The mourning dove is a familiar summer bird that is so common it is almost ubiquitous – but not quite.
The dove is an “edge” species. It likes a mix of dense cover and open space, exactly the kind of habitat that humans have produced across North America. This has made the mourning dove much more abundant today than it was before European settlement.
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Today, it occurs from southern Canada into Mexico. In much of its range, it occurs throughout the year. North Dakota winters are a match for mourning doves, however. They don’t thrive in the cold, and so they move south, though not very far. Mourning doves are year-round birds in southern Minnesota.
The mourning dove is best known for its call, a mournful cooing sound that supplied the bird’s common name. Mourning doves call throughout the day, but they are especially vocal in early morning. At sunrise, when I’m at work in the garden, I can count on hearing mourning doves. There are several in the three acres or so enclosed by our shelterbelt. They call and respond from the corners of the lot, so I know who’s home.
The doves are far more often heard than seen. Males sometimes preen a bit, but in general, they are rather secretive. Nests are flimsy, often just a few sticks laid across the branches of an evergreen. I’m sometimes startled by a mourning dove leaving a hidden nest.
These birds are not shy, however. They come readily to seeds spilled on the ground. I’ve taken to presenting sunflower seeds on the driveway. There, the mourning doves compete with grackles, blackbirds, several kinds of sparrows and another common summer bird, the American goldfinch.
Mourning doves are fast and use diversionary tactics to avoid predators, including human hunters. Hunters take more doves than any other game bird in the United States.
While humans have helped the mourning dove spread across the continent, human greed destroyed its close relative, the passenger pigeon, which became extinct early in the 20th century. This happened to coincide with development of the Great Plains, so the spread of mourning doves closely followed the disappearance of the passenger pigeon.
Passenger pigeons did occur in North Dakota; they were reported in Grand Forks County as late as the 1890s. They were never so numerous here as they were farther east, however, because passenger pigeons depended on acorns and consequently on extensive oak forests.
Doves generally raise two broods a year, and of course this helps account for the large population of doves. They are certainly more abundant on the Great Plains now than ever before.
These birds are equally as likely to show up in urban parks and residential backyards, providing there’s adequate cover. As a consequence, this is a species that anybody who looks is likely to find.
Looking is not the only way to find doves. In the case of mourning doves, hearing is believing. Take a bit of care, though; another dove species has moved into our area. The Eurasian collared dove now occurs in towns around the Red River Valley. I occasionally hear them in Gilby and Larimore, N.D., though I have never encountered the species in Grand Forks itself – but I am not much of an “urban birder” at this stage of my life. Nor has a collared dove shown up at our property west of Gilby.
The calls, though similar, can be readily distinguished. The mourning dove issues fairly long cooing notes, usually two, but often more. These are often answered by nearby birds – the call and response I mentioned earlier. Collared doves have a three-note call, with the final note noticeably shorter than the others.
The birds differ in appearance, as well. Both are relatively slim, long-tailed birds. The collared dove is larger and more monochromatic, lacking the dark spotting on the back and wings that mark the mourning dove. The collar refers to a mark on the back of the neck, which the mourning dove lacks entirely.
Unlike mourning doves, Eurasian collared doves are tough enough to survive North Dakota winters. Any dove seen in winter is almost certain to be a collared dove.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.