Photo Credit: Bill Horn
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Zenaida macroura
DESCRIPTION: Zenaida macroura belongs to the family of doves and pigeons known as Columbidae. They are a medium sized bird with a delicate bill. The adults are slaty-brownish above with dark spots on the wings and back and have a long, pointed, white-edged tail. The neck is reddish brown with an iridescent sheen, while the body’s underside is pale tan with grayish wing linings. Upon close examination, the adult male can be distinguished from the adult female by prominent blue-gray feathers on the top of the head, a pinkish or rose-colored breast, and obvious iridescence along the sides of the throat. The “coo-oo, coo, coo, coo” call, for which mourning doves were named, is most prevalent in the spring, although it can be heard other times of the year as well.
DISTRIBUTION: Mourning doves are the most abundant and widespread North American game bird and one of the continents most adaptable and plentiful bird species. It occurs within all the contiguous 48 states, southern Canada, central Mexico and Cuba. Northern segments of the population are highly migratory and usually start their migrations south by mid-October and return in early spring. Southern doves in general do not exhibit much seasonal movement. Most of the doves in Alabama are resident birds that live in the same general area where they were hatched.
FEEDING HABITS: Mourning doves are often observed around agricultural fields, open woodlands, roadsides, and suburbs. They are primarily seed-eating ground feeders. They will usually perch in a tree or on a powerline to look for potential predators prior to flying down to feed. About 99 percent of their diet is seeds or plant parts. Seeds of agricultural grain crops, native grasses, and weeds are heavily used. Doves do not have strong feet and rarely scratch the ground for their food; therefore, foods on relatively open ground and plainly visible are preferred. Like most seed eating birds, doves require grit to help grind their food. Grit is normally composed of small bits of sand or gravel, but small snail shells and hard insect parts may be ingested. In addition to food and grit, doves require a daily supply of fresh water to prevent dehydration and to soften and aid in the digestion of food. Most doves use puddles, ponds, and streams with clear edges to get their daily requirement of water.
The mourning dove has two rather unique characteristics in the bird world. While most birds must tilt their heads back to swallow water, the dove is capable of thrusting its bill into the water and drinking in a fashion similar to horses and cattle. Also, members of the dove family produce a curd-like secretion called “pigeon milk”. This substance is produced by the lining of the crop during the time of incubation and aids in the rearing of young as nourishing food for newborn hatchlings.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Courtship begins with the coming of spring. In Alabama, courtship behavior is common from February to October, but reaches a peak in late spring and early summer. Once a male has attracted a female, the pair will mate and remain together the entire breeding season. The chores of nest building are shared. Mourning dove nests are usually built in flat-angled branches of trees or shrubs, usually about 15 feet off the ground and near openings. They are usually located in areas with scattered trees or in small stands of trees. Late winter nests are often built in conifers, such as pines and cedars, because they are hidden from view. Occasionally they will nest on the ground. Two eggs are usually laid in the nest within a 24-hour period. Incubation begins with the laying of the first egg and is the reason why one egg hatches a day earlier. The eggs will hatch after an incubation period of about 14 days. The young birds are fed pigeon milk and partially digested seeds until they are ready to leave the nest. Young doves, or squabs, are capable of limited flight at around 12 days of age. Soon after the doves leave the nest, the adults begin preparation for another brood, often using the same nest. The entire process of raising the young may be carried out several times during the breeding season, with each cycle lasting about four weeks. In Alabama, three to seven broods may be produced each year.
Baskett, T.S., Sayre, M.W., Tomlinson, R.E., and Mirarchi, R.E. 1993. Ecology and Management of the Mourning Dove. R.E. McCabe. Technical Editor. Stack Pole Books, Harrisburg, PN. 567 pp.
Davis, J.R. 1977. Management for Mourning Doves in Alabama. Special Report NO. 6. Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Game and Fish Division. 28 pp.
Yarrow, G.K., and Yarrow, D.T. 1999. Managing for Mourning Doves. pp. 201-209 in Managing Wildlife. Sweetwater Press, by arrangement with Alabama Wildlife Federation, Birmingham, AL. 588 pp.
Stribling, L.H., Mourning Dove Management in Alabama. Circular ANR-513. Alabama Cooperative Extension Service/ Auburn University, Auburn, AL.
AUTHOR: Jeff Makemson, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries