By Tom Dennis
Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
Often mistaken for an owl call when we are just starting our busy day, the familiar, soft and slow, namesake “coo ah coo coo coo” of the Mourning Dove is a soothing reminder that we need to slow down a little and appreciate the creation with it’s wonderful sights and sounds. If you’ve been calling these birds morning doves don’t worry, since the pronunciation is identical and no one will know unless you write it down. These dainty members of the pigeon and dove family are well suited to live and thrive with mankind and as we learn more about their uniqueness we understand how to be good stewards in our area to the benefit of all creatures.
Male and female Mourning Doves are identical in appearance with the males only slightly larger. Although they look like a pretty good-sized bird, weight averages range from only four to six ounces (that’s a lot of fluff). They have a buff colored head with a black spot beneath the dark eye and blue eye ring and a buff breast with a slight pink wash on the neck and upper breast that may show iridescence. The flight feathers are gray to brown with black spots above and light gray underneath. Their short legs are bright pink and they have a long pointed tail that is black with white tips. In addition to the well-known cooing call, the wings make an unusual whistling sound upon take-off and landing.
Michigan is one of only eight states (and the only Midwestern state) that doesn’t allow dove hunting. Protection of such beautiful birds, especially since they are so small and of little food value, is something of which we should be proud. The Mourning Dove is one of the most abundant and widespread of all North American birds with an estimated population of 130 million of which 20 to 70 million are shot annually. They are very prolific breeders having up to six broods annually in warm areas but let’s not forget the now extinct Passenger Pigeon that once migrated in flocks numbering over one billion birds. North America has forty-eight surviving species of pigeons and doves with Michigan inhabited by only the Morning Dove and Rock Pigeon with most of the state in the year-round range. The oldest recorded specimen was 19 years of age but the average life-span in the wild is only 1.5 years.
Mourning Doves are monogamous and form strong pair bonds. They are not impressive nest builders but the loose platform of sticks and pine needles is adequate to raise their two eggs into fledglings. Both parents share feeding duties with a high-fat and protein secretion called crop milk. Shrubs and small trees are preferred nesting sites however the ground suffices in the absence of adequate natural or man-made structures. Primary predators include falcons, hawks, crows, jays, grackles, and housecats, the latter of which should be restricted to indoor living. Their diet is 99% seeds and they will visit your feeders when stocked with sunflower, millet, cracked-corn or thistle seeds and they often feed in flocks.
Like other columbids (dove and pigeon family) they drink by suction without lifting the head. Outside the breeding season they nest communally in dense trees so keep those spruce trees healthy. They sleep with their head between the shoulders and not tucked under the shoulder feathers like many other species. So, sleep well and best wishes to the official Michigan state bird of peace!