Saturday, August 27, 2011

More on the Mourning Dove

A few years ago I was at a friends home on Timson Hill. He led me into a bedroom and pointed through the window to a spruce tree just on the other side of the glass. On the flat branch of the needle covered branch was the nest of a Mourning Dove. She was on her eggs and seemed unconcerned about the oglers peering through the window.

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.

With his flowery prose, Audubon described his painting of the Mourning Dove (which he knew as the Carolina Turtle-Dove): “I have tried, kind reader, to give you a faithful representation of two as gentle pairs of Turtles as ever cooed their love in the green woods ... Look at the female, as she assiduously sits on her eggs, embosomed among the thick foliage, receiving food from the bill of her mate, and listening with delight to his assurances of devoted affection. Nothing is wanting to render the moment as happy as could be desired by any couple on a similar occasion.

“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:

 “The male does not cease his attentions to the female when the eggs are deposited, but often brings sticks and straws for the nest and takes his share of the duties of incubation, feeding and brooding. As a rule, after incubation commences until the young are hatched, one or the other of the parents is continually on the nest. When the adult bird is frightened from the nest by an intruder, it may drop to the ground and imitate so well a wing-broken bird as to lead the enemy away, or it may alight on the ground and flap its wings to draw attention. This is most likely to happen after the young are hatched, and in some cases both parent join in the ruse.” (Forbush)

What can be said with a bit more straightforward sobriety is that the Mourning Doves pair early in the Spring and nest early. Sometimes they begin to nest in late March or early April. The male brings the nest material; the female builds the nest. It takes one to three days. Typically, two eggs are laid. Incubation takes about two weeks; both male and female incubate. The young are fed by both parents. From altricial hatchlings (naked and helpless) to leaving the nest as fledglings takes about two weeks.

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.

Early in the twentieth century, Mourning Doves received protection along with songbirds. That protection, along with their adaptability and seasonal production of six to twelve young has made them one of the most common birds in North America. And that in turn, has been good for other birds.

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.

As the season progresses, those young doves will become practice prey for novice young hawks. Last year as winter began, the flock of Mourning Doves which gathered in the trees around my feeders numbered about thirty birds. By late February, half that number gathered in the trees. Feather piles and red spotted snow were tangible signs that the bird feeders had attracted other feeder birds, like the Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. The Mourning Dove was filling its place in the ecology around my home.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


One of the things I enjoy about late summer is seeing the young birds learning how to be independent. Here are a few recent encounters.

This fledgling Northern Cardinal had only been on its own for a few days when he visited the platform. It is probably a second brood youngster. The parents are probably back on the nest, and in mid-September, new youngsters will be coming around.

Northern Cardinal
Movement through the willow tree caught my attention, and then briefly I had a few glimpses of recently fledged American Redstarts chasing their parents. Even with difficult lighting, lots of foliage, and constant movement, a few passable photos were possible.

American Redstart
Again this year the Evening Grosbeaks have been nesting in the neighborhood, raising multiple broods. This one had been on its own for a while and was faring quite well.

Evening Grosbeak
The Eastern Towhee had just left the nest and was waiting impatiently for a parent to bring food.

Eastern Towhee
This is a "just because" photo. In early August, the resident male Ruby-throated Hummingbird was still vigorously defending his flowers and feeders. Now he has just about given up, or perhaps moved on, leaving the territory to the young birds and the females. But he'll be back next Spring, with a pugnacious attitude that gram for gram significantly outweighs anything else in the neighborhood.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Good birding!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove
The Mourning Dove is common is our yards, fields, and towns. It is part of the background and as such, it is often overlooked and taken for granted. I am guilty of that. In a dozen years of writing this column, I don’t think I have ever given the Mourning Dove exclusive attention.

“The mourning dove must have been one of the first birds that attracted the attention of the early settlers when this country was new and wild. They must have recognized the bird as not far removed from some of the Old-World species of pigeons, and its notes must have recalled to them their old home. The writers of these times speak of the bird familiarly, especially as a game bird that relieved the hardships of pioneer life.”

