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Speaking of Nature

Kids & Critters: mourning doves

The mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) is as elegant as it is common. A little larger than the average birds that inhabit our back yards, the mourning dove is about 12 inches in length. Much of that is accounted for by the long, graceful tail of the adults, but even without the tails, mourning doves are plump birds that stand out from most others.

Coloration changes with the seasons, but at this time of year, the safest description would be somewhere between gray and light brown. Imagine a cup of coffee that has had a lot of cream added to it and you have the right idea. The young birds that were born at the end of the breeding season are particularly drab.

In contrast, adult males can put on quite a show of color. Breast feathers bloom with a deep salmon color and there are patches of feathers on the sides of the neck that glow with iridescent gold. These feathers actually remind me of the metallic patches that are sometimes included in the paper currency of other nations to prevent counterfeiting. The nuptial plumage of a healthy male mourning dove definitely increases the beauty of this already chic species.

Mourning doves are easy to see in neighborhoods because they are quite fond of perching on wires. Their slender football-shaped bodies that are equipped with those long, tapered tails make them quite impossible to mistake for any other species. Their voices, however, can be much more confusing.

In the spring, when the males start singing, their sonorous cooing is sometimes confused for the song of an owl. The three- to four-note song is actually quite easy to imitate by placing your thumbs side-by-side, cupping your opposing hands together, and then blowing through the space between your thumb joints. If you don’t know this method of whistling and you’re having difficulty imagining how to do this, just ask your friends or your parents until you find someone who can show you.

At this time of year, however, the doves are silent. In fact, they would really rather not attract too much attention for the simple fact that their larger size makes them particularly tempting targets for sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks that haunt the forest edges during the winter. In the spring, when I go on my first snow-free walk of the year, little piles of feathers mark the locations of successful hawk predations and those containing mourning dove feathers are always the most common.

Something that might surprise you is the fact that mourning doves are often quite aggressive. They typically arrive in small flocks of 6 to10, but there have been times when over 30 birds show up at my porch. When this many birds are looking for food at the same time, they can engage in some spirited competition that even involves fisticuffs (if birds had fists, that is).

The two pugilists will square off and stand quite still for just a moment. Then, one bird will show the other its armpit. What nerve! What gall! If the simple sight of the armpit doesn’t send the other bird off in a fright, then the wing will be snapped down to strike the opponent. Mourning doves are the only birds that I have ever seen engaged in this sort of physical combat. If only they could stick to fighting with singing. What could be better than a bloodless coo?

Start the New Year off on a positive note and see if you can spot a mourning dove in your neighborhood. If you have a bird feeder in your yard, you will only have to spread some seeds on the ground and sit by a window and wait. Mourning doves are shy, but they will come to bird feeders in the winter. I’ve seen as many as 17 at my porch at the same time. How many can you see?

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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