For the Birds Radio Program: Mourning Dove Survey 2007
Every spring I head out one morning at 4 am for a little spot south of Hermantown where I start a 20-mile survey, stopping every mile for 3-minutes to listen and look for Mourning Doves. I’ve been conducting this Mourning Dove Survey for the US Fish and Wildlife Service since 1988, and although it can be a bit grueling to face a ringing alarm clock at 3:30 in the morning, once I’m standing at my first stop, listening to robins and veeries and maybe even a bittern or an owl, I quickly remember why this annual task is such a joy.
The Mourning Dove is the most heavily-hunted game bird in America. The annual survey is conducted to ensure that the dove population remains healthy. Mourning Doves aren’t managed the way most game birds are, by providing habitat, since the habitats most frequented by doves are in backyards with bird feeders and in agricultural areas. In my rural survey area in northeastern Minnesota, I find far fewer doves than most areas—most years I find only one or two, while in the Dakotas or western Minnesota, counts can average hundreds. Fortunately, what my count area lacks in Mourning Doves it more than makes up for in other birds, and even though I’m very focused on listening for doves, I hear a lot of other species, too–this year I counted 65 different ones. And I love being outdoors listening to the dawn chorus—for me, hearing the sounds of birds as night transforms into dawn is one of the most joyful experiences of spring and early summer.
The two doves I heard this year were calling from different directions, and then one flew out and landed near where the other was calling. Usually if I see a dove, it’s perched on one of the power lines along the roads as I drive between stops, but this year I didn’t see a single perched dove. To make up for that, the weekend before my survey, when I was in Ohio picking up my daughter, Russ and I found a Mourning Dove nest at eye level in a tree right outside our motel room. I couldn’t see into the nest to tell if there was an egg yet, though I suspect there was because the female spent most of her time sitting on the nest. But she was still working on it because the male was steadily bringing more nesting materials which she was incorporating into the nest. It was funny watching them—he’d fly in with a strand of fiber of one kind or another—I picked out a piece of plastic, several spring grasses with seeds attached, some dead grasses from last year. He’d alight about a foot above her on the main limb of the tree, and waddle down toward the nest. He’d hand off the fiber but then he was in too tight a position to turn around, so he’d keep walking to the edge of the nest, step on her head and walk on her to her back where he had barely enough space to turn around and walk on her back to her head again, waddle back to the main limb and fly off. Then she’d turn around and around looking at the nest and then weave in the fiber. I couldn’t tell if she was glad he was bringing her so many materials or if she was just humoring him, because as I said, the nest was already complete enough for her to be sitting in it, presumably incubating. It’s fun to watch birds closely and to speculate about what they’re doing and thinking, but we can’t really know. The mysteries are part of the thrill of bird observation. And whether we’re listening to distant Mourning Doves or watching them up close and personal, they have the capacity to enrich our days and fill our minds and hearts with wonder.