With those words, Bent begins his “Life History” of the Mourning Dove. In Bent’s history and in the writing of other earlier observers, the impression that comes through is that the Mourning Dove is just an assumed part of the landscape and as such does not receive a great deal of attention. It was sometimes called a “turtle dove,” by early colonists because of its resemblance to European turtle doves. The repeated “coo, coo, coo” sounded sad and mournful to colonists homesick for their native land; “mournful” adhered to the dove.

The Mourning Dove’s “coo, coo, coo” is sometimes heard as a “hoot.” As you know, owls “hoot” in popular parlance. On a number of occasions I have had non-nature type people tell me they have heard an owl, leaving me the mournful task of explaining that what they have actually heard is a Mourning Dove.

In addition to its hooting “coo,” the mourning dove also “whistles.” The whistle is not a vocalization; it is produced by the wings when the bird takes off.

Detail - J.J.Audubon's "Mourning Dove"
Whatever imagined sadness the Mourning Dove may have been “cooing” about to earlier generations, it was viewed by them primarily as a game bird.  John James Audubon painted his Mourning Doves as loving and devoted couples, and then with his typical disconnect, described their tastiness: “The flesh of these birds is remarkably fine, when they are obtained young and in the proper season. Such birds become extremely fat, are tender and juicy .... These birds require good shooting to bring them down, when on wing, for they fly with great swiftness, and not always in a direct manner. It is seldom that more than one can be killed at a shot when they are flying, and rarely more than two or three when on the ground.”

Apparently the gunning skill required to shoot Mourning Doves is what still makes them a game bird in many states. It certainly is not, and never was, a major source of food. At just over four ounces in weight, feathers and all, it would take a lot birds to make a meal.

By the early twentieth century the Mourning Dove’s numbers were severely decreased in New England. In 1908, it received protection in the northern states as a songbird, allowing its numbers to increase. Today in appropriate neighborhoods in our area, it can be considered common, to very common, to abundant.

The Mourning Dove ranges throughout the United States and Mexico. In southern Canada  and the northern United States it is seasonal, breeding during the Spring and Summer and then migrating to warmer climes.

In Southern Vermont, the Mourning Dove can be seen throughout the year, but the birds of the summer and the birds of the winter are not necessarily the same birds. Banding studies have demonstrated that many Mourning Doves undertake a long migration. For example, birds banded in Wisconsin have been recovered in Louisiana and Alabama. Texas to northern Florida is the favored winter home; banded birds recovered in these areas have come from across the northern tier of states, from New Jersey and New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and westward through the northern plains states.

The migratory habits of the Mourning Dove probably account for its remarkable uniformity across its vast range. The birds mingle and mix during the winter. When they return to the breeding grounds their DNA also gets mingled and mixed. Most modern field guides (Sibley in particular) note racial differences among species especially where those differences are notable in the field. Almost no attention is paid to subspecies of the Mourning Dove because the differences are so slight. Bent describes the western race as slightly paler and slightly larger. But note the word, “slightly.”

Charles Lucien Bonaparte
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) belongs to the family, Columbidae, from the Latin for pigeon or dove. In general, the larger members of this family are called pigeons; the smaller members are called doves.

The Mourning Dove was named by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. When the family fortunes declined after Waterloo, Charles moved to America with his new wife (and first cousin), Zenaide and his uncle/father-in-law, Joseph. He lived in Bordentown, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “While residing in the United States from 1822-1828, he re-edited a volume with the longest title in American ornithology ... ‘American Ornithology, or History of Birds Inhabiting the United States not given by Wilson.’” Bonaparte is considered to be the father of systematic ornithology in America. Bonaparte’s Gull commemorates him.

Zenaide Bonaparte (right)
Bonapare honored his wife with the Genus Zenaida. Mated pairs of Mourning Doves exhibit a very close association. An old common name for the dove was “love bird.” Bonaparte may have linked the name of his wife to this dove as a symbol of conjugal bliss.

 The species name, macroura, comes from the Greek for “long” and “tail.” Thus the literal meaning of the name, Zenaida macroura, is “Zenaida’s long tail.” The long tail of the Mourning Dove is considered by some to be its outstanding characteristic. When the bird is perched, the tail is long and pointed. Then it takes flight and the long tail flares in an elongated triangle with prominent white tips on the outer tail feathers.

