The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 14, 2003


Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura

Which event for you marks the first "sign of spring?" For me, it's the courtship cooing of the Mourning Dove, which often begins in mid-February, hence the connection with Valentine's Day. This song is a mournful "oooahh ooo ooo oo," which the male sings while perched on a branch or wire. The call is often misattributed to that of an owl. The adult plumage of the sexes is similar, except males have a pinkish breast and grayish crown, whereas the female plumage is more uniformly brown. The wings have large dark spots and the long, pointed tail shows white spots on the outer feathers. When the Mourning Dove takes flight, its wings make a whistling sound.

The Mourning Dove is a member of the family Columbidae, which includes the familiar Rock Dove ("Pigeon") introduced from Europe, and the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon. Charles Lucien Bonaparte, an early French ornithologist (and nephew of the emperor) gave the Mourning Dove its genus name Zenaida in honor of his wife (and cousin) Princess Zenaide Charlotte Julie Bonaparte of Spain. The species name derives from the Greek words "makros" meaning "long" and "oura" meaning "tail" (Gruson). The Mourning Dove was a popular game bird in the nineteenth century. According to Forbush and May: "Formerly this gentle dove was abundant in that part of southern New England best suited to its needs [i.e. Concord and Carlisle], but it had decreased so much in numbers in the early part of the twentieth century that Massachusetts led the way in 1908 by giving it perpetual protection under the law, to save it from extirpation." Mourning Dove is classified as a game bird by the federal government and 31 states, but is protected from hunting in 17 states. I doubt that this bird would provide much meat.

In addition to the cooing call described previously, the Mourning Dove also makes a shorter call, which sounds like just the first three notes of the longer call. The "Long-Coo" is given throughout the breeding season, mostly by unmated males, to attract a female. The "Short-Coo" is given by the male and sometimes the female during nest selection and building. During courtship, the amorous male will lower its head and charge the female while giving the "Long-Coo." If a feeding Mourning Dove is approached too closely by a squirrel, it will raise its wings and may even strike the squirrel. A good place to observe these behaviors is at your bird feeders, since Mourning Doves are attracted to a variety of seeds. The Stokes guide cited is an excellent source of information about vocalizations and behavior.

Mourning Doves eat plant food almost exclusively, including the seeds of corn, wheat, ragweed, pokeweed, and crabgrass. They are attracted to bird feeders, and will eat cracked corn and commercial seed mixtures. This winter, with the heavy snow cover, Mourning Doves have been eating large quantities of sunflower seed (the whole seed including the hull) at our feeder. This behavior at first surprised me, until I learned that Passenger Pigeons ate acorns whole!

The nest is typically built in a horizontal branch of an evergreen, up to 50 feet from the ground, but may also be built in shrubs or vines. The abandoned nests of other species may be used as foundations. The male brings sticks to the female, which builds the nest. The nest is a loose and rather flimsy platform of sticks; the eggs may be visible when the nest is viewed from below. The female usually lays two pure white eggs, but sometimes three and rarely four. Male and female share incubation duties, with the male brooding from morning to evening, and the female from evening to morning. A regular time schedule for "shift" changes are maintained, usually 8:30-10:30 a.m. and 4:30-5:30 p.m. The adult doves feed the nestlings a liquid called "pigeon milk" which they regurgitate into the young birds' mouths. There are two or more broods, with the breeding season extending into September. Immature doves have shorter tails than the adults, and the edges of their feathers are lighter colored, giving them a "scaly" appearance.

In winter, Mourning Doves form flocks for feeding and roosting. During December 1990, we had a flock of approximately 60 doves roosting in a stand of fir trees on our property. The birds would arrive shortly before dusk and depart the following morning. Eventually they abandoned this roost, perhaps because it had been discovered by a predator such as a hawk or owl.


1. Gruson, Edward S., Words for Birds, Quadrangle Books, pp. 122, 141, 1972.

2. Terres, John K., The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, Wings Books, p. 730, 1991.

3. Forbush, Edward H. and John B. May, A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America, Bramhall House, pp. 252-253, 1955.

4. Stokes, Donald W. and Lillian Q. Stokes, A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. II, Little, Brown and Co., pp. 49-59, 1983.


Tom Brownrigg is a member of the Carlisle Conservation Commission. His interests include birding, nature observation and digital photography.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito