Four of the nine Columbina doves occur in Central America: Inca Dove (Columbina inca), Common Ground-Dove (C. passerina), Ruddy Ground-Dove (C. talpacoti) and Plain-breasted Ground-Dove (C. minuta). While the first three are common and familiar to most observers in the region, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove is generally less common in Central America, and much more of a habitat specialist than the other three. Let’s take a closer look at the identification of Columbina doves, especially Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, and highlight some of the ID issues that observers in Central America might consider when identifying a small dove. In general, the males of these species are distinctive, but the females and immatures can be challenging to identify. Luckily, ground-doves are social creatures, and are often seen in pairs or small groups, allowing comparisons between individuals.
The easiest to identify is Inca Dove, with its scaled appearance and relatively long tail (Fig 1). Unlike the other three of the region’s Columbinas, the sexes are alike.
It is a common bird of open habitats throughout much of the region, and is currently expanding its range south into Panama. Its familiar two-note song is given all day long, even at midday when most other birds are silent.
The male Ruddy Ground-Dove, with his strong brick-red coloration on all parts except the head, is readily identified. The female is much duller. When seen together, as in Fig 2, they do not present any identification challenge. Compared to the other two small ground-doves, their slightly larger size is not immediately obvious, but spend some time trying to get a sense for the relative sizes of the ground-doves, and you will develop that sense (Table 1).
|Species||Length (cm)||Body mass (g)|
Their bills are dull grayish and lack the red base of the Common Ground-Dove’s bill, and thus are similar to Plain-breasted Ground-Dove in that aspect. The tail is relatively long—obviously shorter than Inca Dove, but slightly longer than Common Ground-Dove, and noticeably longer than Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. While the female isn’t as colorful as the male, she often still shows a ruddy tint throughout her plumage, particularly on the rump and upper tail. Beware that some females can be quite dull (Fig 3). The wing spots are black on both sexes but note that the lighting angle can make wing spots appear black on the other ground-doves as well. Ruddy Ground-Dove is common throughout the region, especially in open areas up to 1000 m, from cities and villages to agricultural areas. They are not found inside forests, and generally not in highlands either. The song is a series of three-note whistles, with the accent on the last note. The first two notes are very short, and may sound like a single note. At some distance, the first two notes may not even be audible.
Usually easily identified by the combination of scaling on the head, neck and chest (not throughout as in Inca Dove), and red base of the bill, present in both sexes. The male has an attractive rosy face, throat and breast, contrasting with a silvery gray crown and nape (Fig 4).
On the female, the colors are a little duller (Fig 5). The tail is slightly shorter than the tail of Ruddy Ground-Dove, but usually not as short as the tail of Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. The wing spots are violet but appear dark brown or black from most angles. The wing spots on juveniles are typically brown, not violet (Fig 6). Common Ground-Dove is often found together with Ruddy Ground-Dove, but generally ranges a little higher than that species. The song is a series of notes that slightly rise in the middle.
This is an open-country specialist, and less of a generalist than the other ground-doves in our region. It is the smallest of the ground-doves, with a pale gray bill, short tail, plain brownish-gray plumage and violet wing spots (Fig 7).
It’s unlikely to be confused with the colorful males of Ruddy or Common ground-doves but separating it from the duller females of these species may be more challenging, especially under less than ideal viewing conditions. The combination of the small size and the short tail gives Plain-breasted Ground-Dove a characteristic shape, and with some practice, the observer can learn to identify them based on silhouette (Fig 8-11). The song is a series of rapidly repeated single notes.
Table 2: Comparison of field marks between Ruddy, Common and Plain-breasted Ground-Doves
|Species||Wing spots||Base of bill||Tail||Scaling||Rump|
|Common Ground-Dove||Violet||Red||Medium-short||Head and breast||Brown|
The region’s two Claravis ground-doves—Blue Ground-Dove and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove—are both a bit larger than the four Columbina ground-doves, with larger wing spots that are dark, bordered by thin pale edges. Blue Ground-Dove (pale bills in both sexes) is a characteristic species of humid tropical lowlands (Fig 12), while Maroon-chested Ground-Dove (dark bills in both sexes) is a highland species (Fig 13).
The field marks presented here work well anywhere in Central America but may not work throughout these species’ ranges. Spend some time sorting through images of these species in eBird’s Media Explorer, and you will quickly notice that some populations, especially those from Caribbean islands, look quite different from the ones in our region.