Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Mourning doves seem to be prevalent this year

By CHERYL KIMBALL April 14. 2017 8:45PM
Our Nature Talks columnist has been finding mourning doves by the dozen around her farm this winter and early spring. (Courtesy of Cheryl Kimball)

THE MOURNING DOVE (Zenaida macroura) has been prolific on the farm this winter and spring. Where once I would see a pair or two, this year a few dozen have been around regularly. Perhaps the presence of Rocky the Rock Dove over eight months made them feel this was a safe place to hang around (Rocky’s tragic demise hopefully has made them more cautious). Whatever the reasons, there is a noticeable uptick in the mourning dove population.

I first started noticing a pair feeding below a feeder close to the kitchen window. Then I began to see several mourning doves under the crabapple tree across the lawn where I hung a couple feeders and cakes of suet all winter. After seeing a dozen or more sitting in the oak tree above those feeders, I realized we had more than the usual number of mourning doves calling this place home for the winter.

On the walk that the dog and I do every day that I have 15 minutes (which is almost every day) that I call “the small loop” (we refer to the walk on our access road around the perimeter of the property as “the big loop), I began to startle a dozen or more mourning doves from a sheltered area behind the barn within the double stone wall known as a “cattle chute” that would have served as a barrier to drive the cows in the barn out to the back pastures. This area gets strong afternoon sun and has a thick bed of dried oak leaves into which the mourning doves blend perfectly — until they are startled by a woman and her dog and scattered into flight with their characteristic squeaky timing belt noise (Sibley describes it as “a light, airy whistling”) that is as identifiable as a mourning dove as their mournful song.

This elegant bird actually does migrate, according to the “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.” But some individuals do remain behind in the less extreme reaches of their range, which for the mourning dove includes the entire U.S. with the exception perhaps of very northern Maine. These days the birds are likely busy constructing their simple stick nests, often on top of the platform nests that another species has built in previous years. “A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests in the United States East of the Mississippi River” (Harrison, 1975) says that mourning doves typically hatch two eggs at a time, sometimes three, rarely four, and tend to have two broods per season.

These seed eaters particular like millet, says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website ( The fact that they are ground feeders also make them particularly vulnerable to cat attacks. Another interesting thing about mourning doves and all doves/pigeons is that, according to Sibley, they are “the only North American birds capable of suctioning water into the esophagus, so they can drink without raising their heads ... ” All things have a purpose and this seems to be connected to the amazing fact that doves/pigeons have an unusual need for water, “drinking up to 15 percent of their body weight each day.”

I have to wonder if this year’s proliferation of mourning doves is related to what seems to be a proliferation of hawks. Although difficult to identify even using all the books and online searching I can muster, what appears to be a red-shouldered hawk (and somewhat confirmed by Sibley’s who describes them as very vocal with the “adult territorial call a high, clear, squealing keeyur keeyur … repeated steadily” — this hawk squeals steadily for long periods of time). I have not witnessed a hawk snatching a mourning dove (and would prefer not to, thanks) but I do wonder if the increase in the two species are connected.

Reader notes

• Bluebirds are always exciting to see but they also seem to solicit the most frequent reports of strange behavior. A friend in Maine has told me stories of bluebirds that go so crazy apparently over their reflection that they leave windows and car rear view mirrors streaked with guano. Phyllis in Dunbarton describes such constant flying and pecking at their windows by bluebirds that it is clearly getting out of hand between the noise and the mess. They have tried everything from hanging streamers to taping newspaper on the windows to no avail, the birds just go to other windows. Any other strange bluebird activity out there?

• Donald from Merrimack asked about woodpeckers not just pecking at but eating the bark of two trees (he says they are golden rain trees) near his bird feeding station. I have certainly witnessed plenty of woodpeckers pecking holes in trees but never eating bark. Anyone else?

• Howard from Washington was wondering how birds know a storm is coming, which they do if the feeding frenzy that happens at his feeders within 24 hours of a storm is any indication. Atmospheric pressure, he wondered? That sounds plausible. Any thoughts?

I love to hear any bird stories (or nature stories in general) that anyone out there has. As usual I have very much enjoyed all the bird activity and the clear appreciation birds have over winter for our feeding stations, but I also appreciate that I may have a little extra spending money for a while — bird seed is a significant line item on my budget!

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at

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