For the Birds Radio Program: Mourning Dove

Original Air Date: Aug. 15, 1988 Rerun Dates: Feb. 27, 1995

Mourning Doves are not a legal game bird in Minnesota, but are in many other states.

Duration: 3′52″


(Recording of a Mourning Dove)

The only game bird in the United States that nests in every one of the lower 48 states isn’t a game bird at all—at least not in Minnesota. Mourning Doves are hunted in more than 30 states, but Minnesotans have steadfastly kept them classified as a protected song bird. They weigh in at only 4 1/2 ounces, which doesn’t translate into much meat when you take off the feathers and bones, but nonetheless Mourning Doves are a popular morsel in many places.

Ornithologists don’t classify Mourning Doves as true song birds. Pigeons and doves are in their own family because of several characteristic features which songbirds lack, like fleshy feet and a soft, waxy cere at the base of the upper mandible, with slit-like nostrils. Also, pigeons and doves are capable of sucking up water like a horse, unlike songbirds, which take water in their beaks and then allow it to dribble down their throats. Finally, both male and female pigeons and doves are capable of producing a unique milk in their crops which they feed to their young—birds in no other family can do this.

The Mourning Dove has always been common to abundant in Minnesota and Wisconsin except the boreal forest regions, but in the past decade Mourning Dove numbers have dropped appreciably, perhaps in part because doves are so heavily hunted in more southern states where our birds spend the winter. Although doves are considered a game bird in so many places, they aren’t managed the way ducks, geese, grouse, and pheasants are to maintain their population. Apparently the philosophy in those states is that the dove’s high reproduction rate can sustain any number of hunters.

Much of the opposition to hunting doves in Minnesota has been based more on emotional arguments than scientific ones. Doves have long been a symbol of romance and fertility, in part because most species mate for life, and they breed throughout the year. Most birds in Minnesota and Wisconsin celebrate their birthdays in June or July, but our Mourning Doves can be hatched in any month from about March through November, and in southern states have been recorded nesting in every month of the year.

Although most Mourning Doves migrate south for the winter, quite a few do remain as far north as Thunder Bay. Usually there are several in my neighborhood of Duluth year-round. But because of their fleshy feet, which are too small to fit into Sorel boots, these birds are susceptible to frostbite when the temperature stays below zero for a while. As long as they have a good supply of food, they can pig out a few times a day and spend the rest of their time roosting in the sun with their tummy blanketing their toes. But if they have to spend a lot of time on the frozen ground searching for food or grit, frostbitten toes can become seriously infected, leading to death.

Mourning Doves take their name from their plaintive call, which makes the birds sound as if they were in mourning. Pigeons and doves have enriched the English language with many colorful terms, from peace-loving “doves” through traitorous “stool pigeons.” Anyone who is easily duped is considered a pigeon, but the same word is also used as a term of endearment. In the Walt Disney animated movie “Lady and the Tramp,” Tramp constantly refers to his canine lady love as “pigeon,” perhaps because she was both gullible and endearing–a cocker spaniel who would never be pigeonholed.

(Recording of a Mourning Dove)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”