For the first time in decades of feeding and enjoying wild birds in my backyard, country-living pigeons have been showing up at my bird feeding station.
I think of the attractive birds as squirrels with wings. They’re gluttons, they hog the feeders, and other birds seem to shy away until they’ve had their fill.
At first I only observed one or two “rock doves,” as wild pigeons are also called, but now I’ve seen as many as seven crowded on the feeder’s platform -- gorging themselves with expensive black-oil sunflower seeds. I hope their number doesn’t grow too much more!
Surprisingly, a few days ago, I also noticed a wild relative feeding alongside some of the ground-feeding pigeons — a lone mourning dove. The dove seemed to be comfortable with its oversized relatives as if their company was a suitable substitute in absence of its own kind. Indeed, mourning doves are closely related to pigeons.
The mourning dove is North America’s most widespread native dove species. Interestingly, there are over a dozen species of doves and pigeons that inhabit parts of the continent. Others include the non-native Eurasian collared dove (which also live in Minnesota) the Inca dove, the ringed turtle dove, and the common ground dove.
Mourning doves can be found in all of the lower 48 states, parts of southern Canada, Mexico and Central America, as well as the islands off the coast of Florida that include the Caribbean, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Dominican Republic. Mourning doves breed and nest, however, in only parts of the northern Great Plains, including Minnesota, the Midwest and Great Lakes states, and Canada.
As most people know, mourning doves get their name from their “mournful” vocalizations that are generally delivered in the same cadence. Softly emitted coos, “ooah ooo oo,” are produced repeatedly.
In fact, coos are common calls of all species of doves and pigeons worldwide. Other traits that all doves and pigeons share is head bobbing as they walk, small heads, short legs, and pointed wings that are almost falcon-like in appearance.
Doves and pigeons are also very swift flyers.
I’ll never forget the first time I learned just how fast a mourning dove can fly. Traveling in my truck one summer afternoon many years ago on Highway 9 south of Crookston, I remember driving the posted speed limit of 55 mph when I noticed alongside the vehicle above the driver’s side road-ditch, about 15 or 20 feet high, a mourning dove flying the exact same speed as I was driving.
Surprised, I glanced down at the speedometer to verify my speed and then looked back at the flying dove, which was now passing me! As I maintained my speed of 55 mph the dove angled ever so slightly and eventually crossed the road in front of me and continued its flight path across an open field.
The mourning dove’s coo-call is produced exclusively by the male, not female doves. And what’s more, the call, like most songs and calls from singing and calling male birds, is somewhat territorial but, in the case of mourning doves, is more “wooing” in nature. The somber coo of a male mourning dove is meant to seduce female doves, thereby helping male doves find mates.
Owners of perhaps the most haphazardly built nests of any bird, mourning doves do not spend a great deal of time constructing their crude stick-nests. Built either in low lying shrubs or small trees and sometimes even on the ground, generally just two eggs are laid in the nests, sometimes only one.
Seed eaters, mourning doves also produce an interesting substance that is often called “pigeon milk” or “crop milk” that is fed to newly hatched chicks for the first few days of their lives. Resembling cottage cheese, the “milk” is rich in fat and protein and is secreted from the birds’ crop lining. After a few days of this diet, nestlings are fed seeds until they fledge around two weeks later.
Mourning doves are plentiful, common birds in Minnesota and elsewhere, sometimes even sticking around at our wintertime birdfeeders. Close relatives of the extinct passenger pigeon, mourning doves are pleasant birds to observe and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.