Feathered Friends

The Mourning Dove

Story and Drawing by Spike Knuth, Contributing Columnist


‘The mourning dove is thriving because of more intensive farming ...’  

Man’s land-use practices sometimes have a negative impact on wildlife. But one species that seems to buck that trend is the mourning dove, whose ability to take advantage of those practices has really helped to maintain its populations.

The mourning dove is thriving because of more intensive farming, large open-crop fields of grains, more fallow fields of native vegetation, and increased water sources in the form of reservoirs and impoundments.

There was a time when the related passenger pigeon dominated the skies in huge numbers. But market hunting and, particularly, loss of its forest habitat brought about the passenger pigeon’s demise. The mourning dove, however, is doing just fine.

While many doves spend the winter here in Virginia , Maryland , and Delaware , those that nest in the north arrive at their breeding grounds in March and April. The mourning dove is prolific, bringing off more than one brood per year in the north, and up to eight in the south. In more southerly climes, they begin nesting as early as February and continue as late as early September.

The mourning dove gets its name from its mournful “cooing” call. It utters its call at sunrise and may continue until sunset, depending on the weather. Its cooing attracts the female at first, but later the cooing indicates that his mate is again on the nest incubating her eggs. The nest is a frail, loosely constructed platform-like structure, made of twigs and grasses. Normally it is built low in a tree or shrub, but may be as high as 20 feet. The nest is often so poorly constructed that it and the eggs are frequently destroyed by storms or wind. Doves prefer nesting in scattered woodlands and groves surrounded by flat, open woodlands, but also in suburban backyards, parks, and near roadways. They nest in pines, cedars, hollies, and other types of trees, and will often use an old robin, mockingbird or brown thrasher nest as a foundation.

The female normally lays two eggs that hatch in about 15 days. In another two weeks, the young doves are able to fly. This is a fantastic growth rate, another reason why doves are so numerous. The male assists the female in incubating the eggs and aids in the rearing of the young. The “squabs” are fed special nutritious milk that is produced within both parent birds. As they begin to grow, they start feeding on insects, worms, and caterpillars, and soon they can be seen on the ground feeding on small seeds, and ultimately the various grains and weed seeds of the farmlands. Doves are primarily seedeaters, feeding on a variety of wild and domestic plant seeds including milo, wheat, corn, millet, and soybeans. They show a definite preference for small, round seeds, like fox-tail grass, sweetgum seeds, and others. In late fall they gather around old melon fields to grab up seeds from rotting or harvested cantaloupes and pumpkins. They’ll also eat some wild fruits.

The mourning dove is related to the common pigeon or rock dove. It has a sleek, streamlined body that varies in length from 11 to 13 inches, with a weight of 3.5 to 6 ounces. Its rakish form is due to its smooth body feathers, longish wings and narrow, pointed tail in flight. Its basic coloration is a grayish tan or even olive brown, with a buffy brown head, neck, and forehead, and a bluish-gray crown. The lower sides of the neck have a spot of iridescent, purplish bronze, or gold or pink, which is not always visible. It has bluish-black spots on the lower head and neck. Its flight feathers are bluish gray to slate gray, as are its tail feathers. The tail feathers are black at the ends with white tips and edges, with the central tail feathers being all blackish. Its bill is slender and black and its feet are deep pink or red.

Doves feed early in the morning, mid-afternoon, and once again at evening. As evening approaches they move to water. Water is extremely important to the dove, and they must have it regularly. They can drink without tipping their heads back. After getting water and the grit or sand they need to aid in digestion, they go to roost.

Today, mourning doves are more apt to spend winters in the north than they were a few years ago. This is largely due to an abundance of waste grains in fields and to the prevalence of numerous weed seeds. Doves will commonly be found around grain bins or milling operations. Usually they are found in small groups, but occasionally you’ll see flocks of 20 or 30. Normally, however, doves winter south of a line that extends from California to Colorado , to Iowa to southern Michigan , Ohio , and New Jersey .


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