Mourning Doves and the Cooing Sounds That Earned Them Their Name

Updated on July 15, 2019
Casey White profile image

Dorothy is a Master Gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape/nature photographer in NM.

The Most Abundant Game Bird

This mourning dove is one of a family of four that actually live in our front yard.  When we moved into our house, three of them were babies that got accustomed to me being out in the yard and didn't fly until I got within a few inches of them.
This mourning dove is one of a family of four that actually live in our front yard. When we moved into our house, three of them were babies that got accustomed to me being out in the yard and didn't fly until I got within a few inches of them. | Source

Settlers Helped the Numbers Grow

European settlers, upon their arrival in North America, began changing the land to better suit their needs, unaware that they were also suiting the needs of the scattering of mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) that were already there. There weren't many mourning doves at that time, but as the people began building neighborhoods, farms, and parks the doves began to thrive and multiply as much as the people. They were both also fond of grasslands and open woods, which existed as well. From that early time to today, mourning doves grew in numbers that are now in excess of 350 million.

Although I don't quite know how many are in different places all across North America, I can say with absolute certainty that there are four of them that frequent our own backyard, three of which were born in our front yard, and because of that, I feel I can explain pretty much all you need to know about this particular dove species.

To us, the slow cooing sounds of the doves in our yard are simply among the signs that they are claiming their home territory, preparing to find their mate and raise their young. We can usually tell when there's a predatory hawk in our area, as the sounds of the doves are eerily quiet.

The Family That Bathes Together...

Source

Their Appearance

Mourning doves are about 12 inches long. Most of them are very slender with small heads, although we have seen a few in our backyard that we can't actually refer to as slender. Maybe it's the good food we provide!

They are a brownish-gray color and their tail is long and pointed with white tips on the feathers. When they fly, you can hear a whistling sound. The first photo above is pretty much representative of all mourning doves.

How to Tell the Male From the Female

It didn't take us long to figure out how to distinguish the male mourning doves from the females; it was a case of who was chasing who. Male mourning doves seem to be continually chasing the females, which are sometimes receptive but more often not. The males are also slightly larger than the females, although it's usually not a noticeable difference. Most of the cooing sounds are made by the males in their attempt to woo the female bird.

What They Eat

A mourning dove survives on roughly 70 calories a day, mostly made up of seeds, although they also eat cultivated grains, peanuts, herbs, wild grasses, weeds, and berries. When pickings are slim, you might even see one eating an occasional snail.

They feed on the ground and drink from our birdbaths, but we have yet to see a mourning dove eating seed from any of our bird feeders, unlike the white-wing dove that tries to eat as much as possible from every feeder that is accessible.

Their Habitat

The only places you won't find the graceful mourning doves are in dense forests and the wetlands; they prefer the open country. They like to feed along roadsides, in backyards, or in agricultural fields or grasslands - always out in the open.

A male (left) and a female mourning dove couple stopping at our birdbath.  The male dove is only slightly larger than the female.
A male (left) and a female mourning dove couple stopping at our birdbath. The male dove is only slightly larger than the female. | Source

Breeding and Nesting

If you would like to attract a breeding pair of mourning doves to your yard, you might consider putting up a nesting basket. Read about how to construct one here. Place the basket in a shady part of the tree with branches overhead and use wire to secure it. The cone will give them a solid base for their nest and they may nest there 2-3 times in succession.

If you prefer to have a nesting box, you can order them from many places online or build one similar to the one pictured below. There are no steadfast rules for construction; simply make it big enough for a family of doves. Make sure you have it ready in time for breeding season. Most of their nesting is done from mid-April through August in their range.

You should place your nesting box on the inside cover of an eave, either on a house, garage, carport or a shed because doves prefer a narrow angle of view when they nest since it helps them to feel sheltered and protected from wind, weather and predators.

An Ideal Nesting Box for Mourning Doves

This nesting box looks easy enough to build and provides room enough for a family of mourning doves.  Put some straw in there for them as they are not great at building nests.
This nesting box looks easy enough to build and provides room enough for a family of mourning doves. Put some straw in there for them as they are not great at building nests.

References

  1. Forshaw, Steve; and Steve Howell, Terence Lindsey and Rich Stallcup (1995), Birding - A Nature Company Guide, Time-Life Books
  2. Book of North American Birds, The Reader's Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York/Montreal

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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