Mourning Dove | Life Histories of North American Birds | A.C. Bent
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Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds
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Mourning Dove
Zenaida macroura [Eastern Mourning Dove]

Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1932: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 162: 402-416]

The mourning dove must have been one of the first birds that attracted the attention of the early settlers when this country was new and wild. They must have recognized the bird as not far removed from some of the Old-World species of pigeons, and its notes must have recalled to them their old home. The writers of these times speak of the bird familiarly, especially as a game bird that relieved the hardships of pioneer life.

At the present time, in the northern states, protected as a song bird, it adds a quiet dignity to our avifauna, while in the southern states it is a common, tame, almost a dooryard bird and a gleaner of fields, except when, during hunting season, it is shot for food and sport. In the West it is an inhabitant both of the plains and the mountains, ranging commonly to 7,000 feet altitude.

And yet, well known and widely distributed as this bird is, it is not a conspicuous bird of the country at all. It is quiet in voice, neutral in color, and so unobtrusive in deportment that it seems little more than a part of the background; a quiet, pastoral bird, reminding us of the man in "The Bab Ballads"--"no characteristic trait had he of any distinctive kind"--or of sweet, lovable, but wholly negative Hero in "Much Ado about Nothing."

Spring.--In the parts of the country where the mourning dove spends the winter, one of the early signs of spring is when the winter flocks begin to break up and the doves separate into mated pairs. Just as the mockingbird in the southern states bursts suddenly into song and separates winter from spring, so the male mourning dove, who has been silent through the winter, at the first hint of spring begins to coo.

As the breeding season approaches, the birds become gradually tamer and, as Wilson (1832) says, they "are often seen in the farmer's yard before the door, the stable, barn, and other outhouses, in search of food, seeming little inferior in familiarity, at such times, to the domestic pigeon"--a contrast to the wild game bird of the autumn.

Courtship.--Very little has been published on the courting actions of the mourning dove, and apparently no detailed study has been made of them. Indeed, many observers who know the bird well state that they have seen no courting at all.

Barrows (1912), who gives a careful description of a nuptial flight, points out that "although familiar with the mourning dove's habits in New England, western New York, and elsewhere, we have never seen this peculiar flight except in Michigan." He says:

An individual leaves its perch on a tree, and, with vigorous and sometimes noisy flapping (the wings seeming to strike each other above the back), rises obliquely to a height of a hundred feet or more, and then, on widely extended and motionless wings, glides back earthward in one or more sweeping curves. Usually the wings, during the gliding flight, are carried somewhat below the plane of the body, in the manner of a soaring yellowlegs or sandpiper, and sometimes the bird makes a complete circle or spiral before again flapping its wings, which it does just before alighting. . . . This peculiar evolution is commonly repeated several times at intervals of two or three minutes, and appears to be a display flight for the benefit of its mate, the assumption being that only the male dove soars.

Goss (1891) speaks of the courtship thus:

During the pairing season the male often circles and sails above his mate, with tail expanded, and upon the ground struts about with nodding head, and feathers spread in a graceful manner.

Craig (1911), speaking of the "nest-calling attitude," calls attention to the display of the ornamented tail. He says:

The male [sits] with his body tilted forward, tail pointing up at a high angle, the head so low that bill and crop may rest on the floor, or if the bird be in the nest, the head is down in the hollow. Both the voice and the attitude of the male serve to attract the female, for in all pigeons the nest-call is accompanied by a gentle flipping of the wings, ogling eyes, and seductive turning of the head. In addition to these general columbine gestures, Zenaidura has a special bit of display of his own, for during the first note of the nest-call he spreads his tail just enough to show conspicuously the white marks on the outer tail feathers; soon as this first note is past, the tail closes and the white marks disappear, to flash out again only with the next repetition of the nest-call, before which there is always a considerable interval.

Forbush (1927) says that "in courtship the male mourning dove sometimes strikes his feet hard on his perch one after another."

James G. Suthard, speaking of the bird in Kentucky, says in his notes:

During the nesting season, the female acts very much like the tame pigeon. The male prances around with his neck feathers all ruffed up, cooing and billing with the female. I have noticed that he sometimes picks up pieces of grass in his courtship antics. The intrusion of another male on one of these scenes results in a fight whereupon the female usually disappears.

Nesting.--The mourning dove uses a very wide choice in selecting a site for its nest. Perhaps the site most nearly typical is not far from the trunk on a horizontal branch of an evergreen tree--a pine or cedar--affording a firm foundation for the flimsy nest. The bird frequently nests on the ground, however, even on a clump of grass, sometimes on the stump of a tree, and there are several recorded instances where the nest has been found placed on a wooden ledge attached to an inhabited building. Indeed, Gardner (1927) says that the birds in Kansas "preferred the vicinity of buildings to the wooded and secluded canyons of the back country by a ratio of at least ten to one."

The chief requisite, apparently, is a level support that will give stability to the nest, and to acquire this security the dove often makes use of the experience of another species of bird and builds its own nest on a nest (for example, that of a robin, brown thrasher, or mockingbird) that has weathered the previous winter.

Bendire (1892) cites an extreme instance of this habit. Quoting J. L. Davidson from Forest and Stream, he says:

I found a black-billed cuckoo and a mourning dove sitting together on a robin's nest. The cuckoo was the first to leave the nest. On securing the nest I found it contained two eggs of the cuckoo, two of the mourning dove, and one robin's egg. The robin had not quite finished the nest when the cuckoo took possession of it and filled it nearly full of rootlets, but the robin got in and laid one egg.

As a rule a pair of mourning doves, in contrast to the habit of the passenger pigeon, nests well removed from the nests of other doves, but Charles R. Stockard (1905) reports in Mississippi an interesting exception to this rule. "Doves," he says, "often nested in small colonies. In a clump of about fifteen young pine trees I once found nine nests, and in an Osage orange hedge about one-half mile long twelve nests were located. But most doves nest singly, or with the nests too far apart to suggest any gregarious nesting habit."

Most commonly the nest is made of sticks and is lined with finer twigs. A. D. DuBois, however, in his notes records the use of grass, weed stalks, roots, and a lining of leaves and mentions one nest made "almost entirely of rootlets and stems lined with finer rootlets (a shallow affair)."

The nest, oftenest, perhaps, just a platform of sticks, but firm enough to withstand usage for 30 days, is made apparently entirely by the female bird. Frank F. Gander in his notes states this to be a fact in the case he describes, and he demonstrates the aid that the male bird gives to his mate. He says:

The bringing of material was accomplished by the male, who flew to the ground and searched about until a suitable stick was found. In selecting material the male was very careful and tested the sticks by shaking them vigorously. Perhaps this was as much to test his hold upon the stick as to test the stick itself, as many times sticks were shaken from his beak. So much time was consumed in this choosing of a twig that his trips to the nest averaged about one every two minutes. He always approached the nest by the same route, alighting upon a protruding branch, hopping from this to another, and walking along the latter to the nest. Reaching the nest, he turned the material over to the female, who reached up her beak to receive it. Sticks were frequently dropped during this exchange. The female placed the sticks under and about her to construct the nest.

Building did not continue uninterruptedly, as the female frequently left the nest when the male would pursue her and peck at her until she returned. Work for the day was stopped at about 11 a.m. The nest building was taken up again on the following morning and carried on until about 10 a.m.

Continuing, he shows the division of labor during the incubation period of 15 days:

The male took up his duties at the nest at about 10 in the morning and was relieved again at about 3 in the afternoon. The male often left the eggs unguarded for a few minutes about noon while he flew to a nearby watering place to drink.

Margaret M. Nice (1922), referring to the building of the nest, corroborates the observation quoted above. She says:

Nest building as a rule takes place in the early morning. The male mourning dove gathers the materials and carries them to his mate who arranges them. He takes one piece at a time, and if he happens to drop it, he does not stop but continues his journey to the tree and then starts over again.

Mrs. Nice's articles form an exhaustive study of the nesting habits of the mourning dove and contain many statistical data of the utmost interest. Readers are referred to these valuable articles for detailed information.

That the division of labor, with a well-ordered time for relieving each other on the nest, continues through the incubation period and during the 15 days that the young spend in the nest, is shown by the following extracts. Wallace Craig (1911) says:

Male and female take regular daily turns in sitting on the eggs or young: the female sits from evening till morning, the male from morning till evening, the exchange taking place usually about 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. This arrangement is very regular if there is nothing to disturb the birds; but if interloping birds come about, this arouses the anger of the male and he leaves the nest in order to attack them.

Mrs. Nice's (1923) experience corroborates Doctor Craig's observation. She says:

The male incubates and broods during the day while the female does the same during the night, early morning, and late afternoon; and both parents regurgitate "pigeon milk" for the young. Two striking differences between the nest behavior of mourning doves and most passerine birds is the almost constant brooding of the young till near the end of the nest life and the lack of any sanitary care of the nest.

