The mourning dove (Zenaidura macroura) is truly an All-American bird and can be found from coast to coast. It is brownish-gray in color, and around 1 foot in length with a wingspread of 20 inches. The dove has a long, slender tail that is white bordered and a black spot behind the eye. The species is monomorphic, meaning the male and female look alike. Birds that show distinct differences between the sexes are classified as dimorphic.
Sound alone can identify this interesting bird, as their wings make a distinct whistling noise when in flight, especially at takeoff. Their song is called a “perch coo by bird geeks, and consists of a series of five “coos”, the second one rising and the remaining three falling in pitch. It is a mournful sound (hence the name), but to me it promotes a calm atmosphere in the quiet country.
Doves are ground feeders and their favorite feeding places are fields, orchards, or other open, weedy areas where seeds can be gleaned easily. Adult birds are strictly vegetarian, consisting of seeds from grasses, grains, and weeds, along with berries from pokeweed and other plants. The birds are not strong enough to scratch through crusted snow for food, so the northern residents migrate south. Here in Tennessee many remain as winter residents, and tend to gather in flocks to feed and roost.
The female mourning dove lays only two eggs at a time and normally raises two broods a year. The nest is a stick platform in trees, and they especially like nesting in evergreens. The incubation period is 13-15 days and is a task shared by both sexes, with the male taking the day shift. Young are fed by regurgitation, then gradually weaned to insects and finally to seeds.
Some interesting trivia about mourning doves includes the fact that they can drink water by sucking it in, whereas other birds must scoop up water in their beaks and tilting their head back to swallow. An old mountain name for the bird is “rain crow”, referring to a belief that a lot of active cooing predicts rain.
Doves can be easily attracted to bird feeders with sunflower seeds and cracked corn. Doves are a favorite and challenging game bird to hunt, though my grandfather liked hearing their cooing so much that he did not allow dove hunting on our farm. To improve dove habitat around the farm, plant grains along field edges, and allow some open areas to reach a weedy stage and mowing only once every 2-3 years. For more information on mourning dove habitat improvement, contact your local wildlife forestry agency.