ID challenges: The Columbina ground-doves

By eBird Centroamérica febrero 13, 2018
Plain-breasted Ground Dove Columbina minuta

By John van Dort

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.

Inca Dove

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.

Fig. 1: Inca Dove. US, April. Photo © Jeffrey Moore / Macaulay Library.

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.

Ruddy Ground-Dove

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).

Table 1: Measurement comparison between Ruddy, Common and Plain-breasted ground-doves. Measurements from Birds of North America and Neotropical Birds.

Species Length (cm) Body mass (g)
Ruddy Ground-Dove 16.5–18 40–56.5
Common Ground-Dove 15–18 28–40
Plain-breasted Ground-Dove 14.5–16 26–42

Fig. 2: Male (left) and female Ruddy Ground-Dove. Note the subtle ruddy highlights on the upperparts of the female. Honduras, December. Photo © Oliver Komar / Macaulay Library.

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.

Fig. 3: Some female Ruddy Ground-Doves can be very dull, suggesting Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. Note, however, the relatively long tail and rufous tones on the rump and tail. Honduras, March. Photo © Michael Warner / Macaulay Library.

Common Ground-Dove

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).

Fig. 4: Adult male Common Ground-Dove. The combination of a rosy face and chest, scaling on the head and chest, and a red base of the bill, make identification straightforward. On average, the Plain-breasted Ground-Dove has the shortest tail of the three ground-doves, but there is some overlap in tail length between that species and Common Ground-Dove. Here the tail appears short, like Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. Honduras, October. Photo © John van Dort / Macaulay Library.

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.

Fig. 5: Adult female Common Ground-Dove. Note how nearly all but the lowest wing spots appear brown from this angle, although the rest of the plumage is adult-like. Honduras, January. Photo © Alex Lamoreaux / Macaulay Library.

Fig. 6: Juvenile Common Ground-Dove. The pale edges to the wing coverts, back and rump indicate a juvenile. The wing spots are brownish, not yet violet. Here, the tail appears longer than on Plain-breasted Ground-Dove; on other individuals, this may not be so obvious. The base of the bill is dull reddish, unlike Plain-breasted Ground-Dove or Ruddy Ground-Dove. The neck already shows the scaled aspect. Honduras, January. Photo © John van Dort / Macaulay Library.

Plain-breasted Ground-Dove

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).

Fig. 7: A pair of Plain-breasted Ground-Doves. Note the short tails and the purple wing spots. The bills are dull grayish, similar to Ruddy Ground-Dove but unlike Common Ground-Dove. The male in back has a grayer crown and a rosier throat than the dull brownish female. Note the absence of rufous on the female’s rump. Honduras, September. Photo © John van Dort / Macaulay Library.

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
Ruddy Ground-Dove Black Gray Medium-long No Rufous
Common Ground-Dove Violet Red Medium-short Head and breast Brown
Plain-breasted Ground-Dove Violet Gray Short No Brown

Fig. 8: Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) dwarfing a pair of Plain-breasted Ground-Doves. Not the greatest photo, but a good illustration of the small size of Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. Note the male’s gray face and throat. Honduras, January. Photo © John van Dort / Macaulay Library.

Fig. 9: Adult male Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. Here the short tail is obvious. Note that only some wing spots here reflect violet; the lower wing spots just seem dark, and it’s difficult to determine their color. Common Ground-Dove also has violet wing spots, but that species has a red base of the bill, a slightly longer tail, and a scaled aspect to the head and breast. The gray crown and nape of the neck are visible, but the rosy-gray face and throat are hard to see from this angle in harsh light.

Fig. 10: Adult male Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. The breast is not visible from this angle, but the subtle gray face and neck indicate a male. Many Plain-breasted Ground-Doves in Central America (male and female) show a brown patch on the rear crown, like this individual, but not all. Other ground-doves sometimes also show this brown crown patch. Costa Rica, December. Photo © John and Milena Beer / Macaulay Library.

Fig. 11: Female Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. Note the short tail and the dull gray bill. One of the wing spots reflects purple. Female Common Ground-Dove can be discarded based on the absence of scaling and the absence of red at the base of the bill; female Ruddy Ground-Dove can be discarded based on the shortness of the tail, on the absence of rufous tones on the lower back and wings, and on the one violet wing spot. Honduras, June. Photo © John van Dort / Macaulay Library.

Other species

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).

Fig. 12: Female Blue Ground-Dove (Claravis pretiosa). While small, this bird is clearly bigger than Ruddy Ground-Dove, and much bigger than Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. Note the brown wing spots bordered by thin pale lines. Honduras, March. Photo © Oliver Komar / Macaulay Library.

Fig 13: Female Maroon-chested Ground-Dove (Claravis mondetoura). Note large dark wing spots framed by thin pale lines, and blackish bill. Ecuador, October. © Renato Espinosa / Macaulay Library.

A word of caution

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.