If you feed the birds at this time of year, you probably recognize the ground-feeding mourning doves. They eat grain and seeds of weeds and grasses almost exclusively, and in our backyard, they are happy to gobble up black oil sunflower seeds that they find on the garden bed.

I have heard however, that their preferred handouts are millet and cracked corn.


They are able to gobble down large quantities of food quickly and in large gulps because both male and female are equipped with a "crop" — a sac-like area, an enlargement of the esophagus in the neck region that serves as temporary storage for food. It allows a bird to eat a large amount in a short period of time. The seeds are slowly released into the stomach to digest.

During the nesting season, the crop in both pigeons and doves produces "milk" or "pigeon milk" — a nutritious white liquid that parent birds regurgitate into the mouths of their nestlings. The eager nestlings may also put their heads into their parents' mouths for more direct access to it. Few birds are equipped with a crop, and most that have them are unable to produce "milk."

The blue jay has a crop for storage that enables it to make a pig of itself at the feeder as it gulps down large amounts of seed, but it does not have the ability to produce milk.

It is easy to identify the mourning dove by its slender, warm gray-brown body, small head, and long pointed tail. It has a pinkish cast to its head and breast. The wings are spotted with black; the tail is trimmed with white. The adult birds have a black beauty mark behind each eye. The sexes are almost indistinguishable.

The female is slightly smaller than her mate and duller in color. The male wears a trace of pink iridescence on his neck that the female does not have.

The mourning dove is an elegant bird — especially in flight when the long, tapering, white-tipped tail is most evident. It is a fast flier, but because it spends so much time on the ground and is slow to take off, it is vulnerable to cats and hawks. The feathers are loosely attached to its body — a natural means of protection. With luck, the predator will end up with a mouth full of feathers while the mourning dove flies to safety.

Unfortunately, the dove is not always so lucky. On several occasions, I have seen evidence in our backyard that a hawk has captured and feasted upon a luckless dove, and all that remains is a pile of soft downy feathers in the grass.

This species is one of the most common birds in North America and is a year-round resident over most of its range. It is an adaptable bird that can live and breed successfully in a multitude of habitats and is comfortable nesting around people — including in a wreath on an outside wall right next to the door, the busiest entrance to the house of my friend Nikki.

Have you ever seen the nest of a mourning dove? Sometimes one might wonder how anything survives in it. The female builds the nest with materials brought to her by her mate. They don't always make a good construction team. She puts sticks and twigs loosely together creating more of a platform than a nest and may line it with soft materials. Sometimes it is so loose that the eggs fall between the cracks and are broken. Large numbers of nests are washed out or torn down by storms.

Amazingly, many stay intact through more than one brood and some are used again.

During courtship, the male dove will often perch on a limb and sing his "mournful" cooing song — the song that he is named for. Many male songbirds sing when their young nestlings arrive in the nest — proud papas, I suppose, bragging about the arrival of their youngsters.

I wonder if mourning doves do that.

Happy Mother's Day to all the Moms in our community!