As an ornithologist, Dr. Andy Jones is well acquainted with many kinds of birds. But he seems to have a soft spot for the mourning dove.
“I love the mourning dove’s sound,” said Jones, who is William A. and Nancy R. Klamm Chair and Curator of Ornithology for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “It’s a plaintive call that’s familiar to birders and non-birders alike.”
“Mourning doves and humans have learned to live well together,” he said. “They’re just sweet, charismatic birds.”
The mourning dove is one of few bird species whose populations aren’t declining; in fact, quite the opposite. It’s estimated that one million mourning dove pairs nest in Ohio.
And despite some hunting pressure, the mourning dove’s numbers in the state are thought to be increasing by about 1% per year, Jones said.
The mourning dove is related to both doves and pigeons but is the only one native to Ohio. The passenger pigeon was native but went extinct, and the other doves and pigeons were imported from Europe or the Mediterranean, he said.
They’ve adapted to just about every habitat, from country to city and everything in between; the only environment they don’t like is mature dense forest. In the first half of the 1800s, they expanded their range to every county in Ohio as forests were cut to make room for farms and towns.
The Ohio Ornithological Society reports that mourning doves are most plentiful in the Illinois Till Plains region in southwest Ohio, especially the farmlands surrounding Cincinnati and other urban areas. They’re a little less plentiful around Lake Erie and in Northeast Ohio but are still well represented.
Unlike so many other species of birds and animals, they are also plentiful in the “intensive agriculture” regions of western Ohio. That’s because 99%of their diet consists of seeds, and they especially like cultivated grains.
They’ll also eat seeds from grasses and ragweed and even the occasional snail. They very rarely eat insects, which is unusual when so many other bird species switch from seeds to insects as soon as they become available.
Mourning dove migration is a tough thing to track and hasn’t been studied extensively. They migrate during the day, in flocks, so it’s difficult to tell if they are headed south or just to a field a quarter-mile away.
“They’re a lot like robins and blue jays in that you may see them in your yard almost year-round,” Jones said. “But they’re probably not the same individuals.”
The ones you see now are probably local, he said. Next month, they might be migrants coming from the southern regions of Canada.
Another thing Jones likes about mourning doves is their appearance. While they have the same round body and distinctively-shaped head as other doves and pigeons, mourning doves have a bit more flare. That includes some iridescent feathers on either side of their necks that stand out when their throats inflate for a call.
“They seem to shimmer and are slightly rose and blue colored,” Jones said. “They’re really beautiful when they sing.”
Like other doves and pigeons, mourning doves are very powerful, fast fliers, he said. When they’re advertising for a mate, males go into a long, circular glide with wings fully spread and their heads slightly bowed. They look very focused and in control.
That all changes when they land on the ground. The males “may look a little ridiculous” as they hop around the females with chests puffed out and heads bobbing, singing a louder, more urgent version of their usual song, Jones said.
Eternal optimists, mourning doves sometimes begin nesting during the first warm spell. In fact, there are records of mourning doves nesting in Ohio in every month of the year. That means they could nest during a tepid January, but the eggs could be lost if a cold snap follows.
Ohiobirds.org, the Ornithological Society’s website, says mourning doves in the state average four nesting attempts a year, with a maximum of seven. But like their migrating habits, it’s difficult to track how many nesting attempts an individual mourning dove makes, or the number of mates they have.
Mourning dove females lay only two white eggs each time they nest. The small clutches may have something to do with how many times a year that mourning doves try to breed, Jones said.
A warbler, for instance, may lay four to six eggs at a time, “but they’re only in Ohio a short time, so they only breed once a year,” he said. “Mourning doves essentially lay fewer eggs, but in more baskets.”
Those baskets, or nests, “are some of the saddest things I’ve ever seen,” he added. “It looks like the parents are barely trying.”
The nests are just flimsy piles of sticks that the male brings and the female throws together. Most of the nests Jones sees are in thick evergreens, about 10 to 20 feet off the ground, but they can also be stuck in the downspouts of gutters or teetering on ledges of homes or apartments.
The dense greenery of the trees may help insulate the eggs from the cold, but the shoddy construction means the nest will probably blow away in the first wind storm, he said.
Like some other bird species, mourning doves eat grains and seeds but don’t swallow them right away. Instead, they store them in the crop, an enlarged area of the esophagus, to be digested later. They sometimes swallow small gravel or grit to aid in the digestive process.
Along with those of other doves and pigeons — and flamingos and emperor penguins — the mourning dove’s crop is capable of making a slurry that combines with the partially-digested grain to produce crop milk, sometimes called pigeon milk.
When mourning doves nest, both parents incubate the eggs, which take about two weeks to hatch. Then both parents feed the young crop milk till they leave the nest, which is at least another two weeks.
Even then, the young may hang around to get fed for a few weeks more “until instinct kicks in and they begin eating grain and seeds on their own,” Jones said.
Attracting mourning doves
To attract mourning doves to your yard, or to help the ones that are migrating through, he suggests a mix of black oil sunflower and other seeds. “Mourning doves seem to prefer the millet or other seeds in the mix that we might consider of less value,” he said.
They don’t balance well on small bird feeders, so they tend to go for the seed that falls on the ground. Mourning doves do well on platform feeders that are a few feet off the ground, as in out of the reach of cats.
It’s also important to have a water source and some dense shrubs and trees for nesting, Jones said.
Unlike so many other bird species whose populations are declining, the outlook for mourning doves looks positive, he said.
“They like being close to people, so they’re in a good place at the moment and should be going forward.”
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