Mourning Doves Are Cooing Again: Paying Attention to a Common Bird

Now that March is here, there are new signs of emerging Spring almost daily in Eliza Howell Park. One is the cooing sound of the Mourning Dove, a sound not heard for several months.

The small-headed, long-tailed Mourning Dove is one of the most common birds in the United States.

Mourning Doves have been present all Winter, but things have changed. Usually when I see them in Winer, they are in small flocks. Not now. Now they are in pairs.

In the northern part of their breeding territory, Mourning Doves migrate south for the Winter. It is very likely that those that we see in Detroit in the Winter breed further north (and winter here) while those that breed here winter further south.

If that is the case, the doves now cooing probably returned recently.

Range map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

“Mourning” Doves are named that because their cooing sound was considered sad. Cooing can, however, also be considered warm and soothing and contented (think of a baby cooing).

Since it seems to be a form of communication from one dove to its mate, “cooing” might be thought of more like “wooing” rather than to mourning.

Photo by Margaret Weber

Whether considered mourful or amorous or something else, the cooing is not singing; doves do not open their beaks when they coo. Rather, they puff up their breast and the sound is caused by the air vibrating their muscles/skin.

Cooing is just one of several fascinating aspects of Mourning Dove behavior.

They start nesting very early in the spring. I saw a pair making a nest on March 12 one year. The early nests are in sheltered locations. In this one (next photo) in a spruce tree, the bird on the nest can hardly be seen.

Later in the season, they often nest on a horizontal branch of a medium to large deciduous tree in the park. Whenever I come across a pair making a nest, I spend time watching, fascinated by their method.

They put together a nest very quickly, a nest made of material such as twigs and grasses and evergreen needles that are placed on the tree limb, with, it seems, nothing but gravity and a somewhat flat surface holding them in place. The male brings this material, piece by piece in rapid order, while the female stays at the chosen spot. He steps on her back and she turns her head to him. He hands off (“beaks off”) the piece he has brought and she takes it and places it around herself while he flies off to get another, often returning within less than a minute with the next piece. They take breaks away from nest making, but still often complete the nest within 2 days (compared with the several days to two weeks of many other species). The finished nest looks fragile and barely able to keep the eggs from rolling off.

Both female and male doves incubate the (almost always) 2 eggs and both feed the young after hatching.

Photo by Margaret Weber

Two eggs are apparently all that their eating and feeding practices permit. Mourning Doves eat seeds and grains almost exclusively. They store these in their crop before they are digested.

Most birds, including many seed eaters, feed insects to their young. Mourning Doves do not. They are able to make a limited amount of a milk-like food from the glands of their crop, which they regurgitate and feed to the young. This is called “crop milk” or “pigeon milk. ” Later, they feed seeds to the young.

Mourning Dove pairs share responsibility for nest building, for incubation, and for feeding young. Somehow, referring to their cooing communication as “mourning” doesn’t seem to fit.

Photo by Margaret Weber

I have recognized Mourning Doves all my remembered life, but, until I began paying careful attention to this common bird, I did not realize how unusual it is.

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