Meet the mourning dove

Mourning dove. Photo by Becky Matsubara. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 01-19-2023.

I’m one of those people who uses a physical planner. Sure, I have an online calendar, but I still physically write everything down in the planner. I love having everything clearly written out on my desk. Plus, it’s satisfying to cross things off my daily to-do lists!

For 2023, I splurged and got a fancy planner. It has birds in it, and it makes me so happy!!! In addition to beautiful pictures of birds, it also has weekly bird facts!

This week’s fact was about the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura). Apparently, mourning doves are found in every state in the United States! I had no idea – I had always dismissed mourning doves as a less-cool bird, but after this week, I have become a mourning dove fan.

To be fair, I thought of mourning doves as less cool because I’ve seen them everywhere, and you almost certainly have, too. They’re those tan birds that you find sitting on telephone wires or eating seeds on the ground.

The typical range of mourning doves is from southern Canada to Panama. However, there are records of mourning doves breeding in southeastern Alaska. They were also introduced to Hawai’i in the 1960s; although uncommon, you can still find some breeding birds.

Fluffed up on a cold day. Photo by Kevin Milazzo. Retrieved from Flickr on 01-19-2023.

In addition to being found everywhere in the United States, there are just a lot of mourning doves around. They are the most abundant game bird in North America, with hunters collecting more than 20 million birds yearly. But even with this dent, the mourning dove U.S. population remains at an estimated 350 million birds!

Whistling wings

Even if you’ve missed seeing a mourning dove, you’ve definitely heard it. They make a mournful ‘coo’ that sounds like an owl’s hoot. But remember, owls typically call at night, while mourning doves will be cooing in the morning and during the day. The mourning dove’s coo is also where they get their name: it’s ‘mourning’ as in sad, not ‘morning’ as in the time of day.

If you’ve ever seen a mourning dove start flying, you might have heard another sound – a whistling. For the longest time (i.e., until yesterday), I thought this whistling was coming from their mouths. But I was wrong!!! The whistling you hear when mourning doves take off or land comes from air rushing through their feathers.

Why the whistling? One explanation is that it serves as an alarm call for other individuals or a deterrent for predators. Hearing the whistle could let others know there’s danger and startle a hunting cat or hawk. The whistling may also play an important role in mourning dove courtship.

Beak like a straw

Mourning doves apparently have cool beaks! They can suck up water through their beaks just like a straw. In contrast, many other birds have to tip their heads back to swallow liquid, letting gravity do the hard work.

Another fun water fact: mourning doves can drink brackish water! This water can reach almost half the salinity of seawater; if we drank it, we would quickly become dehydrated. Mourning doves, in contrast, don’t seem to have this issue. This drinking ability may be one reason mourning doves can survive in the American southwest and Mexican desert regions.

A crop to hold food

When mourning doves are on the ground, they’re often busily swallowing seeds. And yes, I purposefully said ‘swallowing’ and not ‘eating.’ Mourning doves aren’t necessarily eating when you see them consume seeds. Instead, they are storing them in an enlargement of their esophagus called the crop.

Once they’ve filled their crop with seeds, mourning doves will fly off to a safe perch so they can digest. Since they can’t break open seeds with their soft bills, mourning doves will swallow sand or gravel to help digestion. This gritty material will help the mourning dove break down their meal.

Mourning dove crops can hold a lot of food, which is good since mourning doves eat a lot of food. They spend most of their day eating and will eat up to 20% of their body weight daily. Can you guess what the record number of seeds found in a crop is?

Answer: 17,200 bluegrass seeds!

Mmmm, grit. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS. Retrieved from Flickr on 01-19-2023.

Crop milk

Crops are also crucial for making crop milk! What is crop milk, you ask? The short and not-so-helpful answer is that it’s milk mourning doves and other species of doves and pigeons make from their crop to feed their chicks.

The more helpful answer is that it’s a secretion from special cells in a mourning dove’s crop. This ‘milk’ is actually a semi-solid substance that looks kind of like pale yellow cottage cheese. It’s full of protein, fat, and immune-boosting factors – everything a young mourning dove needs to grow. Yum.

Both males and females will produce crop milk to feed their young. Newly hatched mourning doves will feast on crop milk for the first 10 days of their life, after which they’ll transition to solid food.

Long-living (rarely)

One last cool fact: mourning doves can live much longer than I expected. The oldest known mourning dove was at least 30 years old: he was banded in Georgia in 1968 and shot in Florida in 1998.

I should note, though, that he was definitely an anomaly. Most mourning doves don’t make it through their first year – only 20 to 30% of hatchlings make it to their first birthday. They’re marginally safer as adults, but their average life expectancy is only two years.

Mourning doves compensate for this high mortality rate by laying lots and lots of eggs throughout the breeding season. They will lay 2 eggs at a time, with the hatchlings leaving the nest after about a month. Mourning doves can lay between 5 and 6 clutches in warm climates (so 10 – 12 eggs total).

It doesn’t look like we’ll be running out of mourning doves anytime soon!


All About Birds


National Geographic

Wausau Daily Herald

Animal Diversity Web

Lyric Bird Food

Leave a Reply