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.

 

A Winter Walk on the South River Path

Part of my regular winter walk in Eliza Howell Park is the path along the river, going to the right after crossing the footbridge (coming from the road loop side). This area of the park is wooded and a winter walk in a deciduous woods is hard to beat, especially when there is snow on the ground.

I think of this as the “south river path,” marked in the dotted red line on the map.

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There is a Pignut Hickory tree near the path, a tree which was very productive in 2017. Before the snows came, I couldn’t avoid stepping on the nuts on the path and I was a little surprised that squirrels had not carried them off to store for winter eating.

Now I think I know the reason they didn’t. The leaves fell to cover the leaves and they were effectively stored right there. The squirrels are now digging them out, leaving the pieces of the outer shell behind as they carry off the nut. 

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When the leaves are off the trees, one of the more intriguing and noticeable plants near the path is wild grape vine. These vines are long, often large in diameter, and appear to dangle from the high branches. They do not adhere to the trunk as many other vines do. There are many grape vines along the path and they suggest a number of questions: how big do they get, how old, how do they get so high in the tree without adhering to trunks? I plan to comment on them further at another time.

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I always make sure I follow the path at least until I come to a patch of euonymus, a vine that adheres to the trunks of trees. Euonymus is an evergreen, providing the only green in this area of the park at this time of the year. A major part of their attraction is that they retain their attractive fruit in the heart of winter.

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I always walk very slowly near the euonymus vines because this is an excellent place to look for birds. Even on cold winter days when many birds are sheltered and hard to spot, I usually can find a few here. This year, Northern Cardinals are the most common, but I also frequently see Dark-eyed Juncos Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

One of the winter birding surprises this year is a small flock of Mourning Doves often along the edge of the river here. They feed mainly on the ground and the side of the river bank is one of the few areas of uncovered ground available. Sometimes, an icy spot on the river serves as their foraging “ground.

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The day or two following a snowfall is a good time to pay attention to animal tracks, which can always be found. On this most recent walk on the south river path, I saw many tracks, including those of deer.

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The south river path does not reach a park entrance/exit. It simply ends a short distance past the euonymus. So I return the way I came, usually seeing something that I missed a little while ago. That is the nature of a nature walk — observational, not destinational.