Named for its distinct, mournful cry, the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) is a small, ground-dwelling bird that is found throughout the United States, southern Canada, Mexico, certain regions of Central America, Bermuda, the Greater Antilles, and the Bahamas (Seamans). The mourning dove is a member of the order Columbiformes, family Columbidae, which consists of doves and pigeons (ITIS). The genus name, Zenaida, originates from the name of French zoologist Charles L. Bonaparte’s wife, Princess Zenaide Charlotte Julie Bonaparte (Chipper Woods Bird Observatory), while the species name, macroura, is Greek for “long-tailed” (Boreal Songbird Initiative). There are two subspecies of mourning dove in the United States. The smaller, paler in color Z. m. marginella lives west of the Mississippi River, and the larger, eastern subspecies, Z. m. carolinensis, is the one found in Pennsylvania and the other states east of the Mississippi River (Vuilleumier).
Mourning doves are light, beige colored birds with small, dark beaks and red feet. They have pale blue skin surrounding their eyes and distinct black spots on their wings. Like many other doves and pigeons, mourning doves have iridescent plumage. Although quite subtle, this feature is more noticeable in males, who may have faint, blue coloration on the backs of their heads and a somewhat pinkish breast and neck (National Geographic). The iridescence of the feathers is actually caused by the barbules of each feather being flat, elongated, and twisted at the base. Each barbule is composed of a thick, keratin complex over a layer of air. The number of melanosomes in contact with the keratin cortex and the thickness of the cortex determine the hue of the feather. The color and intensity of the iridescence also varies depending on the angle that light reflects on the feather (Shawkey, et al.). Juveniles are dark brown with a lighter face and chest, and their feathers have an almost “scaly” appearance (National Geographic). On average, mourning doves are between 23 to 34 centimeters in length, with a 45 centimeter wingspan, and weigh between 85 to 170 grams. Females tend to be slightly smaller than males, but overall, there is little difference between the sexes (All About Birds).
Mourning doves mostly inhabit temperate, open areas, such as farmland, forest clearings, along roadsides, and suburban areas. It is most common for mourning doves to be found in areas with much open space and a few trees or other places to nest. Typically, they avoid heavily forested areas (Kaufman), and the species has actually become more abundant with deforestation (Boreal Songbird Initiative).
Mourning doves are not uniformly migratory—northern populations will be more inclined to migrate, while southern populations are significantly less migratory (Yarrow). Northern populations usually migrate in flocks in the colder fall and winter months during the day, when it is warmest (Kaufman). Some populations (usually doves living in the south) will not migrate, so they simply spend their winters in their breeding range. Northern populations typically winter in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, and Panama (Seamans).
Mourning doves are herbivores—rarely will they ever feed on insects. Seeds are the primary food source for mourning doves. Almost 99% of the mourning dove’s diet consists of grass, grain, and weed seeds (Kaufman). Mourning doves actually play a key role in controlling weed populations by eating the seeds (Chipper Woods Bird Observatory). When food is limited, such as in cold northern winters, mourning doves compensate by feeding for longer periods of time and taking more risks, which increases the likelihood of predation. Since they feed in open areas at ground-level, mourning doves must prioritize take-off speed and wing growth before reaching maturity to reduce encounters with predators both on the ground and from above (Miller 2011). Like many other wintering birds, mourning doves are able to adjust their metabolic rates to adapt to colder environments. This is done through torpor (physical inactivity), change of usual habits and activity, and supplemental nutrition from humans. Northern birds may continue to spend winters in their breeding range due to human interference and other artificial food sources. Mourning doves are more likely than many other bird species to frequent urban settings for supplemental feeding. Because over time they have adapted to using feeders as a food source in the winter months, migratory birds such as the mourning dove will overall be less inclined to migrate and search elsewhere for food (Zuckerberg, et. al).
An interesting and notable characteristic of mourning doves is the distinct “whistle” their wings make when taking off. In some bird species, sounds produced by wing beats can not only be associated with courtship, but they may also be associated with a sort of alarm call or warning of immediate danger and a need to flee. Some species of birds, such as the mourning dove, produce a distinct, wing whistling sound which is different from regular flapping sounds during flight, and louder than the bird’s usual vocalizations. One study suggests that the mourning dove’s wing whistle is a non-vocal alarm call. Although the results consistently suggested that this sound functioned as an alarm call, the sample size was too small to further analyze the theory or replicate the experiments (Hingee and Magrath).
