Wild Side: Good neighbors

Takes a lot to ruffle the feathers of a mourning dove.

The official mourning doves in our yard in Oak Bluffs. — Matt Pelikan

Common, easily observed, and quietly beautiful, the mourning dove is a bird all Vineyarders should be acquainted with. Small-headed, about the size of a robin, subtle rosy-gray in color, and equipped (except during molt) with a distinctive pointed tail, this species is easy to recognize. And its habits often bring it into close proximity to humans.

Mourning doves begin to nest remarkably early in the year — they are often pairing up and constructing nests in late March or early April on the Island — and they keep at it through the season, often pulling off multiple clutches before they shut down for the winter. They need to be prolific: Mourning doves both young and old rank among the favored prey species of Cooper’s hawks, and a dove’s casual approach to nest placement often puts its eggs and young in easy reach of cats, raccoons, or skunks.

Mourning dove nests rank among the shabbiest constructs of the avian world. Nests may be anywhere from on the ground to well up in a tree; in settled areas, they are often placed on or near a human structure. A shallow dish loosely assembled from twigs, a dove nest does not look like a congenial place to hatch, and indeed it’s not uncommon for an egg to slip through the loose construction and fall to the ground.

If this happens, the female, seemingly unperturbed, simply lays another one, bringing the clutch back up to the official size of two. Larger clutches sometimes occur, usually the result of haphazard placement of eggs by one female in somebody else’s nest.

Despite their seemingly lackadaisical approach to reproduction, however, mourning doves work hard raising their young. Eggs and nestlings are rarely left uncovered, with members of a pair swapping incubation duties 24/7 until the youngsters fledge.

And like other doves and pigeons, mourning doves secrete a substance called crop milk, produced in the parents’ digestive tracts and regurgitated to feed newly hatched young. Though the physiology behind its production is entirely different, crop milk plays the same functional role as milk produced by mammals, offering a nutrient-rich meal to digestive tracts that have not matured enough to handle “real” food.

The adaptation makes sense in the dove family, because mourning doves and most of their relatives feed almost entirely on seeds. Cracking or dissolving the hard coating on a seed is a demanding process for a digestive system, and crop milk is gradually phased out of a nestling’s diet as the young bird becomes better able to process seeds.

The vegetarian diet of a mourning dove is matched by a gentle demeanor. They do compete among themselves for mates, of course, with males dueling in a head-bobbing display or in prolonged flight contests. But they rarely engage in physical squabbles, happily tolerate the presence of other bird species, and are notably unafraid of humans. They even seem pretty relaxed about raids on their nests; I’ve never seen doves gang up to mob a predator like many of our songbirds will.

There’s nothing exactly awkward about a dove on the ground, though they bob their heads as they walk in a comical manner. But in the air, these birds are truly in their element. Doves rank among our fastest-flying bird species, and I’ve clocked ones flying parallel to a road at close to 50 miles per hour. Their wing beats are strong and fast, and their small-headed, long-tailed profile looks sleek and aerodynamic.

Taking to the air, a dove’s wing tips beat together noisily. And on final approach for landing, a dove often glides to its target on stiffly held wings. The overall effect is of true mastery of the art of flight; they’re simply fun to watch.

Another nice feature of this species is its song, a musical cooing that rises up in pitch and volume from the first note, then descends again for three or four prolonged notes on the same pitch: “ah-Woo-ah, ooh, ooh, ooh.” (The mournful quality of the song accounts for the name of the species.) If you’re a good whistler, it’s not hard to mimic the song and its woody tone quality, and with a little practice, you can engage in prolonged conservations with your local mourning doves.

One feature you can provide that doves will appreciate is a bird bath. Doves are inveterate splashers, and drink a lot of water (perhaps necessitated by their seedy diet). They like a drink before they go to roost each evening, and often as I’m finishing up a few evening chores as it gets dark, I’ll spot our local pair tanking up for the night.

With their quiet habits, subdued colors, and abundance, these are easy birds to take for granted. But mourning doves are enjoyable to watch as they are accessible, leading their complicated lives just outside your door. They’re good neighbors.