They may be ordinary in appearance, but Mourning Doves have, arguably, among the most entrancing and haunting calls of all American birds.
The male’s repeated “ah-ooh! whoo, whoo, whoo” is the first bird song I remember from early childhood, though for a long time I thought it was the hooting of an owl. Only years later did I connect this drawn-out, melancholy sound with the unprepossessing, pigeon-like birds that were so abundant in our Long Island backyard.
Mourning Doves (formerly called Carolina pigeons or turtle doves) are in the bird family Columbidae, along with over 300 other species, including the ubiquitous Rock Pigeon found in cities worldwide. Another relative is the passenger pigeon, native to the U.S. but now extinct.
Less robust than Rock Pigeons, Mourning Doves are slender, grayish brown, robin-sized birds with black bills, long, pointed tails, and reddish legs and feet. Their wings bear several blackish spots.
Aside from their distinctive “ah-ooh! whoo” song, Mourning Doves also make a loud, high-pitched whistling noise with their wings during take-offs and landings. This sound may signal alarm to other doves and/or startle potential predators.
The species is found year-round throughout most of the U.S., including the Lowcountry of South Carolina, though some populations in the northernmost parts of its range migrate southward for the winter.
Common habitats include open woodlands, grasslands, and farm fields, as well as towns and suburban backyards. Mourning Doves are well adapted to sharing space with humans. They’re frequent visitors at bird feeders, where they forage for seeds on the ground. Periodically they’ll also ingest some grit (sand or gravel), which stays in their gizzard and helps grind up tougher seeds.
During the breeding season, members of a pair cooperate in building a flimsy nest in pines and other trees, or sometimes on the ground, or in eaves and gutters. Just two eggs are produced per brood, but a pair may produce as many as six broods per year.
At first, parents feed the nestlings “pigeon milk,” a high-protein, high-fat secretion from the lining of their crop, a portion of the digestive tract. As the offspring get older, they transition to a diet of regurgitated seeds.
Although Mourning Doves are popular game birds, they’re not classified as an endangered species, though in some areas there’s concern about doves inadvertently eating poisonous lead shot fallen onto the ground.
Hawks and domestic cats are among the predators of adult birds, and dove eggs are eaten by crows, grackles, and rat snakes. The average lifespan of a Mourning Dove is surprisingly short – just one to two years.