Although they are ground-dwelling birds, mourning doves rarely build their nests on the ground (Boreal Songbird Initiative). Nesting pairs, who first bond by grooming, grasping beaks, and bobbing their heads in unison, will generally build their nests in man-made structures from ground level up to around 250 feet above ground (NestWatch). It is not unusual for mourning doves to reuse their own nests or even those of another species (All About Birds). They usually nest with two of three other pairs, but occasionally, small flocks will nest together. Any time between early April and late September, the eggs will be laid (The Bird Book). Females will raise anywhere from one to six broods a year, typically with two eggs per brood (All about Birds). Chicks are born altricial (NestWatch), meaning that after hatching, their eyes are closed, they are vulnerable with minimal down, and they must be fed by their parents. All passerines (“perching birds,” which make up more than half of the world’s bird population) are altricial. Precocial birds, on the other hand, are hatched with open eyes and down, and they are ready to leave the nest within two days of hatching (Stanford University). A trait fairly unique to mourning doves is the production of “pigeon milk,” known as “crop milk” in other species who produce this substance (Kaufman).
Mourning doves raised in large broods prioritized growth of wings to compensate for slower growth and development overall. As mortality rates in the nest increase, juvenile birds will grow faster and therefore fledge (grow flight feathers) at a younger age. Mourning dove nests often have high predation rates. The more juveniles that are present in the nest, the more competition there will be. With more competition, growth rates are slower and fledging age is at a later age. In contrast, single juveniles grow much faster and fledge sooner (Miller 2010).
In 2013, 250,700 mourning doves were harvested in Pennsylvania during the 2013 hunting season. Only 147,200 birds were harvested the following year. 1,007 birds with a known age were banded in 2013, while 993 doves were banded the next year (Seamans). However, populations are mostly increasing despite hunting and high mortality rate (Chipper Woods Bird Observatory).
In captivity, mourning doves can live up to 19 years (American Museum of Natural History), but the average lifespan in the wild is between one and three years. Most doves die before one year; mortality is mostly related to disease and starvation (Clemson Cooperative Extension). The most common diseases affecting mourning doves are avian trichomoniasis, toxicoses, and avian pox. These three diseases alone make up about 73% of all diagnosed diseases. Toxicoses were diagnosed most in the spring, avian pox was diagnosed most in the summer, and trichomoniasis was diagnosed most often in the spring and summer. Overall, diseases are more often diagnosed in the summer and spring months than in the autumn and winter. (Gerhold et al.). Avian trichomoniasis is caused by the protozoan parasite Trichomonas gallinae. The disease is usually fatal, and a common symptom is necrosis (cell death) in the upper digestive tract of the bird. This disease annually affects mourning doves and other members of the pigeon and dove family; this may contribute to recent population decline in the eastern United States. (Gerhold). Avian pox virus is in the Poxviridae family, which is characterized by large, double-stranded DNA viruses. The virus spreads slowly through both direct and indirect contact. Indirect contact may happen when a bird comes in contact contaminated food, water, perches, dander. Direct contact involves physical contact with affected birds, living or deceased. The virus enters through open wounds or mucous membranes. Mosquitoes are often carriers of the virus, which can easily transmit the virus to birds. Symptoms of avian pox include depression, anorexia, scabs, tumors, weakness, and poor endurance (Pledger).
Hunters kill more than 20 million doves a year, which is more than any other animal in the country. Doves are also sometimes used as live targets. They are not overpopulated and pose little threat to crops or human structures (The Humane Society of the United States). A small proportion of doves shot by hunters ingest lead pellets, but doves may ingest multiple pellets and die faster. Lead is absorbed through gastrointestinal tract, into blood, soft tissues, and bone tissue. Mostly liver and kidney tissues are infected, leading to lead toxicosis. Doves may accidentally ingest lead while feeding in areas where hunters deposit spent lead pellets and eventually die of lead poisoning. This issue could be solved by banning lead pellets and replacing them with nontoxic alternatives (Schulz, et al. 2007). Nontoxic shot alternatives include bismuth, iron, tin, nickel, and tungsten. Millions of mourning doves die of lead poisoning each year; nearly all doves that have ingested lead fall victim to lead poisoning. Lead pellets have been banned for hunting of waterfowl in the early 1990s, but not for hunting of mourning doves and other game birds. Most dove hunters are not in favor of a ban on the use of lead pellets (Schulz, et al. 2006).
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