Mourning Doves

Mourning Dove - male

A couple of days ago we were lucky to catch a pair of Mourning Doves. We had all been sitting in front of the banding ‘lab’, the base of operations for the station, and watching a trio of doves wheeling and chasing each other about the cul-de-sac loop of the road in front. As we looked on, they suddenly swooped around and came down low, and then flew into the open net we could see from where we sat – bang-bang-bang (I say bang, but actually it’s a relatively gentle impact, as much as it can even be called an impact; maybe a better word would be ‘foop’, but foop-foop-foop doesn’t have the same sort of rapid-fire imagery). Myself and one of the other volunteers took off sprinting – Mourning Doves are large enough that they don’t typically stay caught long in a net designed for sparrows and warblers, and one of the three indeed escaped even as we madly dashed toward them. And the doves are caught rarely enough for them to be an interesting capture on a moderately slow day.

Have you ever taken some time to look closely at a Mourning Dove? They are lovely, sleek birds, with very soft, pleasing colours. We tend to think of them as just mouse-brown, but they embrace a broader palette than that. For one, there’s the soft blue orbital ring. The blue is actually coloured skin, rather than feathers. Then there’s the pink corners to the mouth, the overall effect as though they’re wearing eyeshadow and lipstick. The male (above) can be told from the female (below) by the blue-gray wash over the back of his head and neck, and the dusty rose across his breast, which the female mostly lacks. (He’s also a bulkier bird than the female, although this usually requires a pair side-by-side to assess easily.) Both sexes sport an iridescent patch on the sides of their necks. Interestingly, the Birds of North America account indicates that males will usually show pink iridescence, while females will have olive-green, “although some pink iridescence occasionally occurs.” Perhaps they got their memos crossed? Pink does seem like a much more feminine colour, anyway.

Mourning Dove - female


Murder in the woods

Mourning Dove kill

As mentioned in my last post, my mom and I went for a hike at the Perth Wildlife Refuge on the weekend. Partway along the trail, shortly after we were passed by a couple and their dog (despite the signs that say “no dogs”), we came across this mess of feathers scattered over the snow at the edge of the path. I always wonder, when I find a kill like this, what happened? Who was the victim? And who was the culprit? I’m pretty sure the dog didn’t do it, but beyond that the answer requires some investigation.

Mourning Dove kill

I don’t really need to point out (though I will) that the victim was a bird. But what species? Quite often it’s difficult to tell just from body feathers, unless it’s a big puff of bright red (cardinal) or blue (Blue Jay). These feathers are pretty generic in colour, browns and grays. Often, the key to identifying a mass of feathers is to find the tail and/or flight (long wing) feathers. Both were present in this pile, but I focused on the tail feathers (which I lined up nicely in this photo). The long gray shafts, with a dark band and a white tip, are pretty distinctive. Don’t look familiar, though? That’s probably because they’re usually kept concealed underneath the two central tail feathers when the tail is folded closed, and the central feathers don’t bear this pattern. They belonged to a Mourning Dove: check out this fabulous flight image (not mine) to see the tail spread.

Mourning Dove kill

That answers the victim. But who was the culprit? The answer is, in part, in the pile of feathers. Although certain carnivorous mammals aren’t opposed to taking birds if they have the opportunity to catch them, out here in the woods they’re probably not a common predator. The vegetation would make an attack difficult, for one thing. In the woods, Mourning Doves are more likely to be roosting than foraging on the ground. Still, a mammal such as a fox or coyote might have managed to get one out in the field a short distance away, and brought it here to eat. Both species will pluck their prey before eating. If the bird was killed by one of these guys, usually the feathers will show some damage from the canid’s teeth, holes in the barbs where the teeth bit through it. Occasionally canids will sheer off, rather than pluck, the long tail feathers from the body, leaving “clipped off” ends to the shafts. These feathers didn’t show either of those signs.

Damage from raptor bill in plucking feathers?

Raptors will also damage the feathers as they pull them out of their prey, but because they have bills, not teeth, the damage appears as cut or crushed shafts, near the base of the the feather. I think that the markings on the feathers I’ve indicated with an arrow, above, are the result of pressure from the bill as the feathers were pulled out.