More next week. Good birding.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

American Serengeti

The Great Plains once hosted vast herds of hooved mammals. Only remnants of those herds remain. In Yellowstone NP, traces of what once was can be seen, particularly in the Lamarr and Hayden Valleys. Here are a few images from our recent travels.

First, from Badlands NP, South Dakota, a gentleman with an itch to scratch ...

American Bison, bull
 Several glimpses of the remaining "American Serengeti" in Yellowstone NP ...

Moose, cow with calf


American Bison - cows with calves

Mule Deer (aka Black-tailed Deer), stag

Elk (aka Wapiti), bull

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Bison, Raven, Bear

Pronghorn Antelope

In early July we took our oldest grandson to Yellowstone National Park. A resident of Philadelphia, he especially anticipated seeing wildlife and he was not disappointed: bison, elk, deer, antelope, and moose excited the young man whose city wildlife is limited to aggressive gray squirrels.

The wildlife that especially grabbed him was the raven. Ravens are common in Yellowstone and many are accustomed to people, so to those who want to observe them, they are very observable. Few tourists in the park give the ravens much attention. But something triggered within our grandson when he watched the ravens. He became alert to the dark spot in a tree top and the silhouette against the sky. He quickly recognized their vocalization and became alert when he heard them.

One late afternoon, we were in a visitor’s center. My wife and I labored through the displays on the 1988 fires which burned through so much of the park. Julius did a rapid absorption and headed to the bookstore. On sale were videos on many different aspects of the park. Julius watched previews of the videos.

Bison breaks through ice
When I joined him, I asked what had especially interested him. He told me that the video had shown a bison which had fallen through the ice and died. A grizzly bear pulled the carcass from the water and had a meal. “A raven watched the whole time,” he said. His tone was that of one who becomes alert whenever a special interest (a raven) appears in a narrative.

I asked him, “Did the video explain how the bear knew the dead bison was there.”

“No,” he replied.

“I’ll tell you,” I said.

For many millennia, people who have shared their world with Raven have watched Raven carefully. They have seen Raven’s wit and wisdom, Raven’s resourcefulness, Raven’s benevolence and malevolence, and they have told tales.

A scientist may object to the story I tell you, but I am not a scientist. I am a spinner of yarns and a teller of tales. Here is the tale from the old generation to the young generation.

It had been a hard winter. The cold was colder and the snow was deeper. Young Bison had struggled. He had spent much of the winter in a warm thermal valley where the snows were not quite so deep, but where the grass was sparse and its nutrition poor. Bison survived winter, but he knew that he needed good, nutritious grass soon if he was going to replenish his strength. Across the frozen river, the sun was melting the snow on the south facing slope. Good pasture was reappearing. Bison began to move.

The lure of the pasture, Bison’s hunger, and Bison’s weakness after the long winter, made Bison less cautious than prudence would dictate. The thinning ice on the river gave way beneath him and he crashed through. Bison struggled to gain footing. Again and again Bison tried to find leverage on the edge of the ice to pull his bulk from the cold water. Bison struggled for hours and grew weaker and weaker. The struggle ended and Bison died.

Raven circled high overhead. Raven watched the futile struggle by Bison. “Cur-ruk,” called Raven, summoning others from his tribe. “Cronk, cur-ruk,” Raven said, announcing the opportunity for feast. In the death of Bison, there was nourishment for others. But Raven also knew that help was needed. Raven would be unable to tear through Bison’s thick hide. Wolf pack was far away, and Wolf Pack would be unable to retrieve Bison’s huge body from the river. Raven circled and pondered briefly. “Cur-ruk,” he announced to his tribe. “Bear has come from his den. Bear is strong. Bear is hungry. I will bring Bear. When Bear has eaten, we will eat.”

So off went Raven in search of Bear. High in the sky, Raven’s keen eyes could search vast areas of the wilderness for Bear. On the side of a mountain, Raven spied a dark spot moving down slope through the lodgepole pine forest. “Cronk, cronk,” Raven called down from high overhead. Bear glanced skyward. “Ah, Raven,” thought Bear. “You need my help.”

