We are familiar with birds being named for certain physical characteristics that make them easy to identify. Short-tailed Pipit, Cape Glossy Staring, and Red-fronted Tinkerbird come to mind. A glance through a bird guide index reveals two speckled birds: the Speckled Pigeon and the Speckled Mousebird.
According to the Collins Concise English Dictionary, ‘speckled’ describes small marks, usually of a contrasting colour, as one might find on eggs. The source of the word is spekkel, which comes from Middle Dutch.
It is probably their white spotted wings that prompted the name change of the Rock Pigeon to Speckled Pigeon (Columba guinea). The former name adequately described its penchant for choosing mountains, cliffs and rocky gorges for its habitat in the wild.
Speckled Pigeons have made themselves very at home in man-made structures, whether in towns, on farms, or in game reserves. One pair moved into a gap in our eaves several years ago. Our home now hosts about six pairs!
While grain farmers might rightfully regard them as pests – they gather in large flocks when feeding in grain fields – they can be pesky in suburban gardens too. Apart from their increasing numbers, these birds are larger than the various doves that come down to feed on the grain I put out for them. A few have even learned how to muscle in and dominate Morrigan’s feeder, filled with fine seed to attract smaller birds such as weavers and the Bronze Manikins.
The Speckled Mousebird (Colius striatus) survived the name changes. There is one on the left of the above photograph. They have the habit of clinging closely to the branches and disturb easily – especially when a camera is nearby!
A marked characteristic of Speckled Mousebirds is the bill, which is black on top and white underneath.
Granted, it isn’t always easy to see these overall grey-brown birds very clearly in between the branches and foliage, but where the speckled part of its name comes from, I am not sure. Some ornithologists describe a distinct fine barring on the mantle and rump that are visible at close range – perhaps this is visible when one is very close. What is understandable is that the texture and colour of their plumage, their long tails and their general behaviour resembles that of a mouse – hence ‘mousebird’. The Colius part of their name means scabbard or long sheath – a clear reference to their tails. Flocks of them regularly work their way through the garden in search of fruit, leaves, buds, flowers and nectar.