Saturday, August 27, 2011
More on the Mourning Dove
It was not much of a nest. It looked like a disorderly jumble of small sticks and twigs hastily placed on the branch - like an indigent’s camp beneath a bridge, designed with impermanence in mind. But the nest served its purpose. As the season progressed, my friend reported that two young doves fledged, and when they were gone, the nest was used a second time.
To the degree that a Mourning Dove has any place in folklore, it is as a “love bird.” To anthropomorphizing eyes, the mated pair appears very affectionate, and in fact, a mated pair seem to remain together during the entire breeding year.
“On the branch above, a love scene is just commencing. The female, still coy and undetermined, seems doubtful of the truth of her lover, and virgin-like resolves to put his sincerity to the test, by delaying the gratification of his wishes. She has reached the extremity of the branch, her wings and tail are already opening, and she will fly off to some more sequestered spot, where, if her lover should follow her with the same assiduous devotion, they will doubtless become as blessed as the pair beneath them.”
Audubon has perhaps gone too far in his anthropomorphizing of the Mourning Dove, but he does capture the sense of devotion and peace which the doves evoke within us. A hundred years later, Massachusetts ornithologist Edward Forbush was still writing about the doves with a romantic flourish, though toned down from Audubon:
When the young have left the nest, the parents do it again ... and again ... and again. Sometimes Mourning Doves will nest as many as six times during a breeding season.
Mourning Doves, like other members of their family Columbidae, feed their young with “pigeon milk.” “This substance is produced in the crop, an enlarged pocket of the upper esophagus. During the nesting season, the walls of the crop secrete a milky fluid that is rich in fat and protein. For the first dew days after hatching, the young are fed a pure diet of pigeon milk. Then they begin to receive a mixture that includes some partially digested seeds or fruit, but their diet continues to include some pigeon milk for at least a couple of weeks. To be fed, the young bird will insert its bill into the corner of the parent’s mouth, and the adult will regurgitate the pigeon milk or the mixture for the young to eat.” (Kaufman, Lives of North American Birds)
As nearly as I can determined, once the young have left the nest, or very soon after, they are left entirely on their own. In my yard, I will often seen a pair of scaly Mourning Doves feeding on the ground. The scaliness, plus the apparent cluelessness of these birds, identify them as young birds. As the season progresses, the number of young increases. Eventually the adults, tiring of the repetitive parental responsibilities, also join the flock.
A few mornings ago, I was awakened by Blue Jays. They were making a hellagious racket. Somewhere nearby, there was a hawk, and the jays were sounding the alarm. Warned by the jays, the doves all departed the yard. Doves do not always have the good fortune of sentinel jays. One afternoon when I was sitting by the river, I glimpsed a Sharp-shinned Hawk crossing overhead and circling through trees. Later when I returned to the house, I found a pile of dove feathers on the lawn. One of those slow-moving, clueless young Mourning Doves became a meal for nestling Sharp-shinned Hawks.