Birdwatch

Haunting Call of Summer’s End

The plaintive song of the mourning dove

By Susan Campbell

Doves are very much taken for granted, though they are almost everywhere we look. Their cryptic coloration and still habits make them easy to overlook, but they are nothing short of beautiful. Mourning doves are the most familiar members of the group statewide. Of course, we have plenty of rock doves (aka pigeons) and a rapidly increasing number of Eurasian collared doves as well.  However, it is the mourning dove that is my favorite — and garners the most attention.

The species has a sleek, medium-sized, light brown body with distinctive wings that are splotched with black. But it’s the bird’s small head and eye ring, accented with a pale bluish crown, that make the mourning dove one of America’s prettiest species. At close range, a rosy sheen can be seen on the breast feathers of the males. The mourning dove’s name originates from its plaintive song. Its mournful hooting is almost haunting and has been known to fool people into thinking they are hearing an owl.

By late summer as crops ripen doves are flocking in large numbers in and around big fields.  They feed busily on the ground, swallowing a variety of seeds as they fatten up prior to migration. All doves will consume large amounts of whole seeds in their crop. This means they need to perch in a safe spot to digest their gorging. Where and how far they fly depends on weather and food availability.  Most do not move long distances but rather seek out areas that will hold a diversity of grains for weeks at a time.  Flocks of hundreds of birds can be found perched on wires or in snags adjacent to good foraging habitat.

Young birds blend in well with the adults very soon after fledging. Their tails may not be quite as long, nor will their heads be as distinctly patterned, but these are field marks that are only visible at very close range. Three to five clutches of two are not unusual in a season. With a moderate climate here in North Carolina, especially along our coast, mourning doves have been found breeding in every month of the year.

There is no better time for individual mourning doves to seek safety in numbers than early September. Labor Day weekend marks the beginning of hunting season and doves are the first game on the calendar. Their robust population seems to handle the harvest throughout the state and nationwide.  This is at least due in part to their fast and erratic flight behavior, which makes the birds challenging targets.

Dove hunting has a rich cultural history here in the South. It is a time to bond with family and friends, enjoy the waning days of summer afield and perhaps even bring home enough plump breasts for a hearty meal.  Scouting out the right spot is the key. Hunters will survey known locations looking for the best variety of seed-bearing cover crops, strategic perching sites and hopefully at least a few doves hanging around.  For those who do not have access to suitable private land for hunting doves, the State Game Lands (Sandhills, Caswell, Jordan and others) offer opportunities. Both private and public lands manage habitat specifically for mourning doves year round.

And if you don’t hunt, take some time and seek out these attractive birds: no ammo or binoculars are required!

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at susan@ncaves.com.

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