The Secret Life of the Mourning Dove

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

There was a time when I considered the mourning dove to be too commonplace and familiar to be worthy of much attention. All of this changed one winter when I began to notice that some birds at my birdfeeder had frostbitten toes and missing toenails. I looked into the matter and learned that mourning doves were originally a southern bird, and they’re not well adapted to our harsh winters. Suddenly, the mourning dove went from being ordinary and familiar to being unusual and interesting. I began to wonder what other secrets the mourning dove had to share.

When Europeans first arrived in the New World, mourning doves probably existed only in scattered locations throughout North America. But that would change. As the settlers modified the land to suit their needs, they ended up suiting the mourning doves’ needs as well. Both humans and doves like open and semi-open habitats: neighborhoods, parks, open woods, grasslands, and farms.

Today, the mourning dove holds the distinction of being the only native North American bird to breed in every state, including Hawaii. Their U.S. population is estimated at more than 400 million. Despite their numbers, their lives tend to be short and difficult. In any given year, more than half of the adults and two thirds of first-year birds will die. Nationwide, hunters take more than two million birds annually, though the mourning dove is not a legal game bird in Vermont or New Hampshire. Around here, predators and bad weather are the limiting factors.

While observing the birds, it is possible to tell the difference between males and females, although the difference is subtle. Males are a little larger, their breasts are rosier, and their heads are a more iridescent and brighter blue-gray. If you’re watching a nest, note that males do most of the incubating from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, while females typically take to the nest in the early morning, evening, and night.

As is the case with most members of the dove family, females lay two eggs. Both male and female provide their hatchlings crop milk, a rich mixture of cells sloughed off from the crop wall. Crop milk is the consistency of cottage cheese, and is extremely nutritious, having more protein and fat than mammalian milk. On crop milk, the young grow quickly fledging in about 14 days. But what may be more interesting than what is fed to hatchlings is how dove hatchlings eat. Instead of mom and dad placing food into the hatchlings’ gaping mouths, the opposite happens. Parents open their beaks, and babies stick their heads into the open mouths to consume food right from the parent’s crop. Young doves feed this way on both crop milk and seed. In the Northeast, mourning doves may raise up to three broods a year, although two is more common.

While mourning doves are common at the bird feeder all year round, the doves you see in winter are not the same as the ones you see in summer. Mourning dove’s migration is a complicated affair called “differential” migration and is related to a bird’s age and sex. They begin to move south to the mid-Atlantic and southern states in late August and early September. The young leave first, then the females, and finally the males. Some birds, most of them males, don’t migrate at all but remain in the north. If you look closely at the mourning doves at your winter feeders, you will find that they are predominantly males. It’s worth it to these males to brave bad weather and frostbitten toes to get a head start on establishing a good breeding territory early in the spring.

If you’ve ever startled a mourning dove, you undoubtedly caused it to blast off into the air from its perch, making a whistling sound as it goes. This high-pitched whistle – sometimes called a whinny – does not emanate from the bird’s syrinx; rather, the high-pitched noise comes from the bird’s powerful wings. It is believed that the whistling is a built-in alarm system, warning others that danger may be near, while simultaneously startling a would-be predator (and giving the dove the precious seconds it needs to make its escape).

The more I learn and the more I look, the more I see that the common mourning dove is not so common at all. This winter I’ll be watching them very closely; there may yet be more secrets to learn.

Michele Patenaude lives in Burlington, Vermont, and teaches natural history and ornithology at the Community College of Vermont.

 
Discussion
  1. Tom Prunier → in VT
    Dec 27, 2011

    In 2009 during the big local pine cone mast doves were all over the woods eating seed.  We would commonly to see flocks of 100 under the newly released pines.  It was as if they had taken up some small slack from the extinct passenger pigeon.

  2. gary bobseine → in Cattaraugus, NY
    Mar 04, 2012

    Thanks for the educational piece on mourning doves, Michele.  We definitely see many more over-wintering doves here in western NY than in the past. It is always a pleasure to hear the first spring “coos” of the male doves, which occurred here on February 29 this year. This sign of spring rates right up there with the first robin sighting, the first bluebird song, or the first “peents” and aerial displays of the woodcock.

    I had a chance to hunt, and eat, some mourning doves in southwest Texas with my son last September.  They offer challenging shooting and delectable table fare.  It is unfortunate that we sportspeople in the Northeast aren’t able to take advantage of the healthy supply of excess doves, which hunting or not, will only overwinter less than half of the fall population, hunting season or not.

  3. claire → in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
    Jan 07, 2014

    I am enjoying the presence of, sometimes, over twenty mourning doves on my east-facing balcony. I supply them with millet and sunflower seeds. It is almost record cold here these last days, and I marvel at how they cope with the bitter windchill. They come in the morning and stay all day. As dark begins to fall, they become lively, eating and pruning their feathers. Then off they fly, wings whistling. I so look forward to seeing them in the morning. They are beautiful and have such a peaceful presence. I am glad they are with me.

  4. Barb → in Indiana
    Jan 28, 2014

    I live in Indiana and we’ve had some temperatures below 0 wind chills around 30 below zero. I feed the birds all year round and I was watching this morning dove which seemed hurt or very cold, She could hardly move her wings and walk, I then picked her up put her in a cage with a rag and food and water, she is doing well, she is now eating and keeping warm, I will let her go when the temperatures get above freezing. I named her lucky.

  5. J Washington → in Morton Grovei Il
    Apr 05, 2014

    We had morning doves,  two, that use one of our hanging planter for there nest. In short they had a baby dove which died two days later, should I remove the dead baby? And will the doves try again? And use the planter again? The weather in Chicago has been very, very cold with strong winds and sometime 0 degrees We are very sad of the lost, of the morning doves.

  6. Marc Beaudette → in Vermont
    Nov 12, 2014

    “Excess doves”? What about excess humans? Should we shoot them? The reasons these hunters invent to justify their infantile urge to shoot something never ceases to depress me.

    I could never have enough doves, or any other bird—they’re all becoming too scarce. I have never seen a bobcat, either, and yet hunters are out there trapping and killing them for “sport.” Absolutely disgusting.

  7. Sheshe S → in Union, NJ
    Dec 15, 2014

    @ Marc Beaudette, I so agree with you! The Doves, Blue Jays, Woodpeckers, Starlings, Sparrows, Cardinals, etc., that visit my feeders brings joy to my heart. I don’t see them as Game birds at al. Including the squirrels that stop by to pick up sunflower seeds! And when I’m not up early enough to put out feed for all of them? I hear a single chirp, at my second floor bedroom window, coming from a Chickadee, that somehow figured out, that’s where I would be!

  8. Deanna → in Canada
    Mar 08, 2015

    This one early morning I awoke to the cooing of a single Morning Dove. It’s rather a sad sound. I got up and he was sitting on my balcony rail all alone. Hence, the sad song. But….it was very comforting to have him sitting there even though he soon flew off. I shared a few minutes with this interesting little bird.

  9. Karen → in United States
    Apr 10, 2015

    I am wondering why there is a mourning dove in the tree outside my window cooing during the night time.  I have tried searching and can’t find any educational site stating that this is a common habit.  I don’t hear or see this dove during the day… but every night I enjoy listening to it’s song.  I wonder if anyone else has heard mourning doves sing at night?

  10. Summer Devlin → in United States
    May 11, 2015

    Did I miss something?  My Mom asked me why she heard a mourning dove crying at 2 am in the morning.  I had never heard one cooing at night. We both thought that maybe it was because it is May and breeding season. Can you confirm?  Thank you.

  11. Lane → in Los Angeles, CA
    Jul 13, 2015

    Can someone advise me? Every year I have mourning doves that nest on my patio and raise babies. This year in May that built a nest, laid 2 eggs, after a couple of weeks they abandoned it. The eggs were left motherless for almost a week. It was in the 50’s at night. They dove came back and sat on the eggs like nothing happened. It’s July. She’s still
    sitting there on those 2 eggs, which I think are dead eggs. What do I do? Will she eventually give up?

  12. Renee → in Az
    Aug 15, 2015

    Michele Patenaude:  Have watched mourning doves for awhile, and noticed they build very small nests, where their tail feathers and heads extend beyond the nest, though their bodies fit perfectly.  Why do they build such small nests?

  13. Trish → in Minnesota
    Aug 28, 2015

    This July we had the pleasure of watching a happy couple of mourning doves raise their family. My son & I thought that the doves were fighting at first but they were just building their nest. They took turns sitting on the eggs for about 2 weeks until they hatched. Both fledgings successfully hatched without any problems. We really enjoyed watching the parents take turns caring for them. The male dove got “used” to me checking on his little ones every so often & actually coo’d at me while he watched over from the neighbors roof. At night I would check to make sure mama dove was safe with her babies & she didn’t seem to be bothered by me either. The fledgings grew so fast & before long they were taking “test flights” around the neighborhood. They always came back in the evenings & stayed with dad until it was time to learn how to hunt for food in the morning. They continued to come back to the nest for over 2 weeks. Mama & daddy sat together on rooftops keeping an eye on their children while they were there.  It’s now the end of August & I don’t see mom or babies anymore but daddy’s still hanging around enjoying our feeder. I imagine he will fly south for the winter soon too.  I truly miss watching these beautiful birds everyday & hope they come back next spring!

