Should we accept invasive species that don’t cause harm?

Amid a national immigration debate, the collared dove raises questions about acceptance.

 

It was early October 2014, when a bird that neither my wife, Hilde, nor I had ever seen before visited our property in southern Oregon. About 20 feet from our dining room table, on the other side of a clean glass wall, the wide railing of an outdoor deck serves as a platform feeder. 

Early every morning, I spread a mixture of millet, sunflower seeds and dried corn across the railing and then ring a dinner bell by way of invitation, after which the guests — scrub jays, towhees, sparrows, juncos, red-winged blackbirds, acorn woodpeckers — at once begin to arrive. That October day, the newcomer came first, swooping down from the upper limbs of an oak tree across the yard. It was immediately clear that it was a dove, and also that it was larger, more heavily built and too light-colored for a mourning dove, the species native to our area.

Thanks to the internet, we knew within minutes that the bird was a Eurasian collared dove, so named because of the black half-collar at the nape of the bird’s neck.  In the mid-1970s, the species, native to Asia, became established in the Bahamas after one escaped a pet store. The birds reached across to Florida in the 1980s, then gradually spread westward.

A collared dove, a symbol of peace across North America, is an invasive species.
Marie Hale, Flickr user

Though by no means spectacular, the collared dove is a handsome creature. Its black bill, dark eyes, smoothly feathered gray body and white tail feathers perfectly embody what the Japanese call shibui — elegant simplicity.  

During the two years since that first one arrived, their numbers here have gradually increased, and sometimes we now enjoy a dozen or more a day at the feeder. But some neighbors up the road don’t want the birds here, because Eurasian collared doves are an “invasive species,” and, they believe, should therefore be eliminated. We know others who share this view, including a family that loves to hike but never leaves home without machetes to deal with invasive plants they encounter. Hilde and I made the mistake of joining them once, and when we ran into a massive stand of Scotch brume, the outing turned into what could easily have passed for a chain gang at hard labor. 

This hostility toward uninvited guests reaches well beyond the neighborhood.  An acquaintance who hunts birds called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to ask about the daily bag limit on collared doves in that state. “No limit,” a bureaucrat told him. “You can slaughter as many as you want. They’re an invasive species.” 

Yes, there are examples of invasive species causing grave ecological damage — bass displacing trout in rivers and streams, mongooses devouring birds in Hawaii. There are also examples of invasive species doing no harm at all — ring-neck pheasants (also native to Asia) and Eurasian collared doves (which are symbols of peace) across North America.

Let me put it this way. A few days ago, Hilde and I were sitting at our dining room table admiring a pair of collared doves at the feeder. Their personalities are as impressive as their beauty. We watched as they stood their ground in the face of bullying scrub jays and then shared space with tiny sparrows. We had just returned from a hike on a fine fall day, and nothing could seriously detract from our positive moods, not even the fact that a xenophobic buffoon, who also hates what he regards as invasive species (Mexicans, Muslims), was running for president.  

We were drinking strong Costa Rican coffee and eating homemade blackberry (another invasive species) pie. The millet seeds the doves fed on are believed to have originated in Africa.  Beyond the bird feeder was a pasture where six horses were grazing, two of them Arabs, from the Arabian Peninsula. On my mother’s side I’m descended from a Mohawk war chief. My father’s ancestors came from northern Germany and Ireland. I grew up in Hawaii before it became a state and married Hilde in Bavaria, where her family has lived for centuries.  We were looking forward to lunch at an excellent Mexican restaurant.    

It’s as elegantly complex as that. 

Michael Baughman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer in Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.