Mourning Dove: Serious Breeder, Slapdash Nest Builder

Two days after the June 9 Detroit Audubon bird walk in Eliza Howell Park, a field trip that was focused on about a dozen different nesting song birds, I came upon another new nest being constructed. A pair of Mourning Doves was energetically putting their nest together.

The Mourning Dove is one of the most common birds in the country. They are not usually described as “beautiful;” perhaps their abundance diminishes our appreciation for their lovely appearance. When I watch them carefully, I am often struck by details, like their pink legs and feet.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Mourning doves have a prolonged breeding season, nesting early and often. In the south, they can have up to 6 broods a year. Here, it more likely three. The nest building I watched was, I have no doubt, at least the second of the season for this pair.

They sometimes place their nests on human-made structures or on top of old nests of other birds, but most frequently – and in each case that I have seen in the park – they are on (nearly) horizontal tree limbs, 8 – 20 feet high. This one is being built in a Locust tree. I would not have seen it if the bird building activity had not led me to it.

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The nest building was fascinating to watch and I observed for about 10 minutes. Mourning Doves are not bothered by human observers, as long as we are more than a few feet away. Their nests are made up of twigs and grass stems without an inner cup. The male brings the material to the female on the limb, and she puts the pieces together. While I was watching, the male was bringing grass stems. Some tall grass had been mowed several days before and long dry stems were easily available.

My observations included these:

  • The male made many quick trips. I timed them by counting seconds and his return trips with nesting material were, on the average, less than 20 seconds apart. A couple times he was back within 5 seconds.
  • He brought one stem at a time and each time stepped on the back of the sitting female to offer the construction piece.
  • I don’t know whether it was because she wasn’t ready or because the offering wasn’t what she wanted at that time or whether it was an accidental drop, but a number of the grass stems were dropped and floated to the ground.

Mourning Doves do not spend a long time making their nests, completing them in just a couple days. They are flimsy and not lined or insulated, but they have been successful for the doves for a very long time. They lay just two eggs, which are all white, and both the parents share incubation duties.

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Drawing taken from Baicich and Harrison, Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, second edition.

In 10 minutes, the male made about 30 trips to the ground and back. It then paused its frantic pace (at least it appeared frantic to me), and both male and female flew off together for break.

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When I walked by the Locust tree again an hour later, they were back at work.

 

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