Mourning doves occur throughout the United States year round with the exception of parts of South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and North Dakota, where they are only found during the breeding season. Some populations migrate but others remain in one area year round.
The name is derived from the soft, mournful call. A habitat generalist, the Mourning dove may be found in many open or partially wooded areas, such as farms, prairies, urban lawns, and thinly wooded forests, They avoid marshlands and dense mature forest. This medium-sized bird is about 12 inches long with a wingspan of 15-18 inches.
In flight the wings make a distinctive whistling sound and they are fast flyers, able to attain speeds up to 55 miles per hour. The overall gray body is accented by white-tipped outer tail feathers on a pointed tail, black spots on the top of the wings at the base, a dark spot on the lower side of the face, and pink feet and legs. Males show a bluish tint on the crown feathers.
They are reported to be the most frequently hunted species of wildlife, with over 20 million birds killed annually. The annual harvest seems excessive but amounts to about 6 to 15 percent of the total estimated population of from 350 to 475 million birds, depending upon the source. Mortality from all causes may reach 60 percent of the population annually. A prolific breeder, the Mourning dove may produce up to six broods in a year, keeping the population viable in spite of large losses to hunting and natural predation. Predators include hawks, corvids like ravens and crows, tree-climbing rat snakes, and house cats, among others. Cowbirds will also parasitize Mourning dove nests, though the seed diet fed to dove chicks is not suitable for Cowbird nestlings, so this strategy is not productive for the Cowbird though it may still result in a nest failure for the Mourning dove nest.
Mourning doves are seed eaters and will store an abundance of seeds in the crop while foraging, later flying to a safe perch to consume the bounty. They may consume up to 20 percent of their body weight daily, totaling on the order of 70 calories of nutrition. These doves forage on the ground and lawns in suburban neighborhoods where they are particularly vulnerable to domestic cat predation. They will take in sand or gravel grit that functions in the muscular crop to help break down the seeds and aid digestion. Rather than scratching the ground to uncover seeds, Mourning doves will move litter aside with the beak and take what seeds are visible on the ground. They may bask in the sun or bathe in rain by stretching out a wing and keeping that posture for as long as 20 minutes.
Mating rituals involve a male leading the female to a number of potential nest sites that the female chooses among. The male will bring twigs and grasses to the female and she builds the nest in trees, shrubs, or even buildings or other man-made structures. The clutch is two eggs and both male and female incubate the eggs, the male favoring mornings to early afternoon and the female taking the evening and night shift. They may perform a broken wing display to distract a potential predator and lead it away from the nest. Young are born helpless and both parents provide a milk-like secretion “pigeon milk” to the nestlings for the first several days. Thereafter seeds are added into the diet. After two weeks the young fledge and are able to consume a normal adult seed diet.
Their ability to process rather saline water without dehydrating allows Mourning doves to survive in arid environments better than other birds. These are long-lived birds, the oldest based on banding records being some 30 years old. It was shot in Florida in 1998 and had been banded in Georgia in 1968. One wonders how long it might have lived if it had died a natural death.
The Audubon Society predicts little change in the range of the Mourning dove as a result of climate warming.