July 14, 2007 in HandleX

Doves in abundance

Stephen L. Lindsay Correspondent
Tom Davenport photo

A close look at a mourning dove reveals a blue orbital ring and buff colored underbelly.
(Full-size photo)

Who can resist the cooing of the doves? It’s such a mournful sound, yet it speaks of restful and peaceful settings. And, as can happen in the late evening, when mistaken for an owl, it adds an extra bit of excitement.

Watching doves fly is fascinating. Often in small groups, they fly as one in quick banks and turns until they either disappear at full speed into a patch of trees to roost, alight delicately on a telephone wire to rest, or tumble quickly to the ground to feed.

When alarmed, they can rocket back into the sky, too. The whistling of their wings as they take flight and their sudden motion in fright can make one’s heart beat so much faster when it’s all unexpected.

The dove is one of those familiar birds that no matter where one might travel in North America, it’s sure to be there already.

It may be balancing on a high, thin wire or feeding below a feeder full of seeds, but its slender body, long, pointed tail, small head and tapered wings are quite recognizable, without a single coo. It’s a silhouette that even nonbirders recognize.

Not only is the mourning dove aesthetically pleasing in its form, flight and voice, but it is also one of the most widely dispersed and abundant bird species in North America. Only the red-winged blackbird is found in more places. Only a handful of species can match the mourning dove’s estimated population of half a billion (that’s 500 million) birds.

It is also one of the more common feeder birds in season. I hear of and see a few in Kootenai County each winter, but I have a friend who has 50 or more at her feeders the whole year through. Should she ever decide to cash out her investment in seed, that’s a lot of squab dinners.

If she did enjoy them in that way – and they are quite good – she wouldn’t be alone. Lots of things eat doves. Somewhere between 30 and 70 million birds are shot by hunters each year in 31 or so states. However, roughly five times that number die each year from accidents, predation, disease and weather. In the wild, doves are hawk and falcon fodder, and in suburbia they are mainly killed by cats stalking well-stocked feeders.

Fortunately for mourning doves, they are quite prolific. They nest in 49 states – having been released in Hawaii 40-some years ago – and all southern provinces, and they visit Alaska regularly. They also breed throughout Mexico year-round. In the United States and Canada, mourning doves have multiple broods – up to six in some southern states – producing lots of young.

As a crude example of just how many young are potential, consider what the Garden of Eden would be like for mourning doves. Begin with a single pair, Adam-dove and Eve-dove, and don’t allow death since this is Eden. Even in present-day Georgia, it is realistic for a mated pair to produce five nests of two young each, or 10 doves a year.

Further assume that each pair can only breed one year – this is not a limitation of nature, but is often a reality, nonetheless. At the end of the first year there would be 12 doves. The next year five pairs would produce 50 young, and there would be 62 doves. Continue this out and at the end of 10 years, the Garden is getting crowded with 24.4 million doves. That’s probably the point at which God created predators and sportsmen.

As you can see, it’s important that since doves can reproduce in such large numbers, they need to die in large numbers, too. That’s called the balance of nature. A high reproductive rate is what keeps the doves going as a species. Few survive to see a whole year. It’s a good thing overall, but perhaps that’s why doves give their sorrowful cry.

That’s the way Eden is supposed to work, but man has become the snake that threw the whole balance thing off. First, in developing North America, man has made it more Eden-like for doves, and the population of mourning doves is the highest it has probably ever been. This trend continues in the East, but in the West a population decline has begun.

In the case of mourning dove ecology, if not theology, “what man giveth, man taketh away.” In the West, man is beginning to encroach upon the doves’ Eden by destroying nesting habitat – and the balance is starting to tip away from the doves.

When you are dealing with low profit margins relative to survivability, large numbers do not make for the kind of security that longevity does. About 200 years ago the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird species on earth. One East Coast flock was estimated at two billion birds – that’s billion, with a “b.”

In a 50-year period market hunting and habitat alteration decimated those numbers and the passenger pigeon was extinct by 1914. In less than 100 years, from billions to none – it seemed impossible.

Unless you lived in the border states of the Southwest, in southern Texas, or in Florida, you’d only expect to see one dove in the United States and Canada. There was the rock dove, which was more appropriately renamed Rock Pigeon recently, but there are no other small Columbids, the family of pigeons and doves, except the mourning dove, named for that special cooing thing that it does.

Actually, there is not a technical difference between pigeons and doves, except for size. In the West, and occasionally in North Idaho, we have the band-tailed pigeon. They are only several inches longer than a mourning dove, but they are three times as heavy.

As far as real birds go, there are only two other North American pigeons – one each in South Florida and South Texas. There is the previously mentioned rock pigeon, but in all ways it is just a feathered and flying rat.

The Rock dove accompanied the first European settlers to North America in the 1600s, just as did the rat, and it has taken over the same ratty urban habitats as the rat, only higher up. It has also, like the rat, given in to domestication and serves mankind in various roles.

In the border states of the Southwest, in southern Texas, and in Florida there are another six species of native doves, and there are three introduced species. One, the ringed turtle dove is primarily a pet species kept chiefly, I think, for the cooing. I have two and they keep it up day and night.

Another new species, the Eurasian collared dove, is one you will be hearing a great deal about in the future. This dove was taken to the Bahamas in 1974 and managed passage to Florida in the early 1980s. It has been spreading across the United States unbelievably fast – making it to Montana in 1997, Oregon in 1998, Washington in 2000, and was first seen in North Idaho earlier this year. This summer there has been a pair just outside Moscow.

The collared dove’s invasion seems pretty benign at this point. Collared doves are fond of humans and are found primarily in suburbia. Only in such places will one usually find collared doves and mourning doves together. Hopefully our sweet but sad little doves won’t end up being thrown from the Garden by an interloper. That would be a sin.

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