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© Karen Lund

Mourning Doves

Have you ever heard a soft, mournful cooing outside and made a mad dash to your window expecting to see an owl—only to find a portly, long-tailed bird instead? You've found a Mourning Dove!

Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) were named for the mournful sound of their owl-like cooing. They're plump-bodied songbirds with small heads and long tails, dressed in shades of soft brown and grey. A common sight year-round, Mourning Doves are generally unbothered by humans. They visit yards and gardens across the Commonwealth in all seasons.

Identification

Mourning Doves of both sexes are cleanly attired in soft browns and greys. 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 12" 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. During take-off and landing, listen for the characteristic (and loud) whistling sound generated by their wing feathers.

Behavior

On the ground, Mourning Doves often look plump and dainty, walking with mincing steps and bobbing their heads as they look for food. But in flight, they are entirely different birds. Remarkably swift and agile, Mourning Doves fly straight and fast on whistling wings.

When they're not breeding or nesting, they frequently form large flocks and are often found perching on telephone wires and lamp posts in groups of 12 or more. Flocks of doves are often seen during the fall migration and through the winter, foraging for seeds below bird feeders or in agricultural fields. 

Mourning Doves are able to mate throughout the year, but usually only do so from spring to fall. Breeding pairs are often seen gently preening each other's necks in a sweet bonding behavior. While they typically make their nests in bushes and trees, Mourning Doves been known to take advantage of any horizontal surface—such as the back of a wicker patio couch or the upturned head of a push broom left outside!

Status

At the dawn of the 20th century, Mourning Doves were present in the Bay State as scattered, localized breeding populations. Today, they are nearly ubiquitous statewide in all seasons. And while they're commonly hunted across the country, Mourning Doves are protected in Massachusetts. 

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—helping these ground-foraging birds survive lean times.