10 Fun Facts About the Mourning Dove

Wing whistlers, chaotic nesters, and ... milk drinkers? These birds may be common, but they’re anything but boring.
Two doves stand on a rock gently preening each others necks against a green out-of-focus background.
Mourning Doves. Photo: Douglas DeFelice/Audubon Photography Awards

The melancholy sound rings out across North America: coo-AHH, cooo, coo, cooo. It’s this familiar, wistful song that gives the Mourning Dove its name (and sometimes gets mistaken for an owl’s hoot).  Mourning Doves, with their plump, brownish-gray bodies and long, pointy tails, are a common sight across the continent, living year-round from Mexico up to southern Canada across much of the United States. These birds—like their cousins, the Rock Pigeons—are often found near humans, whether gobbling up seeds under a feeder, perching on a telephone wire, or building a nest in a questionable location. Read on to learn more about this beloved neighborhood bird.

1) The species’ scientific name, Zenaida macroura, is also an ID hint: “macroura” comes from the Greek words for “long tail.” The Mourning Dove’s tail—slender, tapered, and with white-tipped outer feathers—offers a key clue to tell it apart from its cousins like the Eurasian Collared-Dove and White-winged Dove, whose tails end in square tips. 

2) Notoriously skittish, Mourning Doves make a sharp whistling sound when they take flight. The noise doesn’t come from their beaks, though—it’s actually made by their wings as air rushes through their feathers and causes them to vibrate. The sound can also serve as an alarm bell: Researchers have found that playing recorded wing-whistles from startled doves can spur other birds to take off, too.

3) These doves are not dainty eaters. When they find a food source—preferably, a bunch of seeds on the ground—they’ll quickly grab as much as they can manage, storing their haul in a throat pouch called the crop. Then, they’ll fly off to a safe spot to work on digesting. On average, Mourning Doves will eat about 12 to 20 percent of their body weight every day; one champion eater was recorded racking up 17,200 bluegrass seeds in its crop at once. 

4) When you hear a Mourning Dove’s familiar cooing, the song is almost always coming from a male looking for a mate. Males will claim a favorite “cooing perch,” a prominent spot where they can catch the attention of females with their songs. They’ll even defend their favorite singing sites from other males who try to land there. 

5) Mourning Doves are known for building their nests fast and flimsy. After a pair picks a site, the males will bring back twigs and stems for the females to weave into a loose pile—often so loose that you can see the eggs through the bottom. And they’re not very picky about location: While doves often seek out trees or shrubs, they’re just as likely to nest in flower pots, cacti, or air conditioners. (There’s even an entire Reddit group dedicated to the surprising—and often silly—places doves will nest.)

6) Seasonally monogamous, Mourning Doves are prolific breeders. In warm climates, a couple can raise as many as six broods in a single year. The female lays two white eggs at a time and will trade off incubation duties with her partner for the two weeks it takes them to hatch.

7) In the first few days of a young Mourning Dove’s life, both parents will feed chicks what’s known as “crop milk” or “pigeon milk”—a nutrient-rich substance with a texture like cottage cheese. The so-called milk is secreted by cells in the crop, then regurgitated up into a tasty meal for baby doves, which are also called squabs. While this feeding strategy is shared across the pigeon and dove family, only a handful of other birds use “milk” to feed their young, including flamingos and penguins. And the stuff packs a nutritional punch: Researchers found that when they fed crop milk to baby chickens instead of their usual diet, it boosted their growth and immune systems.

8) Around the feeder, science shows that Mourning Doves are, well, kind of chill. Researchers analyzed feeder interactions reported by bird watchers across the country to see which species were the most dominant. They found that, while bigger birds generally came out on top during squabbles, Mourning Doves ranked lower than expected despite their bulky size. Warblers and Downy Woodpeckers, meanwhile, proved surprisingly feisty and ranked toward the top. (Still, Mourning Doves did hold their own against some rivals in the feeder wars.)

9) The Mourning Dove is one of North America’s most adaptable species, thriving in a wide range of habitats from coast to coast. Preferring open areas like farmland, parks, and backyards over dense forest, these doves can also tough it out in harsh habitats like the Southwest desert, where their ability to drink brackish, or slightly salty, water—up to around half the salinity of seawater—without getting dehydrated gives them an advantage.

10) Mourning Doves, along with the rest of the pigeon and dove family, are some of the rare bird species that can suck up liquid through their beaks like a straw, instead of having to tilt their heads back and let gravity do the work. The birds seem to pump their tongues like pistons to create a suction process like a vacuum pump, according to a 1982 paper that took X-ray videos of pigeons to figure out how they drink. This method lets doves drink quickly, minimizing the time they may be vulnerable to predators.