Raven circled lazily overhead, calling directions to Bear from time to time as Bear lumbered through the deep spring snowpack toward the river. Bear heard others from the Raven tribe gathering, for Raven tribe was social and talked often of current affairs. Bear also heard Magpie, Raven’s cousin, equally talkative and equally opportunistic.

As he neared, Bear saw that Eagle had also joined Raven tribe and Magpie tribe on the river ice and river bank. Without hesitation, Bear went to the half-submerged body of Bison. Bear’s long claws gripped the massive body of Bison. His huge strength tugged and pulled the dead weight of Bison from the water onto firm ice.

Then Bear feasted. His months of fasting had left him famished. He tore through the thick hide of Bison and ate. Raven who had led him to the feast, waited, as did Raven tribe and Magpie tribe and Eagle. They did not wait quietly, but they waited and would continue to wait until Bear had eaten all he wanted to eat. No one would dispute Bear having his fill first.

Another also waited. On a hilltop overlooking the river, Coyote sat and watched the riverside gathering. When Bear finished and moved away, Coyote would approach - perhaps. Coyote also studied the valley for a sign of his deadly enemy, Wolf Pack. Wolf Pack hated Coyote, and only extreme hunger would cause Coyote to dare risk the presence of Wolf Pack.

As Bear ate, Eagle became impatience. Eagle hopped toward Bison remains. “Arrrkkk,” said Bear, his massive paw waving Eagle away.

After time, Bear had eaten his fill. He looked at Raven and with a low growl he said, “Thank you, Raven. Now you eat.” Bear stood guard over Bison while Raven ate. Raven tore meat from the bones and swallowed. “Cur-ruk, cur-ruk” said Raven to Bear. “May it go well with you, friend Bear.” Then Raven picked a piece of meat and flew off. He would cache it against a return of winter.

Bear turned and moved away. Raven tribe and Magpie tribe and Eagle moved in to feed on Bison with urgent disorder and raucous squabbling. From the hilltop, Coyote approached. He, too, was hungry. Bison would sustain the life of many. In a few weeks, when his bones were beginning to bleach in the sun, tufts of his winter coat would line the nests of many birds. Bison was unable to sustain his life, but he gave sustenance to many other lives.

Circling high over the valley, Raven saw many signs of life emerging from its winter dormancy. He also watched as the brown spot of Bear moved into the forest. To no one in particular, Raven said, “Cur-ruk.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Western Birds VI

Continuing with acceptable photos from our Western travel, here are three of the Western Meadowlark ....

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Cliff Swallow ...

Cliff Swallow
Rock Wren ...

Rock Wren

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Robin Half Truths

American Robin
The robin may be the most familiar songbird in North America. It nests in our cities, suburbs, towns, and villages. It inhabits our farms and gardens, our prairies and mountains. It is at home in old growth forests, second and third growth forests, brushland, grassland, seashore, lakeside. A ten inch gray bird with an orange or reddish breast is immediately recognizable as a robin.

A hundred years ago, Forbush wrote of the robin: “he knows all the folks and they all know him. Why then should one write about his haunts and habits, which should be well known to everybody? In answer to this it may be said in truth that most people really know very little about him.”

Consider, for example, these half truths about the robin:

- The robin eats worms.

- Robins go south for the winter.

- Watch for the first robin of the year; it will be a sign that Spring is coming.

In the big city of Detroit where I grew up, the robin was one of the few birds I recognized. I watched the robin run on the grass, pause, listen, peck at the ground, and pull out a earthworm, then fly to its nest in the elm where it fed its young. As Fall made the transition to Winter and the ground began to freeze, the robin disappeared. It had gone south. In March, the first robin running across the lawn and pulling up an earthworm was soon followed by daffodils and tulips. Everybody knew these truths.

But they are all half truths. When raising its young, the robin needs protein and will gather that protein from whatever source is handy. This summer I have watched robins gathering protein from the lawn around my home, from urban parks, from mountain meadows, from grassy prairies, from forest floors, from steaming geyser basins. I did not see a single robin pull an earthworm from the ground. I saw them with beaks full of grubs, small dragonflies, and all other manner and variety of insects and creepy crawlies.

