For the Birds Radio Program: Mourning Dove
One of the loveliest and most often-heard bird sounds is also one of the most misidentified. The hoooo-hooo-hooo of the Mourning Dove is often mistaken for an owl. Mourning Doves were named for this plaintive call, which sounds as if they’re in mourning. Mourning Doves also produce a distinctive whistling sound with their wings in flight.
The Mourning Dove is the most abundant game bird on the continent, with about 70 million shot every year in the United States alone, well more than all other migratory game bird species combined. Despite the high harvest, it remains one of the ten most abundant birds on the continent. It’s also one of the most widespread, in many years counted on more Breeding Bird Survey routes than any other species, and vying with the Northern Cardinal as the species that appears on more Great Backyard Bird Count checklists than any other bird.
As high as their numbers are, doves have shown a significant decline over their entire range in terms of doves heard during the annual US Fish and Wildlife Service Mourning Dove Survey, but they do seem to be increasing in the northern parts of their range. This winter, they’re being seen all the way up in Meadowlands, Minnesota, and more and more are appearing, even in the dead of winter, in the far northern reaches of Wisconsin. I see increasing numbers each year on my Mourning Dove Survey route, but that’s because more and more people are moving in, replacing mature forests with lawns and ornamental plants. Mourning Doves benefit greatly from agriculture and development at the expense of birds that specialize on deeply forested habitat.
Unlike songbirds, doves have fleshy feet, susceptible to frostbite, so if they’re visiting your feeder, it’s a kindness keep the feeders filled all the time during the coldest periods of winter. When they have reliable food sources, they budget their time to pig out a few times each day, filling their stomach and crop. Between feeding bouts they sit quietly on branches or wires in full sun, their tummy resting on their toes to keep their feet warm as they digest. It’s much harder to do this when they must spend large parts of the day searching out new food sources.
Doves are also susceptible to getting iced during freezing rain. When ice coats their body and wing feathers, they may not be able to take off or to sustain flight. They also have a habit of holding their tail down—sometimes during freezing rain or wet snow, the tips of their tail feathers may stick to the ground when a dove takes flight, and in the force of the takeoff, the entire tail may remain behind. Earlier this winter I heard many accounts of doves in southern and central Wisconsin losing many or all of their tail feathers during one ice storm.
Mourning Dove nests are surprisingly flimsy, not only providing poor insulation but often poor support for the eggs and nestlings. I was thrilled in 1976 to discover my very first Mourning Dove nest at eye level in Lansing, Michigan. The next day when I returned, I was devastated to find the two eggs missing. I felt horribly guilty that I may have led a predator to the nest until I discovered the eggs cracked on the ground and noticed that the bottom of the nest had been poorly woven with a big hole in the middle. I read more and learned that although the eggs don’t fall out too often, it is a surprisingly regular occurrence. Doves may be sloppy at construction, but both male and female are devoted parents. Both sexes produce pigeon milk in their crops—a substance that looks like yellowish cottage cheese but is very similar to mammalian milk in composition. Around the time the nestlings are five days old, their fathers coo at them right before feeding; this apparently conditions the babies to recognize his song so they can find one another after the babies fledge, when the mother starts to renest. These gentle, splendid birds are as fascinating as they are beautiful.