Bird Lore: Mourning Dove

The Mourning Dove is one of the most common and abundant birds native to North America. It is common in open country and along roadsides. It can be found in forest clearings, prairies, deserts, farmlands, and suburbs. There are usually several sightings a year, that we know of, in Edmonds. It is far more common in rural parts of Snohomish County. Look for it on utility lines, fence posts, and foraging on the ground.

The bird in the second photo was on the beach just north of the Brackett’s Landing jetty last week, engaging in unusual behavior. It was repeatedly flying up and chasing Western Sandpipers away from the shore break and out over the water. Then it would return to walking the beach.

Nature writer Pete Dunne calls the Mourning Dove a teardrop with a tail because of its shape — a tiny head atop a slender neck atop a plump body, finished off with a long pointed tail. Dunne’s description also fits because its song is among the saddest in the avian world. It’s easy to envision teardrops falling from its eyes as it utters its dirge-like chant.

Seeds make up 99% of the Mourning Dove’s diet. The bird favors the seeds of cultivated grains, grasses, ragweeds and other plants. It usually forages on the ground, swallowing seeds and storing them in its crop, which is an enlarged pocket of the upper esophagus. Once it fills its crop, the bird will then fly to a safe perch to digest its meal. It swallows grit, which is small gravel, to aid in the digestion of hard seeds. One source notes that the seed record is held by a dove that filled its crop with 17,200 bluegrass seeds.

The male’s courtship display starts with an ascent accompanied by noisy wingbeats. He then does a long circular glide with his wings fully spread and slightly bowed down. On the ground, he approaches the female stiffly with his chest puffed out. He bows and coos loudly to her. The pair will bond by preening each other’s feathers. The male leads the female to potential nest sites. The female selects the site she will use.

The nest is most often in a tree or shrub, usually lower than 40 feet above ground. This dove will nest sometimes on a building ledge or other structure. Occasionally it will nest on the ground. The male supplies the building materials and the female constructs a flimsy nest of twigs. Both sexes incubate the two eggs for about two weeks. Both parents feed the nestlings “pigeon milk”. (Pigeon milk is a milky fluid secreted by the walls of the crop. It is rich in fat and protein.) The young leave the nest after about 15 days and continue to be fed by their parents for another two weeks. This species has multiple broods each year. In southern areas a pair may raise as many as 5-6 broods per year.

There are a number of collective nouns for any group of doves. They include cote, dole, dule, bevy, flight, and piteousness. For the Mourning Dove specifically, I would offer lament as a collective noun because of its sad song, sung over and over and over again. The oldest known Mourning Dove was 30 years and four months of age when he was shot in Florida in 1998. He had been banded in Georgia in 1968. The Mourning Dove is a game bird and hunters harvest upwards of 20 million each year.

U.S. population estimates vary widely. One source asserts that the Mourning Dove is one of the most abundant birds with a U.S. population of 350 million. Although the Mourning Dove is common across the continent, and has prospered as humans settled the landscape, the North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates a population decline of 15% between 1966 and 2015. Partners in Flight estimates a global population of 120 million, with 81 percent spending part of the year in the U.S., 5 percent in Canada, and 19 percent in Mexico. The Mourning Dove has a conservation status of least concern.

The lament of the Mourning Dove is one of the most familiar bird sounds in the U.S. You can hear its repeated, mournful cooing here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

4 Replies to “Bird Lore: Mourning Dove”

  1. They are thriving in the McMinnville/Sheridan area of Oregon where lots of bluegrass is grown for seed. Other names I might suggest for a group of them are: a “weariness” or a “monotony”. Maybe they should attend some Toastmasters meetings and work on “vocal variety.”


  2. Collective nouns often are based on whimsy or a feeling about the wildlife they refer to. In that respect, the group names you suggest, Clint, follow that tradition. To many, the repeated calls of the Mourning Dove are monotonous, tedious, or wearying. Personally, I like listening to their cooing but that could change if I lived in an area where so many congregate that I had to listen to it all of the time. The Oxford Dictionaries web site has an interesting blog post about collective nouns:


  3. I’d like to know if there is a humane way to “discourage” them from the neighborhood where I live in Kitsap County. They are multiplying in number here and their constant calls from early early morning and throughout the day will surely lead to murderous intentions.


  4. Are you sure they are Mourning Doves and not the introduced pest species Eurasian Collared-Dove? It crossed the continent quite quickly, is thriving vigorously, and causes many of us to be concerned about the long-term health of populations of our native Mourning Dove.


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