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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Mourning Dove, both a game bird and favorite at backyard bird feeders

(This is the ninth article in an occasional series about Kentucky’s backyard birds.)

The Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) is common and widely recognized across Kentucky, known for its speed on the wing, beautiful plumage and unique vocalization, a low mournful coo-ah, coo-ah, coo, coo, coo.

Throughout the cold weather months, some local birds may band together with migrants. Small groups move around often, venturing into cities and small towns along the suburban/rural interface, where they feast at bird feeders.

The Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) is common and widely recognized across Kentucky (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

What makes this backyard bird unique is that it’s a game bird too, managed by wildlife agencies as a migratory species (like ducks and geese), on both the state and federal level.

Range and Distribution in Kentucky

The Mourning Dove’s geographic range extends from southern Canada to central Mexico and includes all of the Lower 48 states.

They breed as far north as central Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and winter as far south as the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Mexico into Central America.

There are fewer numbers of Mourning Doves here in the winter as many birds flock up and migrate southward, but overall, this native species is common to abundant statewide, somewhat less numerous in the heavily-forested mountain counties.

Size and Coloration

The Mourning Dove is a medium-sized, slender bird, about 12 inches long, with broad, elliptical wings, rounded head, long tail, dark eyes, and a short, black beak.

Its reddish, perching feet, have three forward toes and one reversed.

Their plumage is a muted light gray and tan, with black spots.

There are five subspecies.

The Mourning Dove is a member of Family Columbidae, and was first described in the scientific literature in 1758.

Food Habits

It forages on the ground, and feeds almost entirely on seeds, favoring the seeds of cultivated grains, but also those of grasses, ragweeds, and other native plants.

(Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Only occasionally does a dove eat a snail, and very rarely an insect.

In winter the Mourning Dove will come to where songbirds are fed, preferring to eating on the ground under elevated feeders, gobbling down black oil sunflowers seeds, cracked corn and millet.

Doves regularly swallows grit (small gravel) to aid in digestion of hard seeds, and come to water sources several times a day.


Mourning Doves prefer semi-open to open habitats, open ground with short of sparse vegetation, farmlands, city parks and suburban yards.

The species has benefitted greatly from human alteration of the landscape. In pre-settlement times they likely were abundant in grassy barrens and savannas.

Hunting Season

A favorite with wing shooters in the fall, the Mourning Dove is a strong flier, capable of speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Its wings make a whistling sound at take-off and landing, and when flying through crosswinds.

Doves are hunted in Kentucky during a 90-day split season that opens on September 1. The daily bag limit is 15.

Dove season is highly anticipated, when large flocks gather around agricultural fields, beginning in late August.

Hunts are casual, social affairs, a time when family and friends to get together for a group shoot, followed by a cookout or picnic.

Doves are typically hunted over fields of cut sunflowers, harvested corn, or harvested tobacco fields, planted with winter wheat as a cover crop.

High Mortality Offset by High Reproductive Rate

In the U.S. tens of millions of Mourning Doves are taken by hunters each year, but that number represents only a small percentage of the population.

The Mourning Dove is managed by wildlife agencies as a migratory species. (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

In the Eastern Management Unit (EMU), which includes Kentucky, the Mourning Dove population is estimated to be 100 million.

“In 2018, hunters took just four percent of the population,” said John Brunjes, migratory bird program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “Since 2000, the dove harvest in the EMU has decreased from eight to four percent.”

Hunting pressure and other mortality factors on the Mourning Dove are offset by the bird’s prolific breeding. Mourning Doves have an annual mortality rate of about 70 percent.

Biologists in most states live trap and band doves annually, which provides trend data on reproductive success, and answers questions on migration routes and destinations. “From band returns we know that during the late-season doves that we banded were taken by hunters in Louisiana, Florida and other southern states,” said Brunjes.

Nesting and Reproduction

In courtship, the male flies up with noisy wingbeats and then goes into long circular glide, wings fully spread and slightly bowed down.

On the ground he approaches the female with his chest puffed out, bowing and giving emphatic cooing song.

(Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Mated pairs may preen each other’s feathers.

The male leads his mate to potential nest sites, and she chooses one.

The Mourning Dove breeds in Kentucky, with varying success depending on the weather, from late winter to early fall.

Their fragile stick nests are constructed in shrubs, cedars or hardwood trees, usually 10 feet or higher off the ground. Often their nests are built where they are vulnerable to stormy and rainy weather. As a result, some nests and young may be lost, which negatively impact nesting success.

In Kentucky, one pair may have fledglings in the nest as early as March and as late as September, cranking out a brood about every 30 days.

Brunjes said in ideal weather conditions it’s possible for one pair of Mourning Doves to produce four to six broods a year, but the average is about two to three.

The females lay two white eggs. Incubation is by both parents and lasts about 14 days.

Both parents feed young “pigeon milk,” a semi-liquid regurgitation from the adult’s crop.

The young leave the nest at about 15 days, usually wait nearby to be fed for the next couple of weeks.

The Mourning Dove is a welcome visitor to backyard bird feeders in winter. Savor your observations because these fast-flying visitors are likely to be here today, gone tomorrow.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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