Mourning doves are one of 310 species of doves and pigeons belonging to the family Columbridae. Only 11 species breed in North America. On the basis of appearance, there is no prescribed way of telling pigeons and doves apart; however, pigeons tend to be larger. Mourning doves have short legs and neck but a long, pointed tail edged with white. The rest of the bird's body is a grayish brown color with black spots on its wings. Males tend to be larger than females and of brighter color.
Habitat and Biology
Mourning doves are the most widely distributed birds in North America. They are found in all of the continental United States, the lower portion of the Canadian prairie provinces, Mexico, and the West Indies in habitats ranging from deserts to pine forests. In the United States, two subspecies are recognized: Zenaida macroura caroliniensis, which occurs east of the Mississippi; and Zenaida macroura marginella, found from the prairie states westward. An intermediate form of the two races exists in the zone of overlap which extends southwest of Michigan through Missouri into eastern Texas.
Mourning doves are primarily granivorous ground feeders. They prefer small seeds and consume a large variety of species. Agricultural crops, particularly cereal grains such as oats, wheat, corn, millets, and rye, are important sources of food for doves. Doves utilize different habitats for foraging and roosting during fall and winter. Flocks move between roost sites and agricultural fields on a daily basis. Once the food supply is exhausted, the flock then seeks new feeding areas, so that considerable movement takes place during winter. Winter roost sites are generally small to medium woodlots that provide protective cover.
Mourning doves are monogamous; that is, they have only one mate. After mating, the male initiates selection of the nest site. Nests of mourning doves consist of twigs and pine needles, and are built either on the ground or in bushes and tall trees. Ground-nesting is uncommon in South Carolina. Females lay two eggs, which are incubated by both parents over a period of about 2 weeks. The nesting season in the coastal portion of South Carolina often begins as early as February and can continue into October. Both adults brood the nestlings, feeding them regurgitated food and "crop milk," also known as "pigeon milk," which is a fatty substance produced in the birds' crop. The newly hatched young, called squabs, develop rapidly and leave the nest 12-14 days after hatching. A complete nesting cycle, including several days for nest building and egg laying, requires approximately 30 days. Adults may nest as often as 5-6 times during the nesting season in the South.
At the end of the breeding season, doves gather in large flocks and migrate south for the winter. Cold months are spent in the southeastern United States, Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies. They move back to their breeding grounds in late winter or early spring. Upon returning, birds typically go back to the same nesting area used the previous year, and sometimes even back to the old nest. Mourning doves feed primarily on plant material such as seeds, waste grain, and fruit. Doves and pigeons share an unusual characteristic: they drink without lifting their heads after each sip. That is, unlike most birds, they do not "scoop" water with their beaks.
The average life span of mourning doves is 1-1.5 years. Natural causes of mortality of mourning doves include predation by avian and mammalian predators; destruction of eggs and nestlings by squirrels, snakes, and birds; and disease. Man-related mortality factors have a considerable effect on the dove population and include destruction of habitat, pesticides and hunting.
This bird species offers more recreation in the way of hunting than any other resident or migratory bird. It is the job of the federal government to establish maximum limits for annual migratory bird hunting. Individual states may set regulations that can be more restrictive, but not more liberal, than federal regulations. Dove hunting season starts in most states in September and ends in October or November. In South Carolina, the season extends from September to January. Methods used for hunting doves differ according to area and climactic conditions, as well as personal preferences. In South Carolina, there is a bag limit of 12 doves per day.
The mourning dove is a highly adaptable species whose numbers have increased in recent years due to clearing of forested areas. They are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and under international conventions with Canada and Mexico. However, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act considers sport hunting a legal use of the migratory bird game resource. Federal regulations, established annually by the Secretary of the Interior, govern the hunting, selling, purchase, and possession of mourning doves in the United States. States must set their regulations within the federal framework.
Bull, J. L. and J. Farrand, Jr. 1995. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. Eastern Region. The Audubon Society field guide series. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, NY.
Dunks, J. H., R. E. Tomlinson, H. M. Reeves, D. D. Dolton, C. E. Braun, and T. P. Zapatka. 1982. Migration, harvest, and population dynamics of mourning doves in the Central Management Unit, 1967-77. Special Scientific Report--Wildlife No. 249. United States Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, DC.
Fenwood, L. 1986. Eastern mourning dove. South Carolina Wildlife 33(5): 6-10.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources. 1963. The mourning dove as a game bird. Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. Publication W-13. Columbus, OH.
Sprunt, A., Jr. and E. B. Chamberlain. 1970. South Carolina bird life. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC.
Tomlinson, R.E., D.D. Dolton, R.R. George, and R.E. Mirarchi. 1994. Mourning dove. p. 5-28. In: T.C. Tacha and C.E. Braun (eds.). Migratory shore and upland game bird management in North America. International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Washington, DC.