White-headed pigeon

Columba leucomela

White-headed Pigeons range from Cooktown in far north Qld to the Illawarra district NSW they live mainly along our eastern coastal strip only occasionally venturing inland. They are most common in lowland rainforests in the south but further north are more abundant in higher rainforests and also survive well in open woody urban situations. They are among the wariest and often most secretive of our native pigeons and with any hint of movement or danger will either sit silently in the dense foliage of a tree or on the forest floor, remaining motionless until exiting with loud claps of wings, bodies hurtling to escape any apparent threat.

Living in local nomadic pairs or groups of 15 or more, they feed by foraging not only on the ground for seed, grasses and grains but also find food in the lower storeys of the trees and forest wandering from place to place according to the ripening of fruits. In the open country they fly not at a high altitude but at high speed, in a straight path but swerve upwards and away wildly at the sight of an unusual object all the while wings beating continuously flying direct and swift.

In early spring the males display themselves prominently, rising above the forest canopy to perform a spectacular, undulating flight up and down their territory. Then the male faces the female on a branch and does his distinctive bowing display, with his body erect and his breast and throat inflated, he depresses his beak towards his upper breast. He inclines his body forward slowly to around 25 degrees from horizontal, the legs flexed as his body moves down. At the lowest point there is a soft deep coo and then he returns to the upright position to start over again.  At the end of several such bows he stretches his neck, holding his head up, and opens and closes his beak several times very rapidly.

Breeding season is anywhere from July – March when a small platform nest made of fine twigs and vine approx. 125mm in diameter is built by both parents in the bushes or small tree 3-20 meters above the ground. One, sometime 2 small cream eggs are laid and incubated by both parents for about 20 days. Their chicks grow rapidly on a diet of “pigeons milk” made in the parent’s crop; looking like cream cheese it contains 75% water, 15% protein, 9% fat and 1% minerals. This milk is scooped up by the broad soft beak of the young inserted deeply into the parent’s mouth to obtain the regurgitated material. Gradually it is supplemented with partially digested food. (in a successful season 2 or 3 broods may be produced and also if they lose any eggs or chicks to a predator, weather conditions etc they will breed again) The young fledge in 21-22 days but stay with their parents joining the flock.

Their call is a drawn out succession of low pitched coos which in breeding season becomes an advertising call to their mate with more of a deep, quavering coo-coo.