What has bright yellow legs and bill, is predominantly purple-brown with beautiful speckled markings and hints of iridescence, a soothing deep and almost resonant call, clambers about in large trees with clumsy agility in search of small fruits, and is one of my favourite garden birds?

It is southern Africa’s largest pigeon known previously known as the Rameron Pigeon but now officially named the African Olive-Pigeon. My favourite name for it is the Afrikaans Geelbekbosduif, which rolls easily off the tongue. It literally means yellow-billed-bush-dove, raising the question: is this a pigeon or a dove? Often the terms are used interchangeably, but usually the term pigeon refers to the larger species of bird in the pigeon-dove family Columbidae.

And the African Olive-Pigeon is large, about 40 cm long, with males weighing about 460 grams and the smaller females about 415 grams.

African Olive-Pigeon perched in tree in wildlife garden

As these pictures show, the African-Olive Pigeon is powerfully built. It is usually shy and very wary – a wise precaution against predation by some raptors, including the African Goshawk and the Black Sparrowhawk (both of which occur in our suburb), and also being killed by human hunters. It is considered to be a game bird and it is targeted by wingshooters

African Olive-Pigeon is a powerful bird

All doves and pigeons are strong flyers and agile at maneuvering when in flight. Interestingly, their flight muscles make up 44% of their body mass. The Rameron/African Olive-Pigeon (Columba arquatrix) is one of the species in the genus Columba, which comprises medium to large stout-bodied pigeons. The Latin term Columba derives from the Ancient Greek for “diver” (as in swimming), and the name is given to this genus of birds because of its swimming motion when flying.

No exception to this rule, the African Olive-Pigeon is a swift flyer with quick regular wingbeats. I am always amazed to see its rapid almost vertical take-off into the treetops after it has come to the ground to drink.

African Olive-Pigeon perched in Trema Orientalis, Pigeon Wood Tree

An African Olive-Pigeon perching, appropriately enough, in a Pigeon Wood (Trema orientalis) in our garden. The small fruits of this tree appear to be a favourite and a number of Olive-Pigeons hangout in our garden during the months when this tree is in fruit

Rameron/African Olive-Pigeons live in the forest canopy in evergreen lowland, riverine and mountain forests, and they can also be found in some plantations and gardens. Nests, made of sticks and twigs and sometimes lined with leaves protected by branches and foliage, are built high up in the fork of a tree, with the male collecting the material and the female building the nest. Pairs mate for life and share incubating their eggs and raising their young. Usually only one egg (rarely two) is laid in a clutch. They may have several broods per season, with summer to autumn being the main breeding season.

In isiZulu, the name of the Rameron/African Olive-Pigeon is iVukuthu-lehlathi. iVukuthu is the general term for dove, and like “turtur” in Latin (for turtle doves, for more see here), it is imitative of the repetitive cooing sounds made by most doves and pigeons. As far as I can ascertain, lehlathi means “of the forest” in isiZulu, and so the name alludes to the bird’s forest habitat. Any readers who speak isiZulu please do comment.

On the subject of calls, the African Olive-Pigeon has a very deep almost resonant call, including a deep quiet purring noise that is typical of many doves/pigeons and is thought to function in mate-bonding. It certainly is a soothing sound to the human ear.

Although their numbers seem to be declining, largely because of hunting and the loss and fragmentation of habitat, currently (because of their large range) they are not yet listed as a vulnerable species. They occur in many countries in eastern, central and southern Africa from Ethiopia southwards. They also occur in parts of the Arabian peninsula.

African Olive-Pigeons eating the fruit of a Trema orientalis (Pigeon Wood)

An African Olive-Pigeon foraging for fruits in a Pigeon Wood tree in our garden 

The name Rameron Pigeon is still commonly used in South Africa, although the internationally standardised “new” name, African Olive-Pigeon, is likely to be increasingly adopted even by diehards who have a hard time giving up familiar names. (Henceforth I will try to quell my inner diehard!) Ornithologist and naturalist David Johnson observes (see here) that the “olive” part of the name is probably linked to the species preference for small fruit, as it is not reflective of its colouring.

The birds clamber around in the trees, often leaning forward at awkward angles to retrieve fruits. Even when concealed in the tree canopy, their loud wing flapping as they try to keep their balance while moving through the branches as they feed reveals their presence. 

Outside the breeding season, these pigeons tend to be nomadic in search of food sources, flying large distances at a considerable height as they move from one forest patch to another, and back and forth from feeding to their roosting spots.

African Olive-Pigeon perching on the top of a tall Eucalyptus tree

Although they are usually so wary, surprisingly, small flocks and even individual African Olive-Pigeons perch at times on the top of trees. In autumn, in our area, they perch on the top of a lone and very tall eucalyptus tree on the edge of the plantation, catching the first warming rays of the early morning sun

African Olive-Pigeons mostly eat small fruits and berries as well as seeds while foraging in tree canopies, and they rarely go to ground except to drink, a pattern of behaviour that is certainly the case in our garden. However, some sources say they do occasionally leave the treetops to retrieve fruits and seeds and even to catch insects and caterpillars on the ground. They are also known to eat mud or clay, perhaps for trace elements and minerals as well as to aid digestion of fruits.

African Olive-Pigeon drinking at suburban garden pond

This African Olive-Pigeon has braved coming down to ground level to drink from our garden pond

African Olive-Pigeon drinking at birdbath in suburban garden

Typically they approach coming down to drink with great caution. These birds took their time before landing on the birdbath for a drink. They drink rapidly and then take-off suddenly in a great flurry of wingbeats

African Olive-Pigeon preening in a tree in a suburban garden, KwaZulu-Natal

Over the years the African Olive-Pigeons in our garden have become a little more accustomed to our presence, as long as we sit very still. This bird took time out from an elaborate preening session to eye me over just to make certain I was not a threat

African Olive-Pigeon perching in the tree canopy in a wildlife garden in KwaZulu-Natal

This is how the African Olive-Pigeon is usually seen – in the tree canopy high above, framed by branches and partially obscured by twigs and foliage 


Animal Diversity Web: Columbidae: Doves and Pigeons http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Columbidae/

Biodiversity Explorer. Columba arquatrix (African olive-pigeon, Rameron pigeon) http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org/birds/columbidae/columba_arquatrix.htm

Birds of Eden: Rameron Pigeon http://www.birdsofeden.co.za/rameron-pigeon_article_op_view_id_238

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Columba arquatrix http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22690145/0

Johnson, David. 2013. Rameron Pigeon (African Olive-Pigeon) http://www.cavern.co.za/rameron-pigeon-african-olive-pigeon/

Maclean, Gordon Lindsay. 1985. Roberts Birds of Southern Africa (5th edition). Cape Town: Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

Posted by Carol