  14. Maria Ong → in New York
    Aug 29, 2015

    I live in Dutchess County, NY. Last night at 2:46 am (I looked at the clock because I heard the ping of a text coming in ), I heard 2 doves calling and answering each other. One was a softer coo, answered by a stronger coo, back and forth for quite a while. I couldn’t see the birds, it being so dark outside, but it came from way back in the garden where the vegetation is pretty wild. The sound had a feeling of longing to it, some sadness too but peaceful at the same time. I guess the cooing in the middle of the night is not so unusual since other people have experienced it as well.

  15. Adrienne Vincent → in Idaho
    Nov 17, 2015

    Well, I wish we could all get together.  You are all like me in your love of birds.  One doesn’t meet such sensitive types everywhere.  I just rescued a hornet this morning and put him in the bathroom downstairs with the window open a little.  This is mid-November and I think he should have passed away by now.  He seemed so all alone. 

    But, anyway, I just wanted to say I feel and agree with everything each of you has said.  Here in Idaho we get only a few Mourning Doves.  Everyone hunts here, many of the women.  It took me at least a year to adjust to the hunting culture here…..I still haven’t entirely but do my best to help the birds, quail and doves.  We used to have turkeys visiting but no more.  And I haven’t seen a pheasant in about 18 years on our property. 

    But, I did want to note, pardon the pun, that when I fill our feeders, even after not filling them all summer, it’s always a Chickadee that announces the happy event….and within a day or even less the other birds show up, ones we haven’t seen sometimes in months.  I’m beginning to wonder, after reading above about the Chickadee, if there is something special about them.  Are they somehow announcing to all birds that dinner is finally on?  How do they do that??

  16. Trina → in Michigan
    Jan 02, 2016

    Hi there,

    I found a mourning dove sitting on the snow covered ground this morning.  Still alive, but it did not flee, despite my leashed dog.  The bird seemed cold so I brought it in, thinking it would soon die.  To my surprise, it seems to be sleeping/recuperating.  I have no bird experience and am willing to help the bird through the winter if necessary. 

    I would like advice or at least a resource for care and feeding.  Thank you

  17. Susan → in Blue RIdge Mts. near Rosman, NC
    Feb 25, 2016

    25 Feb - 8, instead of 2 mourning doves at feeder today - so thanks for the educational material!

  18. Ellie Sandwell → in Sacramento
    Apr 28, 2016

    I think mourning doves are amazing creatures!

  19. Shaun Williams → in United States
    Jun 23, 2016

    I was so happy when I noticed two mourning doves on my 2nd floor fire escape in Brooklyn making a nest. They made a beautiful nest in my planter underneath the stairs that are covered by a plank. For 2 weeks I’ve watched them happy that they chose my fire escape. I have grown to love them and wake up and say hello and at night I say goodnight. So today I saw the Papa bird and said good afternoon and then like an hour later I look and they’re gone!! No sign of my bird or the eggs. I live on the 2nd floor no snakes, squirrels or other predators. I didn’t see them on the ground or any egg shells or feathers or anything. Just vanished. I’m so sad. Can anyone tell me if they moved their eggs or what could have happened?

  20. Bill Fox → in Fairview, Alberta, Canada
    Jul 05, 2016

    We see three doves at our acreage almost every day. They come to eat the seeds we put out!

  21. Frank → in New Hampshire
    Oct 11, 2016

    I have morning doves on my patio it’s October should I stop feeding them so that they can fly south?

  22. Robin Lauezzari → in Long Valley New Jersey USA
    Jan 19, 2017

    Hi, I have seen morning doves here on the feeders in my yard all winter. This morning there must have been over a dozen of them.  Don’t recall seeing them this time of year before.

  23. Heidi → in MA
    Feb 10, 2017

    Thank you for this helpful info about mourning doves. I have been surprised to find first one, then four, and today eight mourning doves hanging around our backyard feeders on Cape Cod. The morning after our first snowstorm this year, I startled one who had taken refuge in our front door alcove. A few days later, I saw four pecking on the ground under the feeders. Today (after yesterday’s blizzard) four more have appeared and they are huddling together along the top of the fence. They seem like a new winter time addition. Haven’t seen them in past winters. I enjoy their company and am happy to help them endure the winter until they can start setting up their breeding grounds.

