It’s Not Sad !

text and photos : Norma A. Hubbard  (October 2019)

As an English teacher, I spend a lot of time discussing words with my students. We talk about the power and meaning of words; we talk about the literal meanings verses the connotations that we attach to words. As a science teacher, I know most scientific names are often literal. As a bird watcher, I frequently think about bird names. I spent many years believing Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) was “Morning” Dove, and wondered why it was named ‘morning’? It certainly is not the first bird at my feeders in the mornings. Therefore, when I saw it was actually Mourning Dove, it suddenly made sense to me. Anyone who has heard a Mourning Dove with its sad sounding song can easily understand why it was given that name. As to its scientific name, Zenaida was the wife’s name of the scientist who named this bird; macroura comes from Ancient Greek, makros means long and oura means tail.

Male Mourning Doves tend to have a favorite perch from which they keep an eye on their territories. Even before I knew this, I had dubbed a tall tree in my backyard, the dove tree, because there was always a dove in it! While the males may perch high, all doves tend to be ground feeders. They will eat at platform feeders, yet most often, they are under the feeders. Their diet consists mainly of seeds. Doves can consume up to 20 percent of their body weight per day. Mourning Doves have crops, which is an enlarged part of the esophagus, where they store seeds to digest later. Often they gobble up seeds, and then fly to a high perch to eat in safety. They are easy prey on the ground from both cats and hawks. However, Mourning Doves are excellent flyers, which helps with quick escapes if needed. They can reach speeds of 55 km/hr. I have watched a hawk try to catch a dove in flight, it was quite the chase – and the hawk gave up. The wings of doves make a whistling sound when they take off.

In the U.S., Mourning Doves are one of the most hunted game birds due to the abundance of birds estimated at 350 million. Each year approximately 20 million doves are shot. Sadly, in 1998 in Florida, the oldest known Mourning Dove was killed. It was a banded male, who was over 30 years old.

Mourning Doves typically mate for life. Females lay only two eggs per brood, and may have up to six broods per season. Incubation time is 14 days and after hatching, the nestlings will leave in about 12-15 days. Nests are commonly found in dense foliage, such as evergreens, and doves do not seem to be bothered by human activity. The female builds the nest with twigs from the male, who stands on the female when he delivers it! Both parents feed their young. What I used to believe was a family of three in flight, is a social display of two males and a female. The lead male bird is the mate of the female, and a rival male is chasing the lead male in hopes of taking over the area. According to Cornell University, the female “seems to go along for the ride”.

It is interesting to watch doves at the birdbath. They love to bathe, even in winter. Unlike Blue Jays who bathe alone, doves have no problem with sharing the bath. I have seen three together in the birdbath with several perched on the edge! They drink by sucking up the water, which most birds do not do.

Although their name is a sad word, Mourning Doves are associated with hope, love and peace. Many people know the story of Noah’s Ark; how the white dove returned with an olive leaf, providing hope that land was near. As well, a white dove is a symbol for peace or love. Another common name is Turtle Dove, a reference used in the Twelve Days of the Christmas song, “two turtle doves” which is meant as a loving pair. Moreover, their sad cooing sound is actually a mating sound usually made by a male as he tries to woo a female, so when I think about it now, maybe ‘morning’ is a better name than ‘mourning’ for these pretty birds.

Source: All About Birds, Cornell University [online]