The mourning dove

  • Doves will come quite close to your house and you may be able to notice the beautiful patch of lavender feathers that adorn the necks of male birds. These feathers will also show a metallic yellow iridescence in direct sunlight.

  • When the snow starts to pile up the food offered by humans becomes ever more valuable to ground-feeding species like mourning doves. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

Published: 11/25/2019 7:00:23 AM

I always enjoy receiving correspondence from my readers, but every now and then the perfect communication (whether traditional written, or email) arrives at the perfect time. Just as I occasionally manage to write about a topic that one of my readers then instantly hears, sees, or otherwise witnesses the next day, sometimes a reader happens to mention something that I’ve been thinking about or seeing myself. It’s pure serendipity and it’s glorious.

Such was the case with an email that arrived last week from Darlene, of Colrain. The email read as follows: “Bill, I live up here in Colrain and this past week I have had lots of visits from mourning doves. I have counted up to 30 at one feeding. I was wondering if you have noticed any of these large gatherings. I have been throwing a mix of birdseed on the ground. I have always had mourning doves but never this many at once. Just curious about what is happening.”

Well, this is classic mourning dove behavior. In late fall, when most of the years breeding is over, mourning doves will assemble in large flocks and roam the countryside in search of food. These large flocks of birds appear to have some delightfully predictable timing in their behaviors and I was just starting to notice exactly the same thing that Darlene has so shrewdly observed. The large flocks have assembled once again.

Unlike some of our other feeder visitors, mourning doves do not crack, break, or otherwise “chew” their food. Instead, they swallow seeds whole and this allows them to eat a lot of food very quickly. It does, however, present a different problem for the doves because whole dry seeds are not easily digestible. The solution to this problem is for the doves to then fly off and find a source of grit, gravel, or sand, which they will also swallow whole.

Since many of us will be involved in the preparations for our upcoming Thanksgiving celebration, this is the absolute perfect time to do a little anatomy lesson. Among the “extra parts” that are normally packed inside a store-bought turkey are the neck, liver, heart and gizzard. The gizzard is the one that we are interested in today and it can easily be identified because it is as “hard as a rock.” This is essential for the function of the gizzard.

Seeds that have been swallowed whole are mixed with small stones that have also been swallowed and both of these items are collected in the gizzard. Then, as the bird finds shelter in a safe place, the gizzard starts grinding the seeds and stones together. In this way, the doves are “chewing” their food. The gizzard represents the jaws and muscles that provide the force, while the small stones perform the same function as teeth. Once the mixture has been ground to a pulp, the food passes on to the stomach.

Food put out by humans can be a ridiculously important resource for doves because it gives them a chance to land upon a stupendously large amount of food that they would not otherwise have access to. They literally vacuum up the seeds, like someone filling up a to-go container at a buffet restaurant, and then they can fly off and process the food in a location that is much safer.

The mourning doves at my house follow a schedule that would make a railroad proud. Every morning, just as the sun is breaking over the horizon, a flock of doves will arrive in what I affectionately call a “swarm.” So far this year the maximum number that I have counted is 22 birds, but in past years, especially when the snow is deep, I have counted 50-60 birds in one flock. I have to admit that it is difficult to look at a carpet of birds that visit my deck specifically because of the food that I provide them without feeling pleased with myself.

Congregations of this size are not unusual, but they also have their problems. Doves are a tremendous prey item for sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper’s hawks and large flocks attract a lot of attention. The “swarms” arrive at sunrise, strip every last seed off the deck, and then depart in what is usually less than 10 minutes. Later in the day, I will regularly see smaller groups of doves exploring my driveway in search of the small bits of stone that they need to process their food. Entire flocks can then disappear into a grove of pine trees and “eat” in safety.

Thanks to Darlene for sending her email with such perfect timing. I wish you all the happiest of Thanksgivings and I hope that you are able to load up your plate with delicious food and then find a soft chair where, like a mourning dove, you can relax in the company of the ones you love.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


Copyright © 2019 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy