The Mourning Dove

Zenaida macroura

By Damian Fagan

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 mate.

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 states.


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.

Breeding Season
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 counsel.

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.


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