And further (1922):

As a rule one or the other parent is continuously on the nest from the time the first egg is laid until the young are fairly well grown.

I have approached the nest of a mourning dove and come almost within arm's reach of the bird before it flew quietly away, but there is plenty of evidence that this behavior is not invariable for frequently the bird is reported to flop from the nest and resort to the ruse of the broken wing.

The breeding season is very long; in the middle states it lasts from May to August and rarely to early September. The birds commonly rear two broods in a season, and Miss A. R. Sherman believes that they probably rear three sometimes. In her notes Miss Sherman says in substance:

The doves are so numerous and so secretive in their ways that it is not possible to say whether a pair of birds, which has nested in May or June, breed again late in June or July. When a nest is used twice in the same season, however, the assumption is that a pair of birds is using their own nest a second time.

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: On April 19, 1907, while hunting for hawks' nests in a grove of tall pines, I rapped on a tree containing a likely looking old nest and was surprised to see a mourning dove fly from it. I climbed to it, more than 40 feet up in a white pine, and found it to be an old hawk's nest that had since been used by squirrels, as it was full of pine needles and soft rubbish, such as squirrels use. It was quite a large nest, measuring 25 by 15 inches. The doves had scraped out a hollow in the pine needles and laid one egg. I visited the nest again on April 28, when the dove flew off, as before, and the nest held two eggs. I photographed the nest and collected the eggs. As a pair of great-horned owls and a pair of Cooper's hawks were nesting in these woods, the doves stood a poor chance of raising a brood, or even escaping with their own lives.

Eggs.--The mourning dove lays almost always two eggs, but there are a few records of three, or even four. In shape they vary from elliptical oval, the commonest shape, to elliptical ovate or ovate. The shell is smooth with very little gloss. The color is pure white. The measurements of 47 eggs average 28.4 by 21.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 31 by 22, 29.5 by 23, 26 by 20.5, and 28.5 by 20 millimeters.]

Young.--The young of the mourning dove are helpless when hatched, and during the two weeks they remain in the nest they require constant care from their parents. They are fed by regurgitation during most of their nest life, but solid food, such as insects and seeds, is gradually substituted, and at the time of leaving the nest it largely replaces the "pigeon milk." The contents of the crop of a young bird, examined at the end of its nest life, consisted almost entirely of seeds (principally grass seeds) and less than 2 percent "pigeon milk." ***

Gabrielson (1922), who studied the nest life from a blind, clearly describes the process of regurgitation thus:

At 7:30 a.m. a squab backed toward the blind and getting from beneath the parent raised its head and mutely begged for food. The adult (presumably the female) responded immediately by opening her beak and allowing the nestling to thrust its beak into one corner of her mouth. She then shut her beak on that of the nestling and after remaining motionless for a short time began a slow pumping motion of the head. The muscles of her throat could be seen to twitch violently at intervals, continuing about a minute, when the nestling withdrew its beak. The other nestling then inserted its beak and the process was repeated, 15 seconds elapsing before its beak was removed. With intervals of 5 to 10 seconds (watch in hand) four such feedings, two to each nestling, occurred. The nestling not being fed was continually trying to insert its beak in that of the parent and at the fifth feeding both succeeded in accomplishing this at the same time. The nestlings' beaks were inserted from opposite sides of the parent's mouth and remained in place during the feeding operation although I could not say whether or not both received food. While being fed the nestlings frequently jerked the head from side to side and also followed the motion of the parent's beak by raising and lowering themselves by the use of the legs. They were not more than five days old but had better use of their muscles than the young of passerine birds at from eight to ten days of age. The entire process described above occupied about six minutes, after which the nestlings crawled back beneath the parent.

Miss A. R. Sherman, who has had ample opportunity to study the mourning dove and a wide experience as a field observer, gives in her notes the period of incubation definitely as 15 days.

Plumages.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The young squab is fat and unattractive, scantily covered with short, white down, through which the yellowish skin shows. The stiff quills of the juvenal plumage soon appear, giving the young bird an ugly, spiny appearance. The juvenal plumage is well developed before the young birds leave the well-filled nest. In this plumage the upper parts are "buffy brown" to "snuff brown," with faint, whitish edgings on the back and wing coverts; the scapulars and some of the inner wing coverts have large black patches; the underparts are from "pinkish cinnamon" to "light vinaceous-cinnamon," paler on the belly and grayer on the flanks. A postjuvenal molt of the contour plumage and tail, during fall, produces a first winter plumage, which is like the adult but somewhat duller. Adults have a complete molt in fall.]

