Plants and Animals

Mourning Dove

Don’t let their sad song fool you, these stout, industrious birds get along well—with or without us.

Quiet, tolerant and attractive, mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) make fine neighbors. In fact, though they predate humans in America, they’ve made the best of our arrival and strange behaviors.

Native Americans and European settlers inadvertently helped these birds prosper by burning prairie, clearing forest and grazing livestock, creating bare areas for feeding and enhancing the growth of seed-producing plants. The doves also benefitted from farmed crops. Modern practices such as irrigation, tree planting and grain storage facilities have continued to improve habitat.

Slightly smaller and more streamlined than its city-dwelling cousin, the rock dove, the mourning dove is gray-brown with black spots on the wings. Its tail is long and tapered to a point, with large white tips on the feathers, and it has a small, black bill and red legs and feet. Males have a light, rosy breast, blueish-gray crown, and iridescent neck feathers. The mourning dove gets its name from its “sad” song, a soft, inflected cooAHoo, followed by several coos.

Adult doves eat the seeds of wild annuals and waste grains from agriculture. While they readily consume wheat, corn, sorghum, sunflower and rice leavings, they are rarely destructive to standing crops. The birds’ foot structure prevents them from perching on upright stalks and canes and feeding directly from plants.

The mourning dove is one of the most widely distributed and abundant birds in North America. They are found throughout Missouri, with the greatest densities in the west central portion. Most Missouri doves do not overwinter in the state. They migrate to Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mexico and Central America. Because they cross state lines and international boundaries, they are classified as a Federal Migratory Species. Populations are managed on a national level by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mourning doves return to Missouri in March. Following courtship in April, the monogamous mated pairs begin nest construction. Doves nest primarily in trees and shrubs in areas with scattered trees, at field and forest edges, fence rows or along creek banks. Nests consist of two or three twigs placed on a horizontal tree branch. They might also use old robin or bluebird nests, or nest on the ground on glades and prairies, creating a scraped area with a sparse vegetation lining.

Males help chase away rivals, incubate eggs and feed the young, which are known as squabs. The average clutch size is two eggs. Newly hatched squabs are fed “pigeon milk,” a secretion from the adult crop gland. Young doves grow rapidly, and are fully fledged at 13–15 days. Once the pair completes the first nest, they start on the next. Dove pairs average an impressive five nests per year. This is a necessary effort, as less than 50 percent of nesting attempts are successful due to weather and predators such as snakes, hawks, skunks and other mammals.

—Nichole LeClair Terrill, photo by Noppadol Paothong

For More Information

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