From folktales to Biblical references, doves have been seen as a sign of peace and hope. In North America, mourning doves are one of the most common and widely distributed birds. Although commonly seen as a symbol of love, the popular belief that mourning doves mate for life has not been proven. However, they are monogamous throughout each year and work as a team to raise their three to six broods (a set of young birds). Like a love-struck couple, pairs can be found preening each other’s feathers and making sorrowful-sounding “coos.” The soft song is where they get the “mourning” part of their name.
As part of their annual courtship ritual, the male will fly in the air to perform an aerial display for the female. Then he will land and bow his head and sing his cooing song. No love story is without struggle and mourning doves can sometimes be seen flying in groups of three. These trios are usually two competing males with a female following them.
When one of the males has won the attention of the female, it’s time to build a home. The male will show the female several nesting sites and when she picks one, the male will gather materials as the female builds the nest. Mourning doves are not the best builders and are known for building flimsy nests. But since they only use the nest for one month for each brood, it doesn’t need to last for very long. (And then it builds a new nest for each new brood?)
Raising the baby doves (known as “squabs”) is also a team effort. Both parents take turns finding food and feeding their young. After two weeks, the squabs leave the nest but the parents continue to care for them for several more weeks. This might seem like a case of helicopter parenting, but life isn’t easy for mourning doves after they leave the nest. Although they can fly at 55 miles per hour, they are ground feeders which makes them easy targets for predators, such as hawks, owls, foxes and outdoor cats. Humans are another common predator. An average 20 million mourning doves are hunted in the U.S. each year.
Threats to mourning doves keeps their average lifespan at one to two years even though they can live to be well over 10 years old. Despite pressure from predators, the prolific breeding of the lovable mourning dove keeps the population stable with about 350 million in the United States. Each spring, their soft call and sweet behavior mark the season of love.
Visit our field guide to learn more about critters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.