Native Spotlight: Mourning Dove

Native Spotlight: Mourning Dove

Native Spotlight: Mourning Dove

February is bird month in honor of the Great Backyard Bird Count. Learn about common backyard birds here and then on February 17-20th 2017 join the rest of the country and count the birds in your own backyard. Its free to sign up and fun! Learn more at

When I was a child I decided that Mourning Doves were the stupidest birds in the world.

Every year when I would look for bird nests I would find their flat nests. It was as if the birds got tired of building and decided sides were not in style anymore. These flat nests would hold two white eggs, or if I was lucky, the ugliest baby birds ever.

Mourning dove mothers were easy to scare off the nest. A robin would hunker down on her eggs and fly off only at the last second, a cardinal would dive bomb you from the pines. A dove would fly off even if you looked in her direction from across the yard. That was how I found the nests.

Once I found a Mourning dove nest I was looking for baby doves. You see, flat nests don’t contain babies very well. So every few days, especially after a thunderstorm, I would find some ugly baby birds on the ground. I would scoop them up and plop them back in the nest until the next thunderstorm when we would do it again.

I have more respect for the Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) now than as a child as I can now see their virtue. They go by many names, Carolina turtle dove, Rain dove or the Carolina pigeon. All these names describe the same bird, with a plump body and long pointed tail. The head is small when compared to the body. Overall these doves are light grayish brown with black spots and white on the tail tip.

When flying their silhouette resembles a hawk. It is this streamlined shape that allows them to make a quick getaway. They have been clocked at 55 mph on wing and tend to prefer straight line flights. Scare one up and you will hear a whistle, this is their wings beating against the wind.

Mourning doves have been clocked at 55 mph on wing and tend to prefer straight line flights.

It is their call that I found their virtue. The male Mourning dove makes a soft coo that one can only describe as peaceful. While some other bird’s territorial songs can be described as harsh, the dove’s song sets you at ease.

Although these birds can be a symbol of peace, they don’t have the easiest life. These beautiful birds have a high mortality rate.


Mourning Dove Native Range, image from Wikimedia Commens

The North American Bird Survey estimates there are 120 million Mourning doves. During their short lives they have to contend with many dangers. Of these 120 million, about 20 million are shot by hunters each year. They also are susceptible to a protozoan called trichomoniasis found near bird feeders. (Learn more about preventing this illness here).  They are also a favorite food of many predators: hawks, skunks, foxes, coyotes and the domestic cat.

While the Mourning dove has many dangers, they offset their losses by having lots of babies. Pairs mate for life and both parents help with incubation and brooding of the chicks, called squabs.

As mating season approaches the male begins to mark his territory. He does this by visiting his favorite ‘cooing perches’ that he defends. From these perches he sings and tells other doves to stay away.

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Mourning doves look for dense trees and shrubs, but they do nest on the ground in the western states. Dove also like to use gutters and house eaves as nesting sites. Once the site is found the female weaves a flimsy nest from the gathered by the male. She lays two white eggs on this flat nest and they sit for 14 days before hatching.

Upon hatching the squabs look unlike any other baby bird, with eyes seemingly too large for their heads and an odd bumpy beak. These babies are fed ‘pigeon milk’ or ‘crop milk’ by both parents. This ‘milk’ is high in fat and protein made in the parent’s crop.  By day four they are weaned from milk and begin to eat seeds. They grow fast, able to fly at 12 days and leaving the nest within two weeks.

Once the first batch of the year has fledged the parents start over, often using the same nest multiple times. They will have 1 to 6 broods of babies a year with only half surviving to their first winter.

Mourning Dove Quick Facts

  • Fast flying bird related to the Passenger Pigeon
  • Cannot perch or scratch for food due to weak feet
  • Native to the entire United States, into Canada and Mexico
  • Value: food for many larger predators, contributes to seed dispersal, a symbol of peace

Mourning doves can be found everywhere in the United States and into Mexico. They don’t like the deep woods. They summer as far north as Canada. Northern birds overwinter in Mexico while birds of the central United States tend not to migrate. Young birds and females tend to make the trip south. If you live in the north and have winter doves, they are most likely males.

Mourning doves love patches of bare dirt as their weak feet do not allow them to scratch for food like many other songbirds. They also cannot perch like other birds due to their feet. They sit on flat surfaces or large branches.

Many who feed birds consider doves a nuisance. I think of them as the grounds cleaning crew. Mourning doves are non-aggressive at the feeder and do not scare off other species. They also keep the area under the feeders seed free.

Mourning doves are non-aggressive at the feeder and do not scare off other species. Click To Tweet

When not at backyard feeders, doves eat 300 different types of food, especially hard coated seeds of native perennials and grasses. Seed is 99% of their diet. They also will eat some small fruits and snails. Each bird requires 71 calories a day. In human terms, they eat less than a medium apple a day. They also require grit, small stones and sand to break up the hard coverings on seed. The grit is stored in their crop, a muscular organ that grinds food before sending it to the stomach.

Doves are ground foragers, they find their food by searching at the groundcover level. This makes them prone to lead poisoning from discarded lead shot (some doves have eaten up to 43). Ground foraging also exposes them to hunting cats.

Dove are also special in the way they drink. They drink by suction, not by raising their heads, so they must dip their whole beak into the water.

The short lifespan of this bird tells its importance to a backyard habitat. Mourning doves are important food sources for predators. Their eggs and squabs are eaten by snakes, raptors, raccoons and skunks. Adult birds are food for birds of prey, foxes, coyotes and bobcats. Without these small birds as a food source, our larger animals would have a tough time surviving.

Because they are found almost everywhere, its easy to attract these peaceful birds to your backyard habitat. For a quick attractant, scatter seeds on the ground. Any wild bird mix will work but they do like millet and black oil sunflower seeds best. It also helps to provide sand or gravel for grit. This can be in a small container or by using gravel for pathways.

They prefer dense plantings of shrubs and evergreens near clearings. This preference makes Mourning doves perfect for a backyard habitat as the suburbs are setup in just this manner.  To ensure their safety, keep your pet cat inside, and encourage your neighbors to do the same.

To ensure the safety of ground feeding birds, keep your pet cat inside, and encourage your neighbors to do the same.

Need some ideas for plants to attract Mourning doves? Just look below.

Native Food Sources for Mourning Doves

Eastern States Sunflower, Coastal Panicgrass, Indian Grass, Fall Panicgrass, Croton, Aster spp., Staghorn Sumac, Pokeweed, Ragweed, Hackberry, Prickly Ash, Sweetgum
Midwest Sunflower, Switchgrass, Indian Grass, Beaked Panicgrass, Fall Panicgrass, Croton, Aster spp., Staghorn Sumac, Pokeweed, Ragweed, Hackberry, Prickly Ash, Sweetgum
Western States Sunflower, Switchgrass, Indian Grass, Aster spp., Green Needlegrass, Fragrant Sumac, Ragweed, Pine spp.
Pacific Northwest Sunflower, Fall Panicgrass, Croton, Aster spp., Green Needlegrass, Nodding Needlegrass, Fragrant Sumac, Ragweed, Pine spp.
Southwest Sunflower, Switchgrass, Texas Speargrass, Mexican Feathergrass, Indian Grass, Beaked Panicgrass, Croton, Aster spp., Fragrant Sumac, Pokeberry, Ragweed, Hackberry

Now that you know more about this dove, do you hope to hear some cooing this spring? Tell me how you plan on helping the Mourning dove in the comments.


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