The mourning dove is a slender bird with a rounded head and smooth-looking breast. The plumage is gray brown with black spots on the wings. The tail is long and tapered to a point, with large white tips on the feathers. The eyes are dark. Song is a soft, inflected “coo-AH-oo” followed by several coos.
Similar species: In Missouri, the most common lookalike is the Eurasian collared-dove, which has a black collar on the back of its neck, is grayer, lacks the black wing spots, and has a different call. Another related species, the rock pigeon, is very common, but that large, short-tailed, usually gray urbanite is unlikely to be confused with the mourning dove. Four more related species might occur in our state:
- The white-winged dove sometimes occurs as a transient or accidental summer visitor; its core range is to the southwest and south. It has a squared, less tapered tail, lacks black wing spots, and at rest shows its distinct white wing patch along the front edge of the wings.
- The Inca dove also mainly occurs southwest of our state, but this tiny dove has been recorded as a transient and accidental winter visitor in Missouri. Dark edges on the feathers make it look scaled.
- The common ground-dove, has appeared in Missouri as a casual winter resident. This sparrow-sized dove usually occurs south of Missouri, along the Gulf Coast.
- The band-tailed pigeon may also occur here as an accidental winter resident from the southwest. It is purplish gray, has a crescent white collar on the back of its neck, and has a lightened, paler gray tail tip.
Length: 12 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).
Habitat and Conservation
Mourning doves are found mainly in crop fields, around farms, and in yards. They predate man in America and proved quite adaptable to the arrival of humans. Prairie fires set by Indians benefited doves by creating bare ground for feeding sites and enhancing growth of seed-producing plants. New agricultural practices of crop farming, livestock grazing, forest clearing, burning, and introduction of exotic seed-bearing plants helped increase dove populations. Hunting of these abundant game birds is popular.
The mourning dove eats mainly seeds, plus some insects, as it walks on the ground in crop fields, around farms, and in yards. The bills of doves are relatively soft and inefficient for opening tough seeds, so doves usually swallow seeds whole and let their muscular crops "chew up" the seeds. Young squabs are fed pigeon milk, a nutritious secretion from the adult crop gland. After about a week, the young are weaned to seeds. Doves and pigeons, unlike most other birds, can drink water with their heads down. Other birds must scoop up water with their bills, then throw their heads back for gravity to make the water go down their throats.
Common migrant and summer resident statewide; uncommon during the winter months.
Courtship is in April. Usually 2 eggs are laid in a flimsy nest and are incubated for 14 days. Squabs are fully fledged at about 2 weeks. Once a pair complete their first nest, they start on the next, and can have as many as 7 nesting attempts between late March and early September. In July and August juveniles begin flocking together. As winter arrives they begin to fly south. Most leave by October 15. Some locations with abundant food and roosting sites hold flocks all year.
Dove hunting is a popular and rewarding sport, and many consider doves good eating. Consult the current Wildlife Code of Missouri for specific regulations.
Although doves don’t eat directly from bird feeders, they commonly glean seed from the ground beneath them.
In heavily hunted areas, mourning doves sometimes accidentally eat fallen lead shot as they peck at seeds on the ground, which can give them lead poisoning.
Missouri writer Leonard Hall reported that old-time Ozarkers considered the soft coos of mourning doves on balmy spring evenings "the surest sign . . . that frost is over and corn-planting time at hand."
Vance Randolph recorded an Ozark folklore belief that "whoever hears the first dove coo in the spring will soon take a trip in the direction from which the sound came." Another belief was that "whatever a man is doing when he hears the first dove of the season, that's what he'll have to do all summer."
Many predators eat mourning doves. The eggs and chicks often fall prey to snakes, hawks, and skunks and other mammals. Like rodents, doves reproduce at a high rate and live only a short time and have a high mortality rate. Only 40 percent of doves hatched in a given year survive until the next breeding season. Thus doves are an important part of the food chain, conveying nutrients produced by plants along to the many carnivores that prey on the doves.
Where to See Species
About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.