Wilderness Underfoot: The Mourning Dove

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117150043921226.jpg’, ”, ‘The mourning dove – Zenaida macroura is also known as a Carolina turtledove or Carolina pigeon. It is widespread from southern Canada to Central America.’);

We’ll soon be hearing the pleasant cooing of this prolific bird.

The call of the mourning dove—cooah wooo wooo woo—could easily be mistaken for an owl. Usually made by the male during breeding season, this call can often be heard from early spring throughout the summer. It is among the most widespread of all bird calls, primarily because this bird is North America’s most common dove and one of our 10 most common birds overall. Seen in deserts, prairies, open woodlands, and even towns and cities, the only places where mourning doves are rarely found are large wetlands and deep forests.

Although mourning doves tend to nest in trees, they’re not very picky, happily settling in shrubs, atop ledges and on human structures. Their nests are among the shabbiest in the bird world, woven together by the female while the male stands on her back offering bits of nesting material. The female nearly always lays two eggs, so if more than two show up in her nest, they likely belong to another pair. And sometimes, wily cowbirds will lay eggs in the nests of mourning doves.

The eggs are constantly incubated—by males from morning to afternoon, and by females the rest of the day and night. Their hatchlings, referred to as squabs, are fed regurgitated food that includes “pigeon milk.” This milk is actually secreted from the parents’ crops, mixed with seeds. It’s extremely nutritious, with plenty of fat and protein for the growing hatchings.

In our region, mourning doves raise two or three broods between March and September, but in southern states and Mexico, these birds may raise as many as six broods each year. No other North American bird has a longer breeding season. Prolific breeding helps offset juvenile mortality, predation of eggs and young, and hunting by humans.

As adults, mourning doves are seed eaters, only occasionally taking insects and other invertebrates. Instead of collecting seeds directly from trees, shrubs and grasses, these birds prefer collecting seeds from the ground. They can sometimes be spotted eating waste grains, such as wheat and corn, that are left after harvest season. They’re somewhat helpful in consuming weed seeds. Often, a pair will be seen resting on the edge of a quiet country road, picking at the ground for small pieces of grit and gravel. This material is swallowed to aid their gizzards in grinding and digesting hard seeds.

After the breeding season, these birds flock together and migrate south as far as 1,000 miles. Even so, their range is so large that mourning doves originating in Canada may be found here in Illinois during the winter—while doves originating here may reach the Gulf coast states.

From the Feb. 14-20, 2007, issue

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