For the Birds Radio Program: George Ellis's Mourning Doves: Sad Update

Original Air Date: Feb. 11, 2005

Ice storms are hard on Mourning Doves.

Duration: 4′30″


Sad fate for Mourning Doves

I got a sad but interesting letter from one of my favorite people, George Ellis, in Eagle River. George had been delighted earlier this season to have a big flock of Mourning Doves spending the winter with him. But yesterday he wrote, “That miserable ice storm of a week ago killed a large number of doves. The recent thaw uncovered the bodies, but it snowed again before I could get a count. The flock of about 50 that I had is down to 10 or 12. There was some relocation to other areas, so a count is impossible. My German Shorthair started to bring some in last evening but the snow and darkness stopped the search. They have a good layer of body fat and appear healthy. I guess it just froze them for too long?

Interestingly, after an ice storm in Minnesota earlier this winter, someone posted a photo of a couple of Mourning Doves whose tails were completely iced up. These poor birds are in many ways robust and hardy, but their fleshy feet are very susceptible to frostbite and their long, wide tails seem more prone to icing than the tails of most birds are. And once a tail has a coating of ice, the bird can’t fly. And the weight of the ice can actually hold a tail down, allowing continuing ice rain to literally seal the poor bird to the ground.

For many years, as every scientist I knew grew increasingly concerned about global warming, people with a vested interest in the oil, auto, or other big industries kept saying that there wasn’t a problem, and I heard a lot of people ridiculing environmentalists and scientists who predicted serious ecological and human problems due to warming. Now, as insurance payouts to property and lives damaged by hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and fires steadily increase, we’re still dealing that double whammy to our planet, burning up natural resources and spewing them into the atmosphere. There have always been ice storms, and winter mortality, so we can’t specifically blame these dead Mourning Doves on global warming, but the truth is that we are going to see more and more instances of this sort of thing during a season that in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota is usually limited to spring and fall.

Every day I read or hear money experts telling people that the point of financial planning is to grow one’s financial holdings to ensure a brighter future for yourself and your children and grandchildren. Why couldn’t we have the same attitude about wildlife and clean air and water? Why do we just accept that dirtying our world is a necessary cost of earning money, instead of realizing that cleaning up after ourselves is a necessary cost of doing business? Mourning Doves are significantly declining in Minnesota, probably because of major changes in agriculture in the western half of the state. In Wisconsin, they’re pretty stable. In neither state are they in imminent danger of extinction or even of severe declines, even with the new hunting seasons. But we’re so shortsighted in the way we focus on cashing in on our resources instead of investing in them.

But those big issues are only tangentially related to George Ellis’s dead Mourning Doves. When sad events like this happen, at times I feel like Rachel, weeping for her children because they were no more, but I take solace in another Rachel—Rachel Carson—who wrote, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.”