For the Birds Radio Program: Mourning Dove

Original Air Date: Sept. 1, 1997

Laura talks about a bird whose plumage and call are both the epitome of softness.

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The Mourning Dove’s familiar hoo-oooah—hooo, hoo, hooo is a soothing sound of summer. Many people think all birds that say hoo hoo are owls, and so a lot of backyard Mourning Doves go undetected. This bird takes its name from the sad, grieving call, so soft and gentle that even a very nearby dove may sound like it’s a long way off. I’ve stood directly beneath a telephone wire on which a Mourning Dove was singing and had to point the bird out to incredulous friends standing right next to me. Although the Mourning Dove’s call is well within the hearing range of most people, it’s apparently easy to overlook.

Mourning Doves are as subdued in appearance as they are in sound, with soft brownish-gray plumage and slender, pointed wings and tail. On the ground they walk slowly, bobbing their head delicately with each step, but the moment they take off in flight they go into high gear, with a rapid and musical whistling of wings that can almost instantly launch them into a speed of 55 mph. Once when I was a rehabilitator, a woman brought me a Mourning Dove that had been mauled by a cat, its breast torn open to the extent that it wouldn’t have survived anyway, but the moment I opened the box to examine it, it took off and crashed into my dining room window, breaking its neck. It died instantly, mercifully ending its suffering—the first and only time a bird has been killed by my window from the inside.

Mourning Doves are classified by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a game species, and are hunted in at least 31 states. They are reasonably abundant, and the only game bird in the country known to nest in all 48 lower states. On Fish and Wildlife Service Breeding Bird Surveys, Mourning Doves are found on more routes nationwide than any other species except Red-winged Blackbirds. In order to monitor hunting pressure, the Fish and Wildlife Service also conducts special Mourning Dove surveys every spring. Each counter must stop precisely every mile along a 25-mile route to listen carefully for three minutes before driving on. I have participated in this survey on a route in northern Minnesota since 1988, and since my route is one of the furthest north in the nation, in a mostly forested landscape, it’s one of the poorest for finding doves. I usually find zero or just one lonesome dove, and the most I’ve ever heard is just three. In suburban areas and especially in farm country, Mourning Dove survey routes can tally hundreds. These are birds of open country who simply don’t like life in the northern forest.

Mourning Doves eat a few insects, but fully 98 percent of their diet is seeds, and they are frequent visitors to bird feeding stations. They prefer eating on the ground to actually alighting on a feeder, and virtually never alight on a feeder with a roof.

Doves symbolize faithfulness and love for many people, and Mourning Doves live up to their reputation. An eight-year-study of banded Mourning Doves conducted in the 1960s revealed that they mate for life. In the southern states, where weather remains mild year-round, Mourning Doves breed every month of the year, but here in the north they lose interest in romance in fall. Even here they may produce three broods of babies each year. Fully 70 percent of baby doves die before their first birthday, so these birds need to be prolific in order for the species to survive. Those that do figure out the tricks of survival may life to a ripe old age, with at least one banded bird in the wild making it to 10. But whether given a year or a decade, living in the balmy south or the far north, the Mourning Dove’s song remains the same throughout the country—a welcome sound for those of us lucky enough to know how to listen.