  24. Ken → in Rhode Island
    Feb 20, 2017

    Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved the morning calls of mourning doves. Not quite sad, but very peaceful and calm. I love how the song is fleeting as well—a handful of minutes, perhaps, and that’s it for the day. But I’ve never in all my years heard them in winter… perhaps it’s a sign of our changing climate, who knows? But I’ve heard the mourning doves these past four mornings, right in the middle of the city of Providence. A sign of spring? Have they been here all winter but only warm enough now to sing? I’m fascinated…

  25. Diana Long → in Tucson Az
    Feb 28, 2017

    I observe doves all day long. They even nest in my courtyard. There are aspects of their behavior I’ve havn’t found anywhere. During the day when the male is on the nest and the female is feeding in my yard and there happens to be a single male, it seems to leave the female alone and the female also will show some aggression towards the male if it happens to be standing a little too close. Where as single females are constantly taunted by single males. Never understood how a male can get a female by annoying it severely. Is it like breaking a horse, you ware the female down to the submissive state?  Another thing is I’ve heard two different calls coming from the male. The typical cooing seems to happen during mating season. The other call, a sad short two phrase call I’ve heard when the parents loss their nest to a predator. Has anyone experienced this or know anything about their calls that could shed some light on this. It’s the little things I find interesting in birds. Thank you.

  26. Ma Meeks → in Maryland
    Mar 13, 2017

    Thank you for this informative article. My children and I are having a nice time observing the mourning doves that have begun visiting our home…now we have a clearer picture of their world. Cheers!

  27. Lisa A Hass → in Oregon
    Apr 03, 2017

    The same mourning dove couple that had two babies here on our porch last year just returned about a week or two ago. We had left the nest so they built it up a little more and hung around for a week and a half. Two days ago the wasps started up on my front porch and my husband sprayed a chemical on the stairs leading up to the porch to kill them since my grandsons were staying with us. The mama dove was sitting in her nest but no eggs yet. Later that night, they took off and we haven’t seen them since. I hope the spray did not scare them away. They were such a joy for us to watch. I just feel terrible. Do they ever go away for a few days and return? I remember them doing that last summer but it was in July or August. Thanks for your response.

  28. James → in Oceanside, CA
    Apr 28, 2017

    If anyone searching on the internet happens to come here wanting to know the answers to some of the questions people have asked, here are my thoughts.

    1. If the eggs have died from lack of incubation, will the parents eventually give up?
    Ans: Yes.

    2. Why are their nests so small and weak?
    Ans: I don’t know that anyone really knows, but doves are large birds, easy to spot, with few defenses, and building a nest can draw the attention of predators. I’ve seen recommendations to help them by putting wooden platforms or hardware cloth (steel mesh) and nesting material in trees or buildings. In my experience, though, climbing trees draws predator attention, and wooden platforms in particular are obvious and completely defenseless.

    3. What about doves nesting in hanging plants?
    Ans: This seems to happen more and more often. If your doves succeeded in this way, great! But if you’re looking to help doves nest, I wouldn’t go out and buy a hanging plant. I’ve compiled a small amount of statistics on this, and hanging plants too often result in nest failure, or worse, the death of a parent. Most hanging plants are placed within reach of humans, which means they are within reach of cats and other ground predators. Height is very important. If you want to help them, I’d start by getting your neighbors to keep their cats indoors.

    4. Why did my dove call at night?
    Ans: Hey, I don’t know everything!

    5. Do other birds pay attention to chickadees?
    Ans: Anyone with sense pays attention to chickadees. They’re small and scouty and smart and their calls tell other birds about predator motion and threat level. Everyone is safer with chickadees around.

    6. Why did they abandon the nest?
    Ans: Probably predators. In Dixie, snakes are big. Tree squirrels are another, for those of you squirrel feeders. Ground squirrels less so, I think. Cats are significant near civilization. When I see a mess, I suspect a cat because they like to play with their prey, leaving more feathers. Raptors and crows seem more surgical to me. Insects, especially fire ants, are also killers.

    7. Lisa in Oregon: Of course insecticides aren’t good for birds, and there are alternatives, although maybe not easily available. But the doves probably didn’t leave because of the spray. Why did they leave? First, it sounds like there were a lot of wasps nearby. Second, they didn’t have eggs yet, so there wasn’t much to lose. Third, from what I gather, someone was rummaging around just after dark, which is a scary time for nesting birds; a predawn raid would have been smarter. But don’t beat yourself (or your husband) up over it. No eggs were lost, and doves often try more than one site before settling on one. If you’re nice to them, there’s a chance they’ll nest there for their next clutch in May. But porches don’t tend to be very good sites to begin with. They’re too low (meow) and have little transit cover (caw). Oh, and if by any chance the nest is on your light fixture, disconnect it at the switch, and use LEDs. Incandescents are hot enough to ignite nesting material, and subsequently, your house.

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