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Observing nature without leaving the yard

Juvenile mourning doves are staying close to home even after hatching more than 20 days ago. KEITH CORLISS/FORUM NEWS SERVICE

On Monday I went to see a friend of mine who lives on a beautiful piece of rural property near Felton, Minn. In the minutes spent catching up and visually taking in his garden and yard, I marveled at the diversity of bird species present. With little effort I noted 23 species in less than an hour. Of those, 21 are likely nesting there.

Contrast that with my yard in the middle of West Fargo where, in 22 years, we’ve totaled about six nesting species. Apparent in this comparison is a loud message regarding habitat, but I’ll save that for another day.

Not a lot of species tolerate urban conditions well. One of those that does, though, is the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura). They’ve nested in our yard in the past but I never really paid close attention to the process. Until this year.

I’ve gotten to know Ohio artist and writer Julie Zickefoose through the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival in Carrington. She recently signed a book deal with her publisher to tell the story of young bird development from hatching to fledging, through the drawings and paintings of a number of different species. Mourning dove, she recently informed me, was one she had not yet recorded.

Luck played a role in early June when, two days after the first brood fledged, a mother dove laid her second pair of white eggs in a nest above our patio. Suddenly I was in a position to watch, monitor, report, photograph, and document the tale of the rearing of mourning dove babies to be forwarded to Zickefoose for consideration.

Hatching occurred the morning of June 17, day one. As a rough guide for what to expect I leaned on BNA’s (Birds of North America) account of mourning doves. Each day I spent several minutes observing the comings and goings of the adults as well the phenomenal growth of the young birds.

Much of what I read accurately described what was taking place on my patio. “At hatch nestlings have closed eyes...prominent white egg teeth are present on both mandibles...head is barely held upright.” Yes, yes and, yes.

On day five I wrote, ‘ hovered briefly before settling to nearby ground where a wounded display commenced.’ BNA has this to say of the adult distraction show: “The probability of a high intensity display, which involve adults feigning injury and often displaying on the ground within 10-20 m of nest, peaks after hatching.”

I also heard soft cooing from the adult that day. I now know this is called perch-cooing and is done by the male, supposedly, to get the youngsters used to his voice so he can find and feed them once they’ve fledged.

My doves departed from the BNA account when it stated, “By 6-7 days, constant brooding is unusual and squabs may be left unattended for long periods in good weather.” I guess mine were unusual. Despite the very mild weather conditions it wasn’t until day 10 that the young were left unattended for any length of time.

On the morning of day 12, the larger bolder of the two young birds was perched on the handle of my Weber grill. It wasn’t all that far from the nest, a drop of perhaps three feet, but it had indeed fledged. It’s a big deal, the equivalent, I suppose, of the young teen getting the keys to the family car for the first time. The following day its sibling joined him in leaving the nest, which has gone entirely unused since.

They’ve not left the yard though. The pair is still sitting quietly under some greenery. Sunday, day 21, my wife and I even saw the adult male come in and feed both juveniles simultaneously. Apparently the doves will be around for several more days if BNA is accurate: “...fed by male parent for decreasing periods until 30 days old.”

I sometimes complain about the boring outdoors experiences to be had within city limits in general, my yard in particular. Occasionally I need to be reminded that most of us don’t get to walk in wilderness every day, but there is quite a bit of natural wonder to observe nearly everywhere. It might not be as grand as a pack of wolves hunting in Yellowstone Park or the spawning of Chinook salmon in Alaska. But every day, all around us, dramas big and small are taking place. Yes, even in our own back yard.

Keith Corliss | Forum News Service

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