To hear the call of the mourning dove
ooAAH-cooo-coo-coo, one might guess that this
plaintive song is from a bird in despair. That is
what early naturalists believed when they heard this “mournful” song. We
now know that this anthropomorphic view is incorrect. These birds do not
mourn for lost ones—their beautiful songs are for
breeding and territorial displays.
Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) are one
of several species in the Pigeon Family (Columbidae) that reside
in the American Southwest. The genus name honors
Princess Zénaïde Charlotte Julie Bonaparte, wife and
first cousin of the zoologist Charles Lucien
Bonaparte. Macroura means, “long-tailed” and refers,
of course, to the dove’s long tail. The White-winged
dove (Zenaida asiatica) is a close relative that also
occurs in the Southwest, but the bird’s white wing
patches contrast with darker wing feathers, and easily
define this species. Plus its song hhhHEPP-poo-poooo resembles
the “who cooks for you” call of the barred
owl rather than the song of the mourning dove.
Mourning doves are medium-sized passerines that
average one foot in length and have an 18-inch
wingspan. The tail accounts for about a third of the
bird’s length; the long pointed tail feathers are
grayish with a thin black border and a white edge.
The upper sides are more uniformly gray than the
undersides and the wings have black spots on their
outer portion. On the upper breast and neck there is
a shiny pinkish spot, while the feet and legs are a
reddish color. On the bird’s small head, there is a
bluish orbital ring; one folktale from the Southwest
suggests that the birds paint their faces to attract a
During lift-off, the wings produce a distinctive
whistling sound and the birds flap vigorously to
become airborne. In flight, they alternate between
flapping and gliding and their rapid wingbeats and
long tail enable them to navigate in tight places.
But for all their speed and agility, mourning doves
still fall prey to hawks and falcons and hunters in
season. They are considered a game bird in many
The range of the mourning dove spans the continental
United States, extending into portions of Canada and
Mexico, and south to Panama. Though mourning doves
may be present throughout the year, migrants move out
of the northern portion of the range and parts of the
southern range, as well.
Well adapted to various habitats, mourning doves occur
in agricultural lands, canyons, open woodlands and
grasslands. Within these habitats, mourning doves
build a nest of twigs that is unlike the tightly woven
nests of warblers or vireos. One might describe these
mourning dove platform nests as “crude” or “flimsy” or “marginal.” Sometimes
the eggs are visible just by looking through the nest. However, the birds
may use these nests (or build atop an old robin or jay nest)
to rear one or two or up to six broods in one season.
Because of this reproductive rate, across the
continental U. S., breeding mourning doves may be
found throughout the year.
During courtship, the male flies upward to about 100
feet, then descends to the ground in large sweeping
circles. He struts and bows to the female as he walks
past her. The unusual part of their breeding cycle is
that the birds feed outside of the nesting territory,
which the male vigorously defends.
The nests are built by the female with twigs delivered
by the male, and are constructed in trees, beneath
shrubs or on the ground. The female lays two
(sometimes three) white eggs in the nest and the pair
alternates in incubating them. The young hatch in
about two weeks and are feed an unusual diet of “pigeon milk.”
Unlike other songbirds that raise their young on
insects or seeds, mourning doves produce the protein
and fat-rich liquid, or pigeon milk, from the lining
of their crop. The crop is a thin-walled, saclike
chamber at the bottom of the throat. Both parents
produce and regurgitate this “crop milk” into the
hungry nestlings’ mouths. Young fledge at about 14
days and within a week are on their own. The female
will begin to incubate her next clutch even before the
first brood has fledged.
Seeds and waste grains comprise the majority of the
fledglings’ and adults’ diet; however, some insects
are also taken. Doves also ingest grit to help grind
up the seeds.
Myth and Religion
The mourning dove holds a special place in mythology
and folklore. Noah released a dove from his ark and
when the bird returned with an olive branch, he knew land
was near. The dove also symbolizes the Holy Spirit in
Christianity and may be shown hovering over the
Virgin Mary at the Annunciation.
In Judaism, the dove was an alternate sacrifice if one
could not afford lamb.
In the Islamic faith, the prophet Mohammed spoke of
the dove and how it was the spirit that gave him God’s
In Japan, the dove holds a different position, as a
messenger of war. One folktale tells of Yoritomo, a
mythical hero, who was pursued by his enemies and
hid in the hollow of a tree. As the soldiers passed
him by, two doves flew out from the tree. To the
soldiers, this meant that no one was around; hence,
Yoritomo considered the dove to be a lucky bird.
Many cultures see doves as a sign of peace.
In medieval Europe, a dove’s first call of the year
indicated good or bad luck. If the call came from above – prosperity
and good luck would follow. If the call came from below, bad luck was near.
Mourning doves rank second to dark-eyed juncos as the most commonly observed
backyard bird. Primarily a ground feeder, doves will visit platform feeders.
Their abundance and ability to adapt to urban settings makes them a welcome
visitor to many residential
areas, especially when the birds are singing their classic canyon call.