Dear Owen

Today is your birthday – welcome to the World Son! In time you’ll come to know this world as a strange but wondrous place. We are called humans, but we are just one of hundreds of thousands of species that live on this planet. You’ll meet all manner of strange things: some spiky like hedgehogs or sea urchins, some soft and squishy like kittens or mushrooms, some hard like armadillos or leadwoods, some sleek and shiny like sailfish and snakes, and some just plain weird like octopuses and millipedes. But the creatures that I love the most (and I hope to share that love with you) are something else entirely.

A long, long time ago there were these things on Earth called dinosaurs. Today we call them birds. There are about 10,000 different kinds, and they are wonderful! They will be with you every day of your life. Whether you pay attention to them or not, birds will be around when you’re learning to walk, when you’re climbing a tree for the first time, at recess on your first day of school, when you walk out of your first college class, as your wife walks down the aisle on your wedding day, when your own child is born, and even on the day that you die. Ask Mom to open the hospital window – see, there’s one now!

Want to hear something really cool? Your surname is one of the most spectacular birds in the whole world – the Peacock! But because we love birds so much, we decided that one bird name is not enough, and we gave your and your brother middle names after birds as well! Your brother is called Christian Regulus Stephanus Peacock. Regulus means ‘little king’ or ‘prince’ and is also the genus name of a small bird called a firecrest or kinglet. But, Regulus is also a bright star in the night sky, in the Leo constellation, about 79 light years from Earth. For your special name we also sought something that is both a star and a bird (the options are rather limited, I’ll admit).

After nearly nine months of deliberation, Mom and Dad decided to name you Owen Callum Peacock.

But where does your name, Owen Callum Peacock, come from? Owen is a Welsh name meaning well-born, noble or young warrior. But your middle name, Callum, is very special to us. You see, like your brother’s middle name Regulus, Callum has both astronomical (stars) and ornithological (birds) connotations. Callum is the Scottish derived version of the Latin Columba (or Columbus), which means ‘dove’. This is from the Greek kolumbos, which means ‘to dive or swim’, in reference to doves’ graceful and agile flight. In the astronomical sense, Columba is a small constellation of stars between Canis major and Lepus. The brightest star in the Columba constellation is the 2.7 magnitude Alpha Columbae, a blue-white star 268 light-years from Earth. In the ornithological sense, Columba is the genus of the pigeons, the best known of which is the Feral Pigeon (or Rock Dove) Columba livia, which will soon become a familiar friend that you’ll meet wherever you travel in the world. However, the words pigeon and dove are generally used interchangeably – typically smaller ones are called doves and larger ones pigeons, but there is no significant biological difference between them. Perhaps we’ll call you Cal or Kal for short, which has a whole other connection, but I’ll tell you that super story on another day.


The Constellation Columba
ABOVE: An artist’s (in other words ‘my’) rendition of the Constellation Columba.

Something else that you will realize is that many people think doves and pigeons are not worthy of our appreciation, mainly because they are common and often associated with humans. I fear such people may have lost their childlike ability to appreciate the small joys of everyday life and to see beauty in the mundane. I really hope that you will never ever lose that ability Son! But in case anyone ever asks you why, with more than 10,000 birds to choose from, your parents decided to name you after birds as everyday as doves and pigeons…
here are ten reasons why doves and pigeons are awesome:

1. They are abundant

Doves and pigeons are some of the most abundant and successful birds on the planet. As humans we have an inclination to seek and revere the rare, which we call ‘special’. But should we not rather celebrate abundance than rarity? Birds as common as doves and pigeons obviously have an amazing ability for adaptation and survival. Willingness to adapt to novel situations and face challenges head-on is a lesson that we can all learn form doves and pigeons. In fact, they occur on all the continents except Antarctica, and have adapted to virtually all habitat types, from the dark, leaf-strewn floors of tropical forests, to the garbage-strewn pavements of the world’s most densely populated cities. Yesterday afternoon we took your brother to the playground, and for 15 minutes (between 16:45 and 17:00) I counted the Red-eyed Doves flying overhead in a north-westerly direction: 279. In 15 minutes, standing in one spot, counting just one species. So, approximately 1000 doves/hour. This is a spectacle to rival East Africa’s famed Wildebeest migration! And it happens every day, all-day, right above your head. The sheer numerical abundance of doves and pigeons means that they are, in a way, the quintessential birds. Enjoy them, and never forget to look up!


279 Red-eyed Doves
ABOVE: This is what 279 Red-eyed Doves flying overhead look like. The sheer abundance and success of doves and pigeons in the modern world is astounding!

2. They are diverse

How many species of doves are there in world? An astonishing 351 extant (living) species, making the Columbidae family one of the biggest bird families in existence. Not only are there lots of species, but they are incredibly diverse. So much so that they have been classified into 50 different genera. They range in size from the tiny 22-40 g American Ground-dove, which can comfortably sit on Daddy’s little finger, to the 4 kg, turkey-sized Crowned-pigeons of New Guinea. Most people tend to think of the family as dull and unattractive, but this could not be further from the truth! Doves and pigeons are some of the most stunning of all birds, with gorgeous colours and patterns. Some have highly reflective iridescent feathers. Others have bizarre crests or ruffs. Others have patches or wattles of bare, colourful skin. Some have long tails. They come in all colours imaginable – sometimes on the same individual bird in the case of the resplendent Indonesian fruit-doves. And that is just natural variation, not even to speak of all the domesticated variants! Which brings us to the next point…


ABOVE: New Guinea’s various crowned-pigeons are the largest and certainly some of the strangest of the planet’s doves and pigeons.

3. They are good friends to people

Pigeon-fanciers. Yes, that it is really what people who domesticate and breed pigeons are called. Whether you become a pigeon-fancier or not, one can still marvel at the staggering array of breeds of domestic pigeons that now exist. Over the last 10,000 or so years, people have bred pigeons for food, sport and showmanship. Pigeons’ innate homing ability has given rise to the sport of pigeon racing. Incidentally, the world’s biggest pigeon race happens only a few kilometres from where you were born. This year will be the 20th South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, which last year attracted entrants from over 40 countries, racing more than 7,000 pigeons! You can read more here. This same instinct is in play when pigeons are used to send messages – like a primitive text or email! Show pigeons come in a bewildering array of sizes, shapes, colours and even temperaments. There are many famous people who are pigeon-fanciers, including a guy named Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso – better known as Pablo Picasso – who named his youngest daughter Paloma, or pigeon in Spanish.

4. They will form the soundtrack to your life

Doves and pigeons have gentle, soothing, musical voices that convey a sense of peace and relaxation. Their songs are usually distinctive and easily recognised, and being so common, their chorus of songs forms a constant component of the background soundscape wherever you find yourself. On lazy Sunday afternoons the purring of turtle-doves will threaten to lull you to sleep. On hot, humid days in the bush, the melancholy rhythms of Emerald-spotted Wood-doves competing with the drone of cicadas will make you feel simultaneously isolated and ensconced by life. On dull, dreary days a singing dove will cheer you up. After the first summer rains doves will echo your revival in their energetic singing. And when a loud noise outside wakes you at night, doves will wake up with you and sing you back to sleep.


Laughing Dove
ABOVE: The Laughing Dove is lightheartedly named after its mellow call, which sounds like a person chuckling softly. This species is one of the most common and therefore most disregarded birds in the region; however, Laughing Doves are very attractively patterned, with a subtle, pastel beauty. Photo by your uncle, Grant Peacock.

5. They are explorers

Perhaps more than any other bird family, doves and pigeons are renowned world explorers, travellers and colonists – in short, they are ‘super-tramps’. This is a term used to describe their remarkable ability to find new homes and adapt to novel conditions. It seems like every little oceanic island, no matter how remote, has its own species of endemic dove or pigeon. This island diversification is especially impressive in the Asian fruit-doves. So no matter where you go for your tropical, white-sands, palm-tree beach holiday, there will always be an endemic dove or pigeon to go and find. Some have rather generic names (e.g. Island Imperial-pigeon, Atoll Fruit-dove), but most super-tramps are named after their island homes: Madagascar Turtle-dove, Comoro Blue-pigeon, Seychelles Blue-pigeon, Madeira Laurel-pigeon, Samoan Fruit-Dove, Timor Imperial-pigeon, Christmas Imperial-pigeon, Sao Tome Green-pigeon, Taiwan Green-pigeon, Andaman Green-pigeon, Key West Quail-dove, Philippine Cuckoo-dove, Sao Tome Bronze-naped Pigeon and Japanese Wood-pigeon. And if you really know your oceanic geography, try these on for size: Seram Mountain-pigeon, Rarotonga Fruit-dove, Makatea Fruit-dove, Lompobattang Fruit-dove, Vanuatu Imperial-pigeon, Mindoro Imperial-pigeon, Pemba Green-pigeon, Sumba Green-pigeon, Tawitawi Brown-dove, Marquesas Ground-dove and Santa Cruz Ground-dove. Incidentally, the first person ever to see 9000 bird species, 81-year old British birder Tom Gullick, reached his incredible milestone when he saw a Wallace’s Fruit-dove on the remote Indonesian island of Yamdena.