Food.--Adult mourning doves are essentially seedeaters. Wheat and buckwheat are said to be their favorite grains, but they consume such enormous numbers of weed seeds that they prove to be a highly beneficial species, as the following quotation from Dutcher (1903) shows:

The examination of the contents of 237 stomachs of the dove shows over 99 percent of its food consists wholly of vegetable matter in the shape of seeds, less than 1 percent being animal food. Wheat, oats, rye, corn, barley, and buckwheat were found in 150 of the stomachs, and constituted 32 percent of the total food. However, three-fourths of this amount was waste grain picked up in the fields after the harvesting was over. Of the various grains eaten, wheat is the favorite, and it is almost the only one taken when it is in good condition, and most of this was eaten in the months of July and August. Corn, the second in amount, was all old damaged grain taken from the fields after the harvest, or from roads or stock yards in summer. The principal and almost constant diet, however, is the seeds of weeds. These are eaten at all seasons of the year. In one stomach we found 7,500 seeds of the yellow wood-sorrel (Oxalis stricta), in another, 6,400 seeds of barn grass or fox tail (Chaetocioa).

Wayne (1910) records this interesting observation on the dove's feeding habits:

Although this species is supposed to feed upon the ground, this is by no means always the case as the birds resort to the pine woods for weeks at a time to feed upon the seeds of these trees, which they obtain by walking out on the limbs and extracting them from the cones. The flesh at this time is very strongly impregnated with a piney flavor.

Behavior.--Although mourning doves spend a large part of the year in flocks, they have a strong tendency in spring to separate into pairs and scatter over the country to nest. Doubtless they owe their present status, perhaps even their existence, to this habit, for, had they bred in colonies as the passenger pigeon did, the doves would have been subjected at their nests to the wholesale slaughter that exterminated the pigeon.

As we watch a number of doves feeding in a stubble field we soon see that there is no very strong tie binding together the members of the company--no such bond as holds together a flock of sandpipers and suppresses individual action. The doves are spread out over the ground, each walking off by itself and feeding more or less alone, like grazing cattle. When we walk toward them they start into the air, but not all together; a few, very often only two, fly away; then, after a moment, a few more take flight and go off, very likely in another direction. The flock when alarmed, instead of moving off as a unit breaks up, and the birds retreat individually or in pairs. Thus even when the doves are assembled in numbers there is a tendency to segregate into pairs--a characteristic of the breeding season.

The birds leave the ground very quickly, gaining speed rapidly with strong, sweeping wing beats and fly with whistling wings, suggesting the whistling flight of the golden-eye.

In eastern Massachusetts, where since 1910 the birds have become well established, they frequent the dry, sandy, sparsely wooded hillsides characteristic of this glaciated country, and retire to nest in the nearby pine woods, where they seem much at home, walking easily among the branches.

Doves often visit gravelly roads and are sometimes seen on the sea beaches. On the dry plains of western Texas (Merriam, 1888) they were found 3 to 5 miles from the nearest water, and Merriam (1890) describes thus the coming of the doves at dusk to drink:

Common from the Desert of the Little Colorado to the upper limit of the pine belt. Every evening they assemble at the springs and water holes, coming in greatest numbers just at dark, particularly about the borders of the Desert where water is very scarce. On the evening of August 20 we camped for the night at a small spring about 5 miles west of Grand Falls. At dusk hundreds of doves came to drink, and continued coming until it was so dark that they could not be seen.

Voice.--The mourning dove takes its name from its common note, a low-toned, moaning coo. This is one of the bird notes that, while fairly loud and perfectly distinct, does not readily attract the attention of one who is not familiar with it. In this respect it resembles the diurnal hooting of the screech owl; both of these notes in some strange way are disregarded by the ear until it is trained to detect them. We then recognize them both as familiar sounds of the countryside.

A. A. Saunders in his notes describes a typical song thus:

The sound is well imitated by a low-pitched whistle, but some birds strike notes lower than I can whistle. The song consists of four notes. The first is usually twice as long in time as the others, and slurred first upward, and then downward. The other three notes are either all on one pitch or slightly slurred downward. Lengths of songs vary from 3 to 4 3/5 seconds. Usually one bird sings a single song and repeats it over and over in just the same manner; but I once recorded five different songs from a single bird.

