Songbird Protection Coalition

Bonded Pairs and Family Life


Mourning doves are almost invariably monogamous (Stewart and Mackey 1954, Laub 1956, Jackson 1963, Brackbill 1970, Blockstein 1986a). Evolution, through natural selection, has molded strong intricate pair bonds that favor an obligate paternal investment that increases the survival of the species (Laub 1968, Wittenberger 1979 and Tilson 1980).

The bachelor male, with his extravagant antics, initiates courtship by firmly striking his feet, one after another, on a branch or the ground to display for the female of his affection (Forbush 1927). After gaining her undivided attention, he then prances and struts around with his neck feathers ruffled, cooing, sometimes picking up twigs or pieces of grass (Suthard no date). As courtship progresses, the nest call is accompanied by a gentle flipping of the wings over the back, opling eyes: mutual winking or blinking, and seductive turning and nodding of the head. During the first note of cooing, he will also quickly flash his tail just enough to show off the white marks on the outer feathers (Goss 1891, Craig 1911). In addition to these gestures, an impressive flight display often follows, where he soars very high, gracefully gliding into spirals to the ground in sweeping curves near the female (Barrows 1912). This continues until the female gives her approval of the partner relationship.

Both parents are required to successfully fledge young (Laub 1956, Lack 1968, Wittenberger 1979 and Tilson 1980, Bivings 1980, Hass 1980 and 1981, Mirarchi 1981, Scanlon 1981) and they equally share and contribute in the domestic duties of family life in raising the young (Blockstein 1986a). The bonded pair establish and defend a territory from potential nest predators and other competing doves. Favorite nesting sites sought by doves include coniferous trees (Kenaga 1962, Hanson Kosak 1963, Caldwell 1964), flower pots, and any flat secure surface adjacent to an open area (Gardner 1927).

After they mutually find a suitable nest site, the male begins to select nesting material - one twig at a time, carefully testing each for proper weight and strength. He brings the material to the female, who waits patiently at the nest site; she then carefully arranges each twig under or around her body to construct a small loose platform nest. Nest building can take up to a week to complete and although mourning dove nests are flimsy, they are generally firm enough to withstand the required 30 days of use (Gander unpublished) if spring and summer storms are mild. Copulation will soon follow.

The female will then lay two small glossy white eggs (Murton et al 1974a, Burley 1980) and begin incubation. Both parents take an active role in incubation and brooding. The male sits the nest during the day and the female at night. Doves have a consistent changeover schedule that takes place between 8:30 and 10:30 in the morning and between 4:30 and 5:30 in the evening (Craig 1911, Nice 1922, Harris et al 1963, Blockstein 1982, 1986a, Stokes Vol 2). Incubation takes about 14 days and the newly hatched squabs, scantly covered with short white down (Sherman unpublished), emerge helpless and require constant care from both parents (Nice 1922).

After hatching, feeding begins within only a few minutes. Both parents feed nestlings and produce a rich diet of crop milk: a chalky granivorous mixture of partially digested seeds, fat cells, and fluid from their upper digestive tract. Babies simultaneously insert their bills into each side of the parent's beak, who then regurgitates the nutritious meal equally to each squab (Gabrielson 1922).

Mourning doves have evolved to grow very quickly because the mortality risk is much higher for nestlings than for fledged young - due to weather extremes and nest predators (Harris et al 1963, Coon et al 1981, Grand et al.1984, Brown 1989). Babies are usually fledged within 14 days. As the young doves grow, their father assumes a greater role in feeding just prior to fledging and continues to care for them until they are completely independent (Hitchcok and Mirarchi 1984a, Blockstein 1986a). The female is then free to attempt another nesting within a short time span if appropriate conditions prevail (Lund 1952, Hanson and Kossack 1963).

Doves have a strong homing instinct and will generally return to the same areas they were hatched year after year (Bolckstein 1968a). Many doves are non-migrating and remain all year round within their nest territory (Tomlinson, Dolton, Reeves 1988, and others). Doves are often seen at feeders as lifelong bonded pairs. Mourning doves have the longest breeding season of all North American birds and active nests have been found in every month of the year in the United States (Peters 1961).

Note: In addition to research cited, scientific data, research and studies were compared and compiled from multiple sources, including but not limited to: The Smithsonian Institute, Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan, Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol 2, Ecology and Management of the Mourning Dove, Fifth Day Creations, Colorado State University, University of Michigan, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Dept of Forestry, Illinois State Academy of Science, Conservation Commission of Missouri, Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, US Fish and Wildlife Service.