Think of a dovecote and you may visualise a scene of peace and tranquillity, but look further and you will discover a complex hierarchical society, where birds compete with each other in order to secure the best, sunniest room in the hotel! If the guys aren’t strutting their stuff, chest out like a regimental sergeant major, bowing, spinning and cooing at the ladies, they may well be gathering nesting material for partners who have been sitting patiently on up to two shiny white eggs. Usually mid morning is when the hen gets time off and the cock takes over. By mid afternoon she will be back, fed, watered ready to continue the 18-20 day sitting.
New babies, I hear you saying “awe how cute!” I would have to stop you at this point, as cute they certainly are not. The squabs have a beak that looks as if it ought to be supported by scaffolding and fine yellow hair that is far too thin to cover their naked bodies. After the first week of life, things don’t get much better as new quills start to appear, making them resemble porcupines!
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Dove keeping is a very interesting and enjoyable experience, where you can interact as much or as little as you like. It will not be long before your birds will fly to greet you at feeding time. You will get to know your birds, most likely by name or personality.
Food & Drink
During the early days the babies are fed a dilute solution produced in the parents’ crop. This is called Pigeon Milk. The solid (grain) content of this milk is slowly increased and by about 3 – 4 weeks the youngsters are able to feed on their own. It is a good job as by this time the frisky parents are ready to start the process all over again!
I feed my adult birds on Verselle Laga Breed and Wean bird food, with a small amount of mixed poultry corn. My birds love sunflower seed hearts, peanuts (which I crush) and brown bread.
Try giving bits of salad type vegetables.
If Oliver Reed was still with us he would have a hard time keeping up with doves in a drinking contest, as they drink lots!
So always keep FRESH water available to them.
Talking of water, the birds love to bathe, individually or on occasion socially so have some means of bathing available. An old tin bath or washing up bowl with a couple of inches of water would be ideal. Bathing helps keep the plumage in good condition.
Other things you will need are grit, which they need for their digestion as it breaks down the harder seeds that they eat. The grit is also absorbed and is good for strong bone formation.
Minerals should, on occasion be added to the diet as this helps
in egg shell development, plumage, blood and digestive health.
A SMALL amount of coarse sea salt should be given with food once a week. Take care with the quantity, as too much can be fatal. About a teaspoon is sufficient for 10 birds.
Therein lies the problem, how do you sex doves? There are lots of differing opinions from size of beak, shape of head, width of neck etc, mature male, no problem as explained in the initial paragraph. In my opinion though cock birds do tend to be larger than the hens and the hens do appear to have slimmer more feminine necks and heads.
Doves reach sexually maturity by about five to six months.
One thing to consider when aquiring doves is that they breed readily. In fact during the warmer months, breeding pairs can lay two eggs every 7 weeks or so! Obviously to avoid overstocking, some form of control is necessary. I recommend using plastic or artificial eggs as this causes the birds less stress than simple egg removal. Close monitoring of your breeding birds is important at this point. When you know they have laid, simply place your hand, palm side down under the bird, lift the bird slightly and exchange the real eggs for the artificial. The birds may flap their wings, and even peck your hand, but don't worry as it is not at all painful. Once the normal 18-21 days incubation has passed, the birds will realise the eggs are not going to hatch and abandon them.
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Arrival, Homing & Releasing
If your birds are delivered late at night, leave them in their boxes until the following morning. If you are homing under a net, go under the net, or place the box inside the net, open the box and leave the birds to come out on their own accord. A bit more tricky if you are using a homing box. Just make sure you have a good hold, but not too tight of the bird as they can be a bit feisty!
Homing doves is relatively straighforward once you have learned from your mistakes, (or better still, ours!) When we started out we lost the first set and half of the second set of birds through not keeping them in long enough. We now believe that for new birds in a new cote the introduction of extra birds to an established cote, a minimum of six weeks works for us. Some people would reduce the time for introduction to existing stock, but as far as we are concerned better to be safe than sorry!
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Presuming you are not keeping your doves in an aviary, to home from a free standing cote all you need to do is to keep your birds close to their home, either by constructing a cage around the cote or purchasing a "homing net” which drapes over the cote, bearing in mind you need easy access for feeding and cleaning. Homing nets can be expensive, but DO NOT be tempted to use garden type netting as the birds can get tangled up resulting in injury, or worse, death.
When the time comes to release your birds pick a nice still morning and do not feed them in the evening prior to release. Allowing them out in the morning gives them time to get used to their surroundings, then they hopefully will not go far as they will be expecting to be fed. Don't be too alarmed if a couple of birds appear to have gone awol and are not home at roosting time as they usually turn up the following morning.
Once out and about the only major problem they will have is predation. The main predators are cats followed by sparrowhawks and peragrine falcons. Once the birds have cottoned on to what cats are about they will keep out of the way, usually in the cote. Birds of prey are a problem, it's not that they are particulary after doves, but doves are easily picked out, with being white they stand out against most backgrounds. They usually seem to pick out the more vulnerable birds but in the worst case scenario, if food is hard to come by, they will use your birds as a larder!