Mourning Dove

On the wild side—August, 2011

by Tina Mitchell

Mourning Doves are among the most abundant and widespread bird species in North America.  Their scientific name is Zenaida macrouraZenaida was the first name of the wife of the French botanist Charles Bonaparte, who lived and worked in the early 1800s.  The species name refers to its extremely long tail, from Greek—makros (long) and ouros (tail).  Its common name arises from its song, which sounds rather mournful.  Since they often start singing in the pre-dawn summer darkness, some people mistake their mournful song for the calls of the nocturnal owls.  Another non-visual clue is the wing whistle when it takes off, caused by the feathers of the wing.    Mourning Doves can be found around Colorado all year, although they tend to move to southern parts of the state during the colder months.  It’s rather unusual to see them in our area in the winter, although not totally unheard of.  Interestingly, the Christmas Bird Count at Cañon City and Penrose typically reports scores of Mourning Doves in the dead of winter.  So perhaps most of our local birds just move a tad downriver for the winter.

A Mourning Dove is a medium-sized, streamlined dove with a small head, long pointed tail, grayish brown or taupe body, and black spots on the wings and behind the eye.  Males and females look alike, although sometimes you can detect a rosy blush on the breast of the male.  (Sometimes.)  Doves and pigeons belong to the Columbidae family (which is Latin for “pigeon or dove”—how convenient!).  So doves and pigeons share many interesting physical features.  For instance, these birds can drink with their heads down, using their beaks like a straw.  (Any other bird has to take a sip of water and throw its head back, so the water can trickle down its throat.)  Almost all of their diet consists of seeds and plant parts.  Doves can store lots of seeds in their crops (an enlarged part of the esophagus), often gathering seeds in one place and then flying to another spot to digest them in a bit more leisure.  Since doves prefer to find seeds and water in open areas free of vegetation—making them easy to spot—these eating and drinking styles may help to limit their exposure to predators.  Unlike many other birds, doves don’t have an oil or “preen” gland to help with waterproofing their feathers.  Instead, they have “powder down” feathers—extremely fine feathers that disintegrate into a dust-like substance.  Through preening, the bird coats its feathers with this dust to provide some waterproofing.  If you’ve ever seen a window strike by a dove, you may have seen a “ghost bird” on the glass—a tracing of the bird left on the glass by this powder down.  If you and the bird are both lucky, that’s the only remnant of the strike you’ll find…

Mourning Dove babies (called “squabs”) grow very quickly, increasing their weight 14-fold in 15 days.  Initially, parents feed the kids “crop milk”—a rich mixture produced in the crop.  As the nestlings grow, the parents switch to feeding them regurgitated seeds.  The nestlings fledge about 15 days after hatching and remain with the parents for another 15 days, fed primarily by dad while mom starts another clutch.  Young Mourning Doves look very much like their parents, except that their feathers have a “scaly” appearance:  Wispy little white edges, which wear off quickly once they leave the nest, outline the end of their feathers.  Mourning Doves can have as many as 5 or 6 clutches a year (although in Colorado, 3 is more common)—while many other species struggle to make it through just 1 brood.  Although not quite as prolific in reproduction as the familiar Rock Pigeon—which can have babies pretty much any month of the year—is it any surprise that doves have been a symbol of love and fertility through the ages?

Learn more about this species, see more photo links, and listen to its call here.  {under construction—coming soon!}

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