Feb 27, 2017 | Featured Web Article

Mourning Dove: A Widespread, Common Beauty

The slender brown shape of the mourning dove, with its long, tapered tail, is a familiar sight all across North America. This species is named for its sad-sounding cooing: coo-AHH-coo,coo,coo!

If you feed birds, you probably feed mourning doves. Mourning doves are North America's most common and widespread native dove species, named for its mournful cooing: coo-AHH-coo,coo,coo, sometimes confused for an owl. When startled, mourning doves explode into flight, causing their wings to whistle.

The species is known to nest every month of the year, especially in southern areas, although they migrate from the northern most parts of their breeding range for the winter. Especially in the south, but even in the north, mourning doves produce as many as six clutches each year, more than any other breeding bird on the continent. They have been known to start a new nest just 30 days after starting the previous one, sometimes even before the previous brood has fledged. Females usually lay two eggs. Incubation lasts just 14 days, and the young fledge 13 to 15 days after hatching. The fledglings can survive without parental assistance at 21 days if abundant food is available nearby.

Some mourning dove pairs stay together through numerous nesting cycles; some find new partners for new nests, or with the first nest of a new year.

Mourning doves have proportionally small heads and tiny brains. Maybe that's why they build such flimsy nests, often nothing more than a few sticks on a slender branch of a tall tree. Lots of mourning dove nests fail simply because the wind blows them down. So, they begin again: The female will build another flimsy nest, sometimes on the same branch using the remains of the failed nest. It seems like an unwise reproduction strategy, but it works. Because mourning doves reproduce like rabbits, their population is stable even though hunters in the United States take an estimated 15 to 20 million each year.

Take a minute to admire mourning doves. Notice their pink or green iridescence in direct sunlight. Adult males are slightly more colorful than females, with a pale rosy hue on the face, throat and breast. The male's head has a bluish crown and nape, while the female's is brownish, although the differences are subtle. Adult male mourning doves have bare turquoise blue skin around the eyes. It's turquoise green in adult females, and brighter during breeding season. On average, males are slightly bigger than females, but there is overlap.

Despite being a popular game bird, mourning doves survive well alongside humans. They are particularly numerous in cornfields, parks, open woodlands and urban and suburban backyards. At backyard feeding stations and in wild habitat, mourning doves are grain and seed eaters. To attract them, offer sunflower seeds, cracked corn and a high-quality seed mix directly on the ground or on a low platform feeder. Doves also love safflower seed. It's easier for them to swallow than sunflower since doves swallow seeds whole and let their gizzard do the work of hulling.

About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021