The Mourning Dove’s nest seems like a precarious place to begin life. It is “placed indifferently upon a tree or bush, stump or log, or even on the ground – oftenest in the fork of some branch at no great elevation; it is always slight and frail, open-worked of twigs, with little or no softer material.”(Coues, 1883). This impossibly flimsy-looking platform of small twigs and stems is built by the pair over two to four days; the male delivers materials to the female, standing on her back to pass each item to her. The first egg of two, of spotless white, is usually laid within two days of nest completion.
The male and female share the responsibilities of incubation, which lasts 14 days. The hatchlings, altricial with sparse white down, are called squabs. Both parents feed their young by regurgitation, and this is primarily “crop milk” for the first few days. Crop milk is secreted from cells of the crop wall, and while the composition of Mourning Dove crop milk is unknown, it is likely similar to that of other pigeons: water, protein, fat and minerals. Five to six days after hatching, seeds begin to be substituted for decreasing crop milk. By the time of fledging, around 13-15 days after hatching, the squabs’ regurgitated diet is basically the same as their parents’. For about twelve days after the young leave the nest, they are fed almost exclusively by the male while the female prepares for her next clutch.
A short-lived species, the average adult lifespan of Mourning Doves is only about a year. Nevertheless, this dove is “among the most abundant and widespread terrestrial birds endemic to North and Middle America.”(Otis et al., 2008). They can be found in southern Canada, all of the lower 48 states and even into temperate Mexico. Most northern breeding populations are migratory, while more southern populations are typically residents. The Mourning Dove makes its home in a range of landscapes, from urban to rural, favouring open and edge habitat.
”Mourning Doves will live and nest in very dry regions, but they prefer the neighborhood of water, and if not nesting near water they fly long distances to it to drink and bathe, both morning and night.” (The Mourning Dove, unlike many birds, drinks by suction, and does not need to lift and tilt its head after taking a mouthful of water.) “Travelers in the desert in their search for water have learned to follow the morning and evening flight of the doves.”(Forbush, 1939)
“Most Arizona ‘rivers’ have no water in them; and in that extraordinary country, where everything goes by contraries, the sight of a Dove is a surer sign of water than the site of a stream.”(Coues, 1883)
Granivorous, seeds from wild and cultivated plants constitute 99% of this dove’s diet. It forages on the ground, in pairs during nesting season and larger flocks later in the year, quickly filling its crop and then digesting its food later at a loafing or roosting site. It is also a common feeder visitor, making this softly coloured dove familiar to many.
The adult male, with pale rosy breast and bluish hue to his crown and nape, is slightly more colourful than the female, with tannish breast and brownish crown and nape. All soft round lines, the Mourning Dove’s gentle appearance seems at odds with its swift, highly manoeuvrable flight and the startling whistling with which it explodes into the air. The whistling is particularly noticeable during alarmed take-offs, and Coleman (2008) found that the sound startled and caused increased vigilance in nearby doves as well as other bird species. A 2016 study (Niese and Tobalske) on the tonal sounds produced in flight by Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) found that the outer primaries were responsible for the sound. The portion of the barbs in these feathers had characteristics causing them to have decreased stiffness and “aeroelastic flutter.” The sound produced by this flutter only occurs during the downstroke and is most easily detected during take-off, when the velocity of the wing-tip is highest, as opposed to during steady flight when wing-tip velocity is lower. The whistling flight of Mourning Doves, however, may also be heard during landings and occasionally when large migrating flocks pass overhead; so, while the sound may have an alarm role, function of the whistling remains uncertain.
Anyone familiar with the Mourning Dove will also be familiar with the seemingly mournful cooing call, “that no person of sensibility can listen to without sympathy”(Wilson, 1808-1814), from which it gets its common name. This call is presumably responsible also for the species’ collective name of “dole” or “piteousness.” Alexander Wilson, in his American Ornithology, describes it thus:
“This is a favourite bird with all those who love to wander among our woods in spring, and listen to their varied harmony. They will there hear many a singular and sprightly performer, but none so mournful as this. The hopeless woe of settled sorrow, swelling the heart of female innocence itself, could not assume tones more sad, more tender and affecting.
“There is, however, nothing of real distress in all this; quite the reverse. The bird who utters it wantons by the side of his beloved partner, or invites her by his call to some favourite retired and shady retreat. It is the voice of love, of faithful connubial affection, for which the whole family of doves are so celebrated; and, among them all, none more deservingly so than the species now before us.”
(Indeed, the pair bond may persist through both the nesting season and the winter, and in a bird whose average adult lifespan is a year, this relationship verges on a lifetime.)
The Mourning Dove’s other names are less melancholy. Historically, it was referred to as the Carolina Pigeon or Carolina Turtledove. Today, it belongs to the genus Zenaida, named for Zenaide Bonaparte (1801-1854), daughter of Joseph Bonaparte. Her husband (and cousin) Charles Lucien Bonaparte was an ornithologist and named the Zenaida Dove after her. The name was later applied to the genus, which includes the Mourning Dove. The species name, macroura is derived from the Greek ‘macro,’ meaning large or long, and ‘oura,’ meaning tail.
“Sumtimes thairs a grate similarity between two things that’s much alike, but the turtle dove and the snappin turtle haint much similarity – hardly enny. They doant sing alike At all. The turtle dove has much the sweatest vois. The snappin turtle haint no voice – leastways none that i no of. The oanly thing thair alike is if you ketch them thayl boath try to git awa.” (Benson, 1874)
All photos copyright R. Lancashire.
Baicich, P.J. and C.J.O. Harrison. 2005. Nest, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Benson Sr., P. 1874. A book. Geo. F. Root and Sons, Chicago.
Coleman, S.W. 2008. Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) wing-whistles may contain threat-related information for con- and hetero-specifics. Naturwissenschaften 95(10): 981-6.
Coues, E. 1883. New England bird life. Part II. Lee and Shepard Publishers, Boston.
Forbush, E. 1939. A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Revised by J. Bichard May. Bramhall House, New York.
Niese R.L. and B.W. Tobalske. 2016. Specialized primary feathers produce tonal sounds during flight in rock pigeons (Columba livia). Journal of Exp. Biol. (advance online article)
Otis, D.L., J.H. Schulz, D. Miller, R.E. Mirarchi and T.S. Baskett. 2008. Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/moudov
Wilson, A. 1808-1814. American Ornithology.