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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Mourning doves are mainly seed eaters consuming both weed seeds and cereal grains. © Jack R. Bartholmai
© Jack R. Bartholmai

October 2006

Border patrol

Mourning doves scour the edges of roads, fields and woods for weed seeds and water.

Marcia Hafner

Mourning doves are mainly seed eaters consuming both weed seeds and cereal grains.

A melancholy oo-ah, woo-woo-woo gently brings me out of sleep. Not on any schedule, I stay snuggled deep in my sleeping bag while the early morning chorus continues. I refuse to budge till the first warming rays of sun entice me to get up. Startled by my presence, a dozen mourning doves take off in whistle-winged flight showing a flash of white on their pointed tail feathers. These high-speed birds – clocked at 30-45 mph – move on to a safe haven. I know they will be back for the few sunflower seeds that I sprinkle on the ground to get a closer look at the birds. It is illegal to spread seed or bait doves if you intend to hunt them, but we're just watching.

Mourning doves are ground feeders with a monstrous appetite for seeds, grains and berries. They provide a huge economic benefit as weed controllers eating seeds from pigweed, foxtail, ragweed and wild sunflower as well as crop seeds like corn, sorghum and millet. Any roadside straddled with seed-bearing plants is an attractant, and in late summer to early fall, a country drive will flush them out from the edge of any productive weed-lined highway.

Mourning doves favor open areas that offer high perches with an unrestricted view. Controlled burns, timber harvests and development help spread their range. The doves' preferred habitat includes farmyards, cultivated fields, prairies and open woodlands. The birds readily come to feeders for seeds in rural areas, homes and city parks throughout the U.S.

Mourning doves are widely hunted and have the largest distribution of all the North American game birds, yet their populations are still increasing in most regions of the country because they adapt to every environment. They are especially abundant in Wisconsin south of a line from Eau Claire east to Green Bay.

The genus name, Zenaida, was given by the French zoologist Charles L. Bonaparte in 1838 to honor his wife Princess Zenaide Charlotte Julie Bonaparte. The species name, macroura, is Greek meaning "long-tailed." Two subspecies, carolinensis and marginella inhabit Wisconsin.

Winters can be hard on mourning doves as they have a difficult time scratching through snow and ice to reach food, so about four to five million migrate through Wisconsin each year. Another group comes down from Canada and winters in southern Wisconsin.

In spring, the males arrive at the breeding grounds first and aggressively defend a territory, cooing from dawn to dusk. When the females arrive, males perform a gliding, spiraling flight display. Returning to the ground, males spread out their feathers before steadily nodding their heads up and down while strutting back and forth to impress the ladies.

After breakfast, I walk to a nearby pond that is the main source of water for miles around. I suspect that doves with their crops full of seeds will soon be flocking in for a drink. Like other doves, they suck up water instead of the more common method of lifting their heads to swallow. If left undisturbed, doves continue murmuring their coo-song from an open perch and I can get a closer look at their trim brown bodies, pinkish tinted breasts and small, rounded heads. The iridescent colors on their slender necks shimmer in the sunlight. Black spots on the upper wings shine bright like small pieces of flint.

After a brief respite, the doves take off to attend to family matters. They raise two to five broods a year; down south they breed year-round and can have five to six broods.

I often find their nests by following their odd erratic flight pattern or watch when they pretend to have a broken wing. Once an enemy is a safe distance away, the dove's feigned injury, like the killdeer's, miraculously heals. Many a coyote, fox or person has been fooled by the act. I have wised up and seen a few nests with their pure white eggs.

The males gather the twigs and sticks for the nest, but the females are the chief engineers and nest builders. In three to seven days, the females put together a somewhat flimsy, crude nest three to 30 feet up a tree, shrub or ledge. The first egg is laid in the evening followed by a second one the next morning. Males incubate the eggs during the day and females take over the night shift for the 14-16 days until eggs hatch.

Rather than feeding their young directly on insects, as almost all other seed-eating birds do, mourning doves feed "pigeon's milk" – a nourishing partially digested liquid regurgitated from the lining of their crop. The only other birds producing similar milk are flamingoes and penguins. Pigeon's milk contains more protein and fat than cow's milk or human milk. Hatchlings fledge in about 12-14 days and are supervised by their parents for another two to three weeks.

After the breeding season, mourning doves gather to roost on branches, wires, barns or other sheltered groves. Many doves are preyed upon or hunted, but the species is still thriving.

As the last rays of sunlight leave my campsite, the sky cools from flaming orange to faded pink. The mourning doves come back for one more meal of sunflower seeds. The sun slides down behind a hill and the air temperature drops dramatically. The birds' cooing duets bring my day to a peaceful end.

Marcia Hafner is an avid bird watcher and nature-based freelance writer in Moab, Utah.