Craig (1911) has reported the results of an exhaustive study of the bird in confinement. The following are the outstanding features of his article. He describes the song, which he terms the "perch coo" essentially as Saunders does, and adds:

When delivering his song, the mourning dove does not perform any dance or gesture, as some birds do. He invariably stands still when cooing; even when he coos in the midst of pursuing the female he stops in the chase, stands immovable until the coo is completed, and then runs on. His attitude is, to be sure, very definite, the neck somewhat arched and the whole body rigid; but the impression it gives one is, not that the bird is striking an attitude, but that he is simply holding every muscle tense in the effort of a difficult performance.

The female also utters the perch-coo, though less often than the male, and in a thin, weak voice and staccato tones, which, as compared with the male's song, form so ludicrous a caricature that on first hearing it I burst out laughing.

To this commonly heard note he adds two others; the nest call, of which he says: "This call is much shorter than the song, and much fainter, so that the field observer may fail ever to hear it. Its typical form is of three notes, a low, a high, and a low, thus somewhat resembling the first bar of the song, but differing in that the three notes do not glide into one another, there being a clear break from each note to the next"; and the copulation note, which "is given by both the male and female, immediately after coition; in the mourning dove it is a faint growling note, repeated two to four times with rests between. So far as I have seen, the mourning doves, throughout the utterance of these sounds, keep the bill wide open."

Field marks.--The mourning dove in the field appears as a long, slim, gray-brown bird with small, nodding head, whistling wings, and long, pointed tail. The sparrow hawk resembles the dove very closely in flight, but it has strong, heavy shoulders, a larger head, and squarely tipped tail. The little ground dove of the southern states is instantly distinguished from the mourning dove by its stumpy tail and the flash of bright color under the wing.

Enemies.--Harold C. Bryant (1926) speaks thus of the dove's enemies:

Apart from man, the dove has other enemies. The duck hawk is swift enough to overtake the dove, and this bird is probably the dove's most dreaded avian foe. Other predatory species take a toll during the nesting season. Its rapid flight frequently brings the dove in violent contact with telephone wires, and many birds die annually from this cause. Rodent-poisoning operations have in recent years been responsible for the death of many doves; for, unlike the quail, the mourning dove and the band-tailed pigeon are both susceptible to strychnine.

C. S. Thompson (1901) notes a very long tapeworm wound round and round the intestines of an emaciated bird, and Lloyd (1887), writing of the bird in western Texas, speaks of owls as enemies in winter, "when they frequently change their roosting place, as a friend (Mr. Loomis) suggests, in consequence of being disturbed by the numerous owls."

The cowbird not infrequently selects the dove as a host for its young.

Game.--Bryant (1926) shows why, aside from its desirability as a table delicacy, the dove is a popular game bird, affording a rapidly moving target that demands the utmost skill on the part of the hunter. He says:

Unless favorably located near a watering place, one bird in three or four shots makes a good average for all but the most experienced hunter. The small size and great speed make the bird a difficult target. The variety of shots possible is almost endless. Quartering and side shots are most difficult because of the speed of the birds in flight. Then come shots at towering or descending birds, often dependent on whether they are coming or going. The easier straight-away shots are to be expected less often in dove shooting than in quail shooting.

Thus it will be seen that dove hunting gives the best of practice to the lover of wing shooting. No finer test of skill is afforded unless it be in snipe shooting.

Fall and Winter.--In regions where mourning doves are common, they begin to resume their gregarious habits soon after the breeding season is over.

J. A. Spurrell (1917), speaking of the bird in Iowa, says:

From the latter part of July until the doves depart on their fall migration in late October they select common roosting places, one of which happens to be our orchard. Toward sunset the doves visit some place to drink and then fly to the roosting place from all directions until between five and six hundred are roosting there. They depart again just as it becomes light in the morning, spending the day far away in pastures and grain fields. During the month of August they may be commonly found about salt troughs for cattle, seeming to eat the salt.

Stockard (1905) speaks thus of the dove's habit of roosting in Mississippi, where they remain during the winter:

Late in summer they begin roosting in company, and many hundreds come about sunset to their chosen place for the night. During this season they are shot in large numbers while flying to the hedge or small wood that has been selected as a roosting place.

Throughout the winter in the southern states we see the doves, in companies of a dozen or more, feeding quietly in the stubble and pea fields, from which, as we approach, they flush rather wildly and, scattering, retreat in twos and threes beyond the surrounding pine trees.

Mourning Dove* Zenaida macroura [Eastern Mourning Dove]

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1932. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 162: 402-416.United States Government Printing Office