6. They have cool names

I guess if you have more than 350 species of doves and pigeons to name, you have to start thinking creatively. The result is an evocative, inspired and celebratory nomenclatural collection. Perhaps with the exception of the unimaginatively-named Plain Pigeon and dull-sounding Sombre Pigeon. But if you have even a hint of birder DNA in your cell nuclei, I’ll bet this list of names will get you psyched to go and look at some doves: Geelvink Fruit-dove, Superb Fruit-dove, Flame-breasted Fruit-dove, Many-coloured Fruit-dove, Beautiful Fruit-dove, Cloven-feathered Dove, Golden Dove, Barking Imperial-pigeon, Scheepmaker’s Crowned-pigeon and Green-naped Pheasant-pigeon. There also the Peaceful Dove, Diamond Dove, Squatter Pigeon, Rufous-bellied Spinifex Pigeon, Wonga Pigeon, Luzon Bleeding-heart dove, Sapphire Quail-dove, Topknot Pigeon, Pink Pigeon and Metallic Pigeon. And let’s not forget our very own Laughing Dove. There’s even one named after your grandmother: Mariana Fruit-dove.


Wonga Pigeon
ABOVE: Australia’s Wonga Pigeon Leucosarcia melanoleuca is also kwown as the Wonga-Wonga. They are shy frugivores that can be hard to spot, despite their bold and unusual V-shaped pattern on the underparts. Photo by your mom, Ronel Peacock.

7. They will make you laugh

Doves and pigeons, despite their reputation for being boring, can actually be animated and entertaining birds. This is especially true in the breeding season, when males go all-out to impress potential mates or ward off competitors. Displays may involve ritualized posturing, inflation of the throat, flaring of feather tracts, exaggerated bowing, hopping up and down, spinning in a circle, head bobbing or aerial displays with loud wing clapping. A specific case where a dove made us laugh occurred in a patch of rainforest in of Queensland in Eastern Australia, which is home to the magnificient Wompoo Fruit-dove, Ptilinopus magnificus. The name of this large and gorgeous creature is derived from its bizarre call that echoes throughout the forest canopy. It’s hart to describe (you can listen to it here). On that specific day, your Mom and I were strolling through the forest with your older brother, who was then about 8 months old. Suddenly the booming call of a Wompoo erupted from above us causing baby Christian to start giggling uncontrollably – this was repeated every time a Wompoo called within earshot!

Wompoo Fruit-dove
ABOVE: The Wompoo Fruit-dove, Ptilinopus magnificus, has a remarkable albeit slightly comical booming call that echoes through the rainforest canopies of eastern Australia. Photo by Jim Bendon / Wikimedia Commons.
Christian in Queensland
ABOVE: Your older brother Christian playing with a leaf on a boardwalk at Mary Caincross Scenic Reserve on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. He was very amused by all the Wompoos calling above him.

8. They are vulnerable and special

When it comes to extinction, the Dodo has the dubious honour of probably being the world’s most well-known extinct species. Most people know that the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was endemic to the island of Mauritius, where it became extinct in the early 17th century. The last documented Dodos walked on an islet off Mauritius in 1662, a decade after the first Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa. The Dodo was decimated for food by early settlers on Mauritius, and that egg predation by introduced pigs and monkeys, together with habitat destruction, were the final nails in its evolutionary coffin. But what most people don’t know is that the Dodo was an oversized, flightless pigeon! Based on genetic analyses of remaining bones and specimen fragments, we now know that the Dodo and the related Rodrigues Solitaire were members of the Columbidae family. As mentioned before, hundreds of dove species are, like the Dodo and Solitaire, endemic to small and isolated oceanic islands, which makes them inherently vulnerable to both natural and human-induced threats. Sadly, many island-species have already gone extinct, including the Thick-billed Ground-dove, Choiseul Pigeon, Liverpool Pigeon, Ryukyu Woodpigeon, Bonin Woodpigeon, Mauritius Woodpigeon, Mauritius Blue-pigeon, Reunion Pigeon, Mauritius Turtle-dove, Rodrigues Turtle-dove, Rodrigues Blue-pigeon, Norfolk Ground-dove, Tanna Ground-dove and Red-moustached Fruit-dove. Mainland species are not immune to extinction however, as exemplified by North America’s Passenger Pigeon. This once abundant bird was hunted relentlessly, until the last wild individual was shot in 1900. The last surviving captive bird, ‘Martha’, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. We as humans do not have the right to consider any other species as so commonplace that it is unworthy of appreciation and protection. This is something I wish to teach you as well Son.

Passenger Pigeon by Audubon
ABOVE: A painting of courtship feeding between two Passenger Pigeons, by renowned American ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851). Today the Audubon Society is dedicated to the preservation of birds and natural ecosystems, and avoiding further extinctions.
Martha the last Passenger Pigeon
ABOVE: This was the last surviving Passenger Pigeon, nicknamed Martha. She died in captivity in 1  September 1914, forever extinguishing the flame of this beautiful dove, which was one of the most numerous bird species in North America. Photo by Enno Meyer / Wikimedia Commons.

9. They are symbols of peace

Doves and pigeons, probably more than any other birds, are important in symbolism, art, iconography and religion. ‘The dove often represents some aspect of the divine, and its use has been shared, adapted and reinterpreted across cultures and millennia to suit changing belief systems. From the ancient world to modern times, this simple bird developed layer upon layer of meaning and interpretive significance, making it a complex and powerful addition to religious texts and visual representations’ (from Biblical In particular, there are multiple references to doves in the Bible in various contexts. In Genesis, after God’s purging flood, Noah sent out a dove which returned with an olive branch – an enduring symbol of peace and amity. The bible even describes doves’ plumage (Psalms 68:13), voice (Isaiah 38:14; 59:11; Nahum 2:7), habitat (Jeremiah 48:28), flight (Psalms 55:6) and ‘innocent’ character (Matthew 10:16). But to me the most beautiful reference to a dove in the Bible, was when Jesus was baptized by John and the Holy Spirit descended to him in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32); then God spoke from the heavens in a declaration that echoes my feelings today: “This is My beloved Son. I take great delight in Him!” You can read more about the symbolism of doves here.

10. They are good parents

When I was at university, there was always a queue of students at the one ATM on campus. Perhaps waiting in line to draw a few bucks for petrol, a post-exam beer, or a cheap burger-and-chips combo. Amazingly, a pair of Speckled Pigeons had decided that the top of this busy ATM was a perfect safe refuge for their untidy stick nest. And there they successfully raised their chicks, unperturbed by the constant passage of cash-strapped students only mere centimeters away. A few years later, a pair of pigeons built a nest in our garage, and I took the opportunity to teach your brother about birds and their nests and eggs. When the parent pigeon was away, we pulled Dad’s car below the nest, and clambered onto its roof so that we could see right into the nest. As I expected, but to Christian’s utter and lasting amazement, there were two white eggs in the nest. We retreated and the pigeon returned to incubation. For months afterwards, even after the birds were gone, Christian would stop and look up to study the empty nest each time we walked into the garage. In the museum where I worked in Pretoria’s city centre, feral Rock Doves were my constant companions perched on my windowsill (or even a few times inside of my office). In addition the cooing of the parent pigeons and peeping of their chicks seemingly emanated from every crevice and hollow in the building. Interestingly, the word pigeon is derived from the French pipio, in reference to the peeping begging calls of pigeon chicks. What do these disparate anecdotes have in common? Simply that, if we are attentive, we can witness, parallel, appreciate and at times even collaborate in the entire life cycles of doves and pigeons, even in the most transformed urban landscapes. When your brother was born three years ago, your Mom and I felt like young, inexperienced, isolated, first-time parents who worried about every little squeak and sniff…in actual fact, there was another pair of parents raising their young who shared our house (well, our garage) with us at the same time! In a way, doves and pigeons even feed their chicks by producing an approximation of mammalian milk! In both sexes of doves and pigeons (as well as flamingos and penguins), the lining of the crop sloughs off to form a semi-solid substance called ‘crop milk’ which is rich in fats, proteins, anti-oxidants, immune-boosters and other goodies. During the first few days of a young pigeon’s existence, it subsists on this milk-like substance, which is regurgitated by its parents (don’t worry, we won’t feed you like that!).

If you want even more proof that pigeons and doves are some of the most magnificent of all birds, I can recommend this entertaining video, entitled Brilliant Beasts: Pigeon Genius (National Geographic).

Pink-necked Green-pigeon
ABOVE: This gorgeous photo has been floating about on social media for a the last few months. As far as I can tell it’s an Asian Pink-necked Green-pigeon Treron vernans.
Speckled Pigeon
ABOVE: A Speckled Pigeon Columa guinea. Something cool about this species is that they have a dark spot on their iris, the function of which remains unknown. Photo by Daddy’s friend Phil Penlington.

So there you have it. These are just some of the many, many reasons why we decided to name you after a dove. We hope that you enjoy these very special birds as much as we do. And we hope that each time you see a dove or pigeon in your life, you will remember that we love you.

Mom and Dad
20 July 2015

ABOVE: Welcome to the World, Owen Callum Peacock
ABOVE: Proud, but exhausted, parents
ABOVE: Owen meets his brother for the first time
ABOVE: Cathing a nap on Mom’s shoulder