Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)

Also known as: American mourning dove, Carolina dove, Carolina pigeon, Carolina turtle dove, Carolina turtledove, Carolina turtle-dove, rain dove, western turtle dove
Synonyms: Columba macroura
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderColumbiformes
FamilyColumbidae
GenusZenaida (1)
SizeMale length: 23 - 34 cm (2)
Female length: 22.5 - 31 cm (3)
Wingspan: c. 45 cm (2)
Male weight: 96 - 170 g (2) (3)
Female weight: 86 - 156 g (2) (3)

The mourning dove is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Named for its rather plaintive cooing, the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) is a slender, medium-sized dove with a relatively small head and a distinctive long, pointed tail (2) (3) (4) (5). It is one of the most abundant and widespread birds in North America, where its mournful call is a familiar sound of spring and summer (3) (5) (6).

The mourning dove has soft greyish-brown upperparts and more buffy underparts, with a greyish crown and hindneck, sometimes with a metallic purple or bronze gloss. The wings and tail are grey, with a few black spots on the wings and black-bordered white tips to the tail feathers. The eye is surrounded by a narrow ring of bare blue or greenish-blue skin, and there is a small black streak on the cheek (2) (3) (4) (5) (7). The mourning dove has quite a small, delicate-looking black bill, and dull red legs and feet (2) (3) (4) (7).

The female mourning dove is slightly paler than the male, with less grey on the head (2) (3) (4). The male is also slightly larger than the female, and has a pinkish wash on the breast (3) (4) (5). Juvenile mourning doves have pale-edged feathers and some blackish spots on the head and breast, giving a scaly appearance (3) (4) (5) (7). Nestlings are a dark, mottled mixture of greys, blacks and browns, possibly to minimise detection by predators (3).

Up to five subspecies of mourning dove have been described, which vary in size and in the darkness of the plumage (3) (4) (7). The mourning dove can be confused with several other dove species, but is most easily distinguished by its long, tapering tail, which is unique among North American doves (2).

The characteristic song of the mourning dove is a soft, sad-sounding ‘coo-oo’, followed by two or three louder coos: ‘coo-oo, oo, oo, oo’. It is usually given by unpaired males and repeated over and over from a conspicuous perch (2) (3) (5). Males also give a three-note ‘coo-OO-oo’ to attract mates to potential nest sites, and females may give a soft ‘ohr ohr’ when sitting on the nest (2) (3). On take-off and landing, the mourning dove’s wings make a loud whistling sound, and it may also clap the wings together on take-off (2) (3).

The mourning dove is widely distributed across North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Its range extends from Canada to Costa Rica and Panama, and it also occurs in the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Bermuda (2) (3) (4) (5) (7) (8). This species has also been introduced in the Hawaiian Islands (3) (4).

In the southern parts of its range, the mourning dove does not migrate. However, most mourning doves from northern areas are migratory, many travelling long distances to spend the winter as far south as Central America (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7).

A highly successful species, the mourning dove can be found in a broad range of open and semi-open habitats, from savanna and grassland, to woodland edges, agricultural fields, roadsides, urban areas and even desert (2) (3) (5) (6) (7) (8). It generally avoids extensive forest and wetlands (2) (3) (5) (6).

The mourning dove’s diet consists almost entirely of seeds, which it takes from bare, open ground, or occasionally picks directly from plant stalks (2) (3) (5) (6) (7). It eats seeds from a wide variety of plants, including grasses, weeds, pines, compound flowers such as sunflowers (Helianthus), and cultivated crops such as wheat, corn, barley and peanuts (2) (3) (6) (7). The mourning dove usually forages in pairs or small groups (3) (5) and feeds quickly, filling the crop with seeds which it can later digest at leisure from the safety of a perch (2) (3) (6).

This species also sometimes eats berries (2). It rarely takes animal matter, such as insects, but does occasionally eat snails, possibly to obtain calcium from their shells (2) (3) (7). Mourning doves also regularly swallow grit, probably to help grind up and digest hard seeds (3) (6). Although the mourning dove can survive in desert, it needs to drink on a regular basis and will fly long distances to favoured water holes at dawn and dusk (3) (7).

The breeding season of the mourning dove varies with location. Birds in the south nest at almost any time of year, although most commonly between February and October (3) (7), while those further north usually start breeding one to two months later (3). The male mourning dove calls from favoured ‘cooing perches’ (2) and performs flight displays to attract a mate, flying up from a perch with noisy, clapping wing beats, before extending the wings and descending on a long, circling glide (3) (6). Breeding pairs will often preen each other’s feathers to reinforce the pair bond (2) (6).

The mourning dove builds a flimsy, unlined nest of twigs, pine needles and grass stems. The nest is constructed by the female using material gathered by the male, and is usually located in a bush, tree, or on the ground. The mourning dove will also nest in more unusual sites such as on cacti, building ledges or gutters (2) (3) (6) (7), or it may reuse an existing nest or take over the old nest of another species (2) (3) (7). Two white eggs are laid, and are incubated by both the male and the female, hatching after about 14 days (2) (3) (5) (6) (7). Like other doves and pigeons, the mourning dove is unusual for a bird in that it feeds its young chicks almost exclusively on “crop milk”, a nutritious secretion from the adult’s crop (3) (4) (5) (6) (9). This is later supplemented with seeds (4) (9).

The young mourning doves leave the nest at 11 to 15 days old, after which they are mainly fed by the male before becoming independent at just 30 days old (2) (3) (7). The mourning dove is a prolific breeder, and its fast development and short nesting cycle allow pairs to raise up to six broods in a season (3) (4) (6). The female can lay a new clutch of eggs while the previous young are still being tended, and the young mourning doves also mature early, sometimes even breeding later the same year (3) (7). However, wild mourning doves usually have a high mortality rate, and the average adult life span is only around a year or so (3) (4).

The main threat to the mourning dove is intense hunting. This species is the most popular game bird in North America and over 20 million individuals are killed by hunters each year, exceeding the annual harvest of all other migratory game birds combined (2) (3) (4). A less visible effect of hunting comes from lead poisoning, with mourning doves often picking up fallen lead shot as they forage on the ground (2) (3).

Fortunately, the mourning dove appears to be resilient to heavy hunting pressure (7). It remains one of the most abundant and widespread birds in North America, and has generally benefitted from human settlement and the spread of agriculture, which have allowed it to increase in numbers and expand its range (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7).

The mourning dove is covered by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and is managed as a game bird in many U.S. states (2) (3). A national roadside ‘Call Count Survey’, which records doves seen or heard cooing, has been performed each year since the 1960s, and the population trends revealed by this have been used to help set hunting regulations (3). In many areas, fields are managed specifically to attract doves for hunting (3).

This intensively hunted dove may benefit from additional population monitoring and harvest management, as well as further investigations into the impacts of lead poisoning (3).

Find out more about the mourning dove and its conservation:

More information on bird conservation in the Americas:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Mourning dove (March, 2011)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mourning_Dove/id
  3. Otis, D.L., Schulz, J.H., Miller, D., Mirarchi, R.E. and Baskett, T.S. (2008) Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/117/
  4. Baskett, T.S., Sayre, M.W., Tomlinson, R.E. and Mirarchi, R.E. (Eds.) (1993) Ecology and Management of the Mourning Dove. Stackpole, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
  5. Mobley, J.A. (2009) Birds of the World. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, New York.
  6. Kaufman, K. (2001) Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  7. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1997) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 4: Sandgrouse to Cuckoos. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  8. BirdLife International (March, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=2554
  9. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.