Garden Visitor: The Mourning Dove
The mourning dove, or Zenaida macroura, measures 12 inches long. Subtle rather than showy, this bird's feathers are an overall grayish-brown color, with black spots on the wings and a delicate pinkish-brown sheen on the underside. The sides of the neck are slightly irridescent. Its long, slender tail tapers to a point, with the white outer tail feathers revealed when it is in flight. Males and females look alike except for the male's slightly bluish crown and nape, and rosey-colored wash over the breast. This bird's sometimes comical walk consists of placing one foot directly in front of the other, each step accompanied by a quick jerk of the head.
Some people refer to this bird as the turtle dove or Carolina pigeon, and may mistakenly spell the name as “morning” dove. This is not entirely inaccurate, since the species is most active in the early morning hours. The correct name, mourning dove, derives from the low, slow and melancholy cooing sound made by the courting male bird.
Range and Habitat
Year-round residents all across the continental U.S., the mourning dove's summer range extends in the southern regions of Canada. Found in many open habitats, including fields, farmyards, parks, back yards and suburban areas, they are often spied roosting on telephone wires or other perches. Mourning doves living in cold climates tend to form into small flocks in the winter months.
The male’s low, throaty call is sometimes mistaken for the hooting of a far-away owl. When advertising for a female, the male emits a long, soft two-note “coo-AH”, followed by three louder, single notes -- “coo, coo, coo”. A similar but shorter sound is made by both male and female when they are near their nest. Mourning doves also produce a unique non-vocal whistling sound with their wings upon take-off and landing. This sound may help startle potential predators or alert flock mates. Mourning doves also make quite a commotion during take-off by clapping their wings together. You can listen to the mourning dove’s various calls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.
Mourning doves are relatively big birds. Although they are fast fliers, they are somewhat slow to lift off into flight. This, plus the fact that they spend so much time feeding on the ground makes this species more vulnerable than most others to predators such as cats or hawks. Mourning doves do display some protective adaptions, however. This bird has an extra large crop, or storage area in its throat. This allows it to gather up a lot of seeds in a short time, then retreat to a safe spot to digest. Because mourning doves have loose feathers, they can often escape from a predator’s grasp, leaving behind nothing but feathers.
Courtship and Nesting
The male mourning dove lacks the brilliant colors of some other showy species, such as the cardinal. To get the attention of the female, he puffs up his throat feathers and coos his stately song. Once paired, the two perform an aerial courtship flight. Mourning dove pairs are known for their devotion to one other, mating for life.
The pair usually chooses a horizontal branch of an evergreen tree for their nest, some 15 to 25 feet off the ground. They may also build over another bird’s old unused nest, or in the gutters of a house. The male brings construction material while the female builds the nest, a loose and bulky platform of twigs. Because they mate early in the spring, mourning doves’ nests are vulnerable to inclement weather, and the survival rate of the young is low.
Mourning doves usually produce two eggs, which the female sits on at night and the male during the day. Both care for the newly hatched babies, feeding them with “pigeon milk,” or food regurgitated from the adult bird’s crop. As the young chicks, called squabs, mature, the parents begin bringing them seeds and insects. The squabs fly from the nest about two weeks after hatching, whereupon the parents begin caring for their next clutch. Mourning dove pairs may raise two to five broods per year.
In the wild, mourning doves eat a variety of seeds, grains and insects. At feeders, mourning doves feed almost exclusively from seeds that have fallen to the ground. They are particularly fond of cracked corn. Good plants for the mourning dove’s food and shelter include grasses, sunflowers, spruces and pines. These birds also require a nearby source of water from a pond, puddle or stream.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Bird Feeder Book; Donald and Lillian Stokes; Little, Brown, 1987
America's Favorite Backyard Birds; Kit and George Harrison; Simon and Schuster, 1983