Mourning Dove in Winter

Mourning Dove in Winter

I first noticed the large gathering of mourning doves under our bird feeder earlier this winter. We frequently see a pair year-round, but this winter we were visited by a flock of more than 15 for the first time I can remember. It was fun to see them all feeding together and jostling for seed.

They are ground feeders, so when I fill the bird feeder, I remember to scatter some on the ground for the mourning doves. I’ll make sure to put enough down for the dark-eyed juncos who migrate south each winter from their northern nesting grounds in Canada.

Mourning doves are common across the continent and are a welcome addition to our backyard. They are an open country bird, preferring woodland edges, grasslands, agricultural fields and, of course, backyards too. They rely on woods during winter for cover from the cold and snow.

They are abundant, with the U.S. population estimated at 350 million. They are the most popular game bird in the country and are hunted in 41 states. They are not hunted in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont.

Mourning dove plumage is a delicate brown to buff-tan overall with black spots on the wings and black border to the white tips of the tail. Both males and females look alike with only a subtle difference in the males’ rose-tinted breast and grayish top to its head.  Frequently seen perching on telephone wires, they’re about the size of a robin, graceful in appearance and slender-tailed with small heads. When taking off their flight is fast and straight, with their heads elevated, and their wings making a light whistling sound.

There is nothing quite like the soft sound of mourning doves. It’s their sad plaintive call that gives them their name (not morning as in time of day). The lonely ooAAH coo cooo coo call is often mistaken for an owl.

During mating season, it is the male we hear hoping to attract a mate. He selects a nest site and perches on a horizontal branch, then makes a short coo call to attract the female. He also provides nesting material and brings one piece at a time to the female to build the nest. He may stand next to her or sometimes on her back, and hand the stick to her over her shoulder. She’ll weave nest materials together to make flat nest about 8 inches across. Typically, the nest is in dense foliage on a flat branch of an evergreen and loosely made with an assortment of pine needles, twigs and grass. A clutch is usually only two eggs but with an incubation period of 14 days and nesting period of 12-15 days the mourning dove is capable of up to six broods per year.

Seeds make up about 99 percent of the mourning dove’s diet. Berries and the occasional snail also get digested. They usually eat off the ground but will perch in dense shrubs and take seeds directly. The swallowed seeds are stored in an enlarged esophagus or crop and when filled they fly to a safe perch to digest the meal. The young are fed “pigeon milk” a nutritious white liquid of seeds regurgitated by the parent birds.

This winter I have seen the flock of mourning doves most days. They’ll roost together in the trees above the backyard and drift throughout the neighborhood in search of food. It’s a good sign my bird feeder needs to be filled when I don’t see them in the yard. Millet is always a good choice for them.

We’ve just experienced the first Nor’easter of winter, dumping about two feet of snow on many of us. The high winds cased drifts even higher along my stone wall and the side of the barn. I had filled the feeder in anticipation of the weather and filled it again after the storm, leaving plenty on the ground (or snow top). The mourning doves, as well as other winter birds hunkered down in the long stand of white pines between our property and our neighbor’s lot. I’ll remember to refill the feeder in the morning and make sure to leave plenty on the ground for the mourning doves to enjoy. It is still winter and a few months till nesting season.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and together let us care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Information for this column was sourced from the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Volume II by Donald and Lilliam Stokes, The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley and the website All About Birds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and can be reached at 860-774-3300 or


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