With the approach of the Christmas season, thoughts turn to traditional holiday music. Among the most popular carols is “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which cites “two turtle doves” and leads us to this month’s profile – not of the turtle dove but of the mourning dove, Zenaida macroura. The turtle dove actually is a bird of Europe, but the mourning dove is a New World species and has been sometimes referred to as the Carolina turtle dove.
Mourning doves are abundant and widespread. They occur in all fifty states, as well as parts of Canada and Mexico, and are readily found in the Barrington area. They occur most often in open fields and pastures but can be spotted in parks, yards, on telephone wires – just about anywhere except deep forests. They need space to launch their plump, long-tailed bodies into flight. Their powerful wing beats that lift them off the ground often make a sound that immediately identifies the species.
My personal connection to the mourning dove is an embarrassing one. The dove emits a soft, mournful (hence the name) series of coos that might be mistaken for an owl’s hoot. And that’s exactly what I thought it was – for years! My guess is that some trusted friend jokingly told me once that the dove’s vocalization was that of an owl and I believed it. Not only did I believe it, I told others that the sad coo-coo-coo-coo came from an owl. Why I never questioned the claim, especially since owls vocalize primarily at night and doves during the day, does not reflect well on my quest for accuracy! But those were days before serious study of birds began and I was mortified when the error became obvious. Every time I hear the cooing of a mourning dove, I think of that prolonged blunder.
My closest encounter with a mourning dove occurred while we were living in Washington, DC. Just outside, and below our dressing room window, an iron trellis supported clematis vines. One early spring morning when I looked out I was surprised to see a mourning dove at rest atop the vines. It didn’t move and it soon became clear that the bird was sitting on a nest. For the next several weeks I watched with keen interest. When the bird vacated the nest, which was not frequently, I saw what a poor excuse for a nest the structure was: it consisted of small twigs loosely thrown together, with big gaps between them. It seemed miraculous that the two round, pearly white eggs didn’t fall through, and I worried that the hatchlings just might.
But the nursery seemed to suit both mother and chicks just fine, even during stormy weather when she sheltered the eggs, and later hatchlings, from rain and wind. It was fascinating to watch her feed the youngsters with “pigeon milk”, a white liquid she regurgitated into their gaping mouths still too soft to handle the seeds that are a mourning dove’s staple diet.
The dove is easy to identify – by wingbeat sound, by vocalization, and by appearance. Its small head, rounded body, and long, pointed tail distinguish it readily from other medium-sized, buff-colored birds. Its strong, direct flight – not erratic or undulating – is equally definitive. But it can be deceptive, too; more than once, with only a momentary glimpse, I’ve thought I’ve seen a small hawk or falcon and then found it to be a mourning dove.
Because its diet consists almost entirely of seeds and fruits, the mourning dove flourishes in the Barrington area year-round. Listen for its soft coos, look for its arrow-straight flight, and expect to find doves in a group, especially in the winter and at evening roosts. And when you sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” think of this American counterpart to the European turtle dove.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.