‘No Hope’ doves brought hope of water

The Inca Dove is a pretty little bird found in our parks and yards. It calls out its repetitive, two-note call, “no-hope,,,no-hope” almost all day long in summer. Its soft gray feathers are edged in dark brown giving the bird a scaly look.

We have a small birdbath situated near our deck. A steady drip-drip-drip of water drops from a tube suspended above the bath and splashes on the water’s surface. Does the splash make enough of a sound to attract birds? Or can they smell water? We waited and watched.

From out of the brush lining the fencerow, 200 yards across the pasture, a bird emerged. It flew straight across the pasture and landed on the birdbath. No hesitation; no searching around for the water. The bird stood on the rim and leaned in, dipping its bill in the puddle. Its throat swelled in pulses as it sucked in a long drink.

It was a dove. Unlike most birds, doves drink by sucking up water rather than dipping their beaks in and then raising their heads to swallow. This dove was smaller than our usual White-Winged Doves and Mourning Doves. It also was a tad longer than the diminutive Common Ground Doves that occasionally drop by. This was an in-between size dove; it was an Inca Dove.

Inca Doves are birds of our villages, suburbs, parks, gardens, playgrounds and farmyards. They seem to have adapted to the presence of humans and human structures throughout the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Perhaps this is because water could usually be found around human habitations.

But what if it was the other way around? Texas Parks and Wildlife’s website says this about Inca Doves: “Because they fly directly to water, with no searching about, early west Texas travelers would often watch doves to locate water holes.” Maybe it is us, with our mutual need for water, who adapted to the presence of the birds!

In any case, in most of Texas, especially the arid areas, Inca Doves can be found. These are appealing little doves with small round heads and long tails. Somewhat social, they are usually in pairs or small flocks. They forage for weed and grass seeds on bare ground and occasionally around feeders. They make their way with dainty steps, their heads moving forward and backward. If disturbed, Incas show a flash of white outer tail feathers and chestnut wing patches, and fly up with a rustling sound.

Inca Doves have distinct “scaly” appearance. Their feathers overall are a pale sandy gray but each feather is limned in dark brown. The overlapping feathers thus resemble the scales of a fish. This “scaly” look is especially obvious on the nape and back of the bird. Otherwise, Inca Doves are the color of desert sands: gray, pink in some lights, tan. All muted and rather lovely.

However, your first encounter with an Inca Dove will probably be with its song. It calls a repetitive “hoo..hoo” sometimes up to 30 times a minute in the early summer. The accent is on the second syllable. This call is rendered as a melodious but lonely-sounding “No hope…No hope…No hope.” These No Hope doves were the original “lonesome doves” of southwestern authors.

If you look at a range map for this species, you may wonder why Inca Doves were named for the indigenous peoples of Peru. Indeed, the Incas and Inca Doves (Columbina inca) never crossed paths, so far as known. It seems the name was the “result of a mistake made by French ornithologist Rene Primevere Lesson, who mixed up the Aztec (who lived in Mexico where the dove is found) and the Incas (who lived in South America where the dove ain’t found).” Posts on a website about birding, The Birdist, have been suggesting that the Inca Dove’s name be officially changed to Aztec Dove. This has not happened yet, and I hope it won’t. Why throw out a historically interesting name just to be geographically accurate?

Besides their peculiarly inaccurate name, Inca Doves have one other unique feature. In cold weather, these social creatures crowd together, even standing on top of one another. This odd behavior is known as pyramid roosting. Sometimes as many as 50 birds will form a pyramid roost with three tiers of individuals. Presumably, such behavior enables this almost tropical species to withstand colder temperatures and it may have been a factor in the bird’s range expansion northward. 

Stan Casto, in the Texas Breeding Bird Atlas (updated 2007) writes that the Inca’s range expansion could be due to the creation of new habitat as humans settled previously unoccupied areas (in the proximity of water), but that the species’ ability “to survive the cold of northern regions by nocturnal hypothermia and pyramid roosting to conserve heat” surely helped.

Either way, I am glad the Inca Doves are permanent residents of South Texas. What would our dusty, dry and soundscape be like without the “no hope…no hope” calls of these pretty little birds?