specific human-caused changes to the environment. This may be the case with the collared dove, a seed eater that's happy around both farms and suburbs.
But at least so far, the big dove with the fancy neckwear doesn't seem to be hurting mourning doves, white-winged doves or common ground doves. In fact, Project Feeder Watch, the national bird survey, has found that the abundance of native dove species is generally greater at sites with collared doves than at sites without them.
Perhaps the takeaway is, as the visionary biologist E.O. Wilson said, "Every species is a magic well."
In other words, a new bird turns up and it becomes a portal through which you learn about a species, and by extension, something about the great web of life around us.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.