Photo by John Schwarz,

The Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) is a common backyard bird, scratching for seeds under feeders, sipping from birdbaths, and generally loafing around, especially in groups in sunny spots in winter. It is about 12 inches long tip to tail (a robin is 10 inches.) Its familiar drawn-out “ooo ah oo oo ooooo” (accent on the “ah”), heard most frequently around sunrise in spring, sounds melancholy to some, hence the “Mourning” Dove.

Like Noah’s dove and the native but extinct Passenger Pigeon (and even the Dodo), it is in the family Columbidae, the Latin word for pigeon – birds with short bills and legs, small heads and stout bodies. In colonial days, although found in scattered sites across our continent, it was probably most numerous in the southeast. It thrives in woodland edges and open fields and avoids deep forests and wetlands. Audubon called it the Carolina Turtle-Dove. Today it is abundant throughout the United States and southern Canada, south to Panama. Some Mourning Doves migrate south for the winter, others stay close to “home.”

Its success versus the failure of the Passenger Pigeon is a lesson in environmental biology. The nomadic Passenger Pigeon thrived on woodlands that produced large seeds such as acorns and beechnuts. It produced one single egg per year in one single nest. The decline of forests during our country’s 19th century push to agriculture eliminated large swaths of its habitat. Its low reproductive rate and the pressure of zealous hunting sealed its doom.

The opportunistic Mourning Dove, on the other hand, nests several times a year, producing two eggs each time. Its biology is compatible with agriculture. Ninety-nine percent of its diet is small seeds that are often stored in its sizeable crop – a saclike enlargement of the gullet- for later digestion. In one instance, 17,200 annual bluegrass seeds were found in a single crop.

Doves will travel up to five miles for water, and pioneers seeking water sources followed them. Doves drink in a different manner than most song birds. They are able to sip water directly, as if through a straw, unlike most birds, who dip their beaks, then lift their bills, letting the water trickle down.

The Mourning Dove is the nation’s most hunted bird. Forty states, including Illinois, hold Mourning Dove hunting seasons. The bird’s flight makes it a tricky, inviting target. Its long wingspan, from 17-19 inches, and its long tapered tail streamline it for speed. It has been clocked at 55 mph. It can unexpectedly change pace and altitude. Upon takeoff, the wind often whistles audibly across its wings. Not surprisingly, the Mourning Dove’s average lifespan is less than a year. Those that survive to breed return close to their birthplace.

Margaret Morse Nice, a well-respected ornithologist who died at the age of 90 in 1974, credits her defense of the Mourning Dove for awakening her to her true calling. In 1919, Oklahoma’s game warden proposed opening dove hunting season on August 15, claiming that, by then, the squabs had left the nest. Nice’s rambles on the University of Oklahoma campus with her daughters proved young were still on the nest as late as October. Determined to refute error, she protested publicly and embarked on her ornithological career.

Mourning doves are seasonally monogamous. Before mating, the male calls from cooing perches (wooing perches?) mostly in the morning. The male selects the nest site, making sure there are cooing perches nearby from which to defend the nest. He brings sticks to the female and stands on her back while passing them off. She fashions a platform nest so flimsy that sometimes the eggs can be seen (or can drop) through it. Nests can be anywhere from the ground up to over 250 feet high, on a horizontal tree branch or in the crotch of a shrub, sometimes atop another bird’s nest. The building process can take seven to ten hours over two to four days.

Throughout nesting there is a strong parental bond. During the 14-15 day incubation period, the male takes the mid-morning through late afternoon shift and the female incubates the remainder of the time. Both sexes feed the nestlings. For the first few days they are fed highly nutritious “crop milk” which is secreted from the lining of the adult’s crop. Hatchlings fledge in 12-14 days. If the female has already begun another nesting, the male will care for the previous brood for about two weeks. When sensing danger, adult Mourning Doves will use the “broken-wing feign,” faking their own injury to lure predators away from the nest.

A close look at the Mourning Dove, which initially appears so ordinary, reveals a subtle loveliness. It has black dots on the wings and a single black spot behind and below the eyes. A Cook County Forest Preserve Nature Bulletin waxed poetic, “…the neck and breast shimmer like watered silk with tints of rose, lavender and tan. The feathers of the long sharp tail are tipped with white. The beak is black and the feet are red.” Canadian artist and author Seabrooke Leckie concurs, “We tend to think of them as just mouse-brown, but they embrace a broader palette than that. For one, there’s the soft blue orbital [eye] ring. The blue is actually coloured skin, rather than feathers. Then there’s the pink corners to the mouth, the overall effect as though they’re wearing eyeshadow and lipstick.”

It is the official symbol of peace in Wisconsin and Michigan. In 2006, Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected dove hunting.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.