Hot summer weather is followed by the cold of winter when the insect protein disappears. That means the robins have to go south where the weather is warmer and they can find insect food. Right?

Wrong. Most of the year the robin diet consists of fruit: “there is hardly a wild fruit of any kind produced in the North that Robins do not eat, swallowing pits and seeds of the smaller fruit with the pulp and ejecting the undigested parts through the mouth. Thus they become distributors and planters of nearly all our wild fruits.”

Forbush continues on the robin’s diet: “Its percentage of vegetal food is larger than that of any other American thrush. This vegetal matter is mainly fruit, which constitutes over fifty per cent of the entire aliment for the year, but more than four fifths of this is wild fruit.”

In other words, for most of the year, the robin is vegetarian.

It is true, but misleading, that robins go south for the winter. It would be more accurate to say that the robin population shifts to the south. The birds which breed in our neighborhoods leave, often to be replaced by robins from the boreal forests to the north. Many robins spend the entire winter in New England. They roost among the evergreens, feed on winter berries, and come into the fields or towns when the snow retreats during a thaw. Hence, the annual January question: “I saw a robin. It is not even close to Spring. What’s it doing here?” Simple answer: Living on the fruit of the land. I have photographs of the robin in my yard every winter month; it feeds on apples from the old apple tree and dried up crabapples. It picks rose thrips and winterberries.

A single robin, or even a small flock of robins, is not a sign of Spring. However, beginning  roughly in mid-March, robin flocks begin moving north. They travel up the river valleys, moving from tree to tree and bush to bush, feeding on the remaining fruit and emerging insects. As Spring inches into reality, they swarm across the damp fields and grassy spreads where snow has just melted. As they forage, they give me the impression that they are oriented toward their goal somewhere to the north. The robin flocks are among the first songbirds to arrive in the Spring, closely following the Red-winged Blackbirds.

As they move northward, the flocks begin to disperse. Like many other songbirds, the robin goes through a personality change. He has spent the Fall and Winter in amiable association with others of his kind, benefitting from many eyes in the flock watching for danger and many individuals searching for food. But when he alights in my old maple tree and begins to sing, that all changes.

When the robins sings, the breeding season has begun. The males with whom he spent the Winter with are now rivals. He pursues them. Jealously he battles them. His territory belongs to him, and he excludes all except his mate.

And so ... when the robin flies near your home and sees another robin, he will battle that robin and chase it from his territory. It matters not a whit if the robin who has invaded his realm is merely his own reflection in one of your windows. He will attack it day after day after day.

For several years robins nested in a bush next to our home and between two windows. For weeks, the male attacked his image, banging against the window over and over and over. The one word explanation is testosterone. The hormonal driven impulse to protect his exclusive breeding rights trumps all sense and reason.

The robin eats whatever protein rich food it can find, including the occasional worm. Most of the year, it eats fruit. The robin goes south for the winter. For some robins, New England is the south; robins may be seen during any winter month. The first robin of the year is not a sign of Spring (especially in the middle of January), but when the robin flocks move up the river valleys, Spring will be along shortly.

Good birding!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Western Birds V - Photographer's Luck

In the category of photographer's luck - I offer this Lark Sparrow as it takes flight in the South Dakota Badlands.

Lark Sparrow
There is not the same degree of luck in the following photos of the Grasshopper Sparrow, but still plenty of satisfaction. A couple of years ago in Arizona in the winter, it was all I could do to get a glimpse of this bird. But during the breeding season in the South Dakota grasslands, it was prominent on many perches.

Grasshopper Sparrow
Clearly, this gentleman is singing with full-throated gusto - which is a bit of a disconnect, since the song of the Grasshopper Sparrow is an insect-like buzz lacking in musical qualities ...

Grasshopper Sparrow

And finally for this post, a female Western Bluebird. Songbird photography often involves cropping and adjustments, but this photo is unprocessed, ruled only by her ephemeral beauty and poise ...

Western Bluebird (female)
Good birding!


Related Posts with Thumbnails