Mourning Dove

Zenaida macroura

Mourning Dove
Dan Pancamo/Flickr/Used With Permission

Abundant and familiar, the mourning dove is one of the most common backyard birds in the United States. While these birds are a protected native species, many states allow regulated harvesting of mourning doves as game birds.

Common Name: Mourning Dove, Dove, MoDo
Scientific Name: Zenaida macroura
Scientific Family: Columbidae

Appearance and Identification

These doves are easily identified by their long, tapered tails, soft gray plumage, and spots on the wings. Birders should know more of their distinct traits, however, to be confident in telling mourning doves apart from other doves that look similar.

  • Bill: Black, relatively thin, upper mandible curves slightly down at tip, often prominent gape
  • Size: 12 inches long with 18-inch wingspan, plump body, round head, long tapered tail
  • Colors: Black, beige, gray, pink, white, iridescent
  • Markings: Genders are similar with overall beige-gray plumage slightly darker on the wings and tail with paler whitish-gray undertail coverts. A gray or faint pink wash can be seen on the head, neck, and chest in good light, and mature birds have a black cheek spot that may be difficult to see depending on posture and angle. Round black spots are prominent on the wings. The tail is very long and pointed, edged with white on the outer feathers. Males have an iridescent neck patch and both genders have a pale blue-gray eye ring. Legs and feet are red.
    Juveniles look similar to adults but often have a scaly appearance because their feathers have thin buff or whitish edges. Young birds also show a paler face and their feet and legs are not as colorful.

Foods, Diet, and Foraging

Like all doves, mourning doves are primarily granivorous and eat mostly seeds and grain. They will, however, eat more insects and mollusks, including snails, during the breeding season when growing chicks need greater amounts of protein. They will frequently feed on the ground under feeders, cleaning up whatever seeds have been spilled by other visitors.

Habitat and Migration

Mourning doves are common birds in the United States and southern Canada throughout the year, though very northern populations may migrate as far as the Yucatan Peninsula or Central America. If food is abundant, these birds may not migrate. Preferred habitats are open forest or farmland, but mourning doves are easily adaptable to suburban areas and parks, and are especially fond of open gravel or dirt areas for sunning and roosting.

Vocalizations

The mourning dove gets its name from its low, mournful “ooo-Ahhh crooo-ooo-ooo” call, though other calls include a low, rapid coo when in distress and a rapid, high wing whistle when the birds take flight. These birds are often mistakenly called "morning doves" but will call throughout the day, not just in the morning hours.

Behavior

Male mourning doves can be very aggressive when defending their territory and will puff up their necks and hop in pursuit of other birds on the ground. This behavior is especially common during the breeding season when males are competing for the attention of females, and a male may pursue his chosen female just as aggressively as he might chase a rival. Around humans, these birds are often wary and may spook easily, which can lead to inadvertent window collisions. They frequently congregate in medium to large flocks, particularly after the nesting season when family groups may combine. Mourning doves also enjoy sunning and may stretch out one or both wings or fan their tails to soak up the sun's rays.

Reproduction

Mourning doves are monogamous birds that may mate for life. Their nests are relatively clumsy, bulky piles of twigs or small sticks and grasses, built by the female partner. Nests may be positioned 5-50 feet above the ground, and are occasionally placed in odd locations, such as in hanging flowerpots or on sheltered windowsills.

One dove pair will produce from 2-6 broods per year depending on the climate and available food sources, though each brood only contains two plain white eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for 14 days, and both feed the altricial chicks regurgitated crop milk and seeds for 12-14 days until the young birds are ready to leave the nest.

Attracting Mourning Doves

These pigeon-like birds readily visit feeders where seeds such as millet, cracked corn, and milo are available. They prefer platform or ground feeders, as well as ground bird baths. Many birders may consider mourning doves to be nuisance birds because of their voracious appetites and the larger flocks they form in late summer and fall. To discourage these birds, avoid platform and ground feeders and offer foods such as nyjer seed and suet instead, or take other steps commonly used to discourage pigeons.

Conservation

Because these doves are not considered threatened or endangered, and because they are highly adaptable, there is no concern over their conservation. They can be threatened by outdoor pets, particularly cats, however, and are often victims of window collisions. Those threats should be addressed, not just to protect mourning doves, but for the conservation of all birds.

Similar Birds

  • Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
  • Zenaida Dove (Zenaida aurita)
  • White-Winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)
  • Common Ground-Dove (Columbina passerine)
  • Inca Dove (Columbina inca)
  • Band-Tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata)