Mourning Doves

mourning dove © Al Caldarelli
mourning dove © Al Caldarelli

Named for the mournful sound of their owl-like cooing, mourning doves are plump-bodied brown birds with small heads and long tails. Although they are commonly hunted across the country, mourning doves are protected in Massachusetts, and they visit yards and gardens across the Commonwealth in all seasons.


Mourning doves of both sexes are cleanly attired in soft browns and grays. Their wings bear a few black spots, and most show a small gray or black dash on their cheeks. They are larger than most backyard birds, measuring a foot from bill to tail tip. The bill is small and straight; the tail long and pointed. Their white outer tail feathers are clearly visible from behind when the birds take wing.


On the ground, mourning doves often look plump and dainty, walking with mincing steps and bobbing their heads as they look for food. In flight, mourning doves are entirely different birds. Remarkably swift and agile, they fly straight and fast on whistling wings. Flocks of doves are often seen during the fall migration and through the winter, foraging for seeds below bird feeders or in agricultural fields. They also often perch in dead trees or on telephone wires.


At the dawn of the 20th century, mourning doves were present but scattered and local as breeders in the Bay State. Today, they are nearly ubiquitous in all seasons. Although many doves still migrate through the Commonwealth each year, the remarkable increase in this species’ wintering numbers is likely due to the rising popularity of backyard bird feeders, which help these ground-foraging birds survive lean times. Learn more in the Breeding Bird Atlas 2