Mourning Dove kill

The other clue, at least to me, has to do with the arrangement of the feathers in a semicircle around the bloodied snow where the body was held. In my mind’s eye I can see a raptor standing over its prey, plucking feathers from the body and tossing them with a flick of its head forward of the prey (something like this, perhaps). When I’ve seen a cat plucking a bird it grabs a mouthful of feathers and then shakes its head, spitting them out without any particular direction in mind (you can almost hear it say “pthooy!”). I don’t know whether foxes and coyotes would fall into the former or latter plucking pattern.

Mourning Dove kill

Putting these things together (raptor kill of a Mourning Dove in a forest) implies to me that the dove was killed by an accipiter, a group of agile hawks who are built for hunting and manoeuvring through trees. There are three that can occur around here: Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Northern Goshawk. The goshawk is rare, and usually found in more pristine habitat than occurs at the Wildlife Refuge, although juveniles in particular may wander about in less-favourable habitat in winter. More probably it was a Sharpie or Cooper’s, however. Both will take Mourning Doves, though they’d be easier targets for the larger Cooper’s. There was an impression in the snow on the side of the bloody print away from the feathers, where I imagine the raptor sat. I don’t know for certain if the print was from the bird’s body, but if it was, the size of it would also suggest the larger Cooper’s Hawk.

Mourning Dove kill

Going back to the original scene, it looks like once the hawk got the bird mostly or completely plucked, it decided to take it somewhere else to eat. There was another patch of bloodied snow to one side of all the feathers, and I figure the hawk grabbed the bird to leave, took a hop, then decided it didn’t like the grip it had. So it stopped to readjust the prey, putting the dove down in the snow and making another print before finally leaving.

A harbinger of spring

Edit: This post was recently included in the 70th edition of I and the Bird, a blog carnival focusing on, you guessed it, birds. You can check out the full edition at Earth, Wind & Water.

First starling of spring

The northeast got another dump of snow last night. Although it was only just lightly starting in the evening before I went to bed, by the time I got up there was a good eight inches on the ground, and it was still snowing with some conviction.


It finally began to taper off mid-morning. I happened to be at my parents’ for a few days of renovation work, so I didn’t have to go anywhere in it, but when my dad got home he said the driving was pretty slick on the way in to work. I helped my mom put the horses out in the fields; she normally takes them herself two at a time, but the younger two are very lively and with the slippery conditions she wasn’t keen about having a prancing horse at the end of each arm.

The feeders were very active this morning. Virtually every bird in the surrounding woods had come out to fuel up at the convenient food source while it was snowing. Surprisingly, I didn’t see the big flocks of redpolls that usually turn up in this weather; they seem to have traded off with American Tree Sparrows, which were unusually abundant.

First starling of spring

Mom and I were looking out the window at the activity when she commented, “what’s that dark thing in the tree, just a knot? Or is it a starling?” Sure enough, it was a starling. This is a very notable sighting for us (worth writing in my newly-started Nature Calendar!). Because my parents are out in the country, their starlings don’t stick around over the winter. They depart in the fall with the rest of the migrants, and then come back again early in the spring to nest in the eaves of the house and garage. There’re usually at least three pairs nesting here every summer.

First starling of spring

They’re the true harbinger of spring here. They arrive earlier than any other migrant, even the Red-winged Blackbirds, which are early arrivals. Unfortunately I don’t have a solid record of arrival dates over recent years. Shoulda been keeping a calendar… I’d be interested to know where they all go in the winter, whether they just skip down to the nearby town, or if they migrate some distance away.

Starling sneaking up on doves

I love starlings, they’re one of my favourite birds. This is due in part to my years in university, living in town, where during the winter they, and the House Sparrows, were the only signs of life for months. Their chattery song is very lively and upbeat, even when there’s a foot of snow on the ground. They’ve got lots of character, and I personally think their glossy irridescence is beautiful.

They aren’t so universally welcomed, however. Note these Mourning Doves are keeping an eye on this individual as she clambers around the tree foraging for edible bits. Starlings have a well-earned reputation as being bullies of the bird world. Although this one was alone, they usually move around in flocks in the winter, shooing other birds away from feeders when they move in to hoard all the food. They are definitely hogs when it comes to the good stuff, and has driven many a backyard bird feeder to “snob feeding” (to coin a Julie Zickefoose term). We don’t mind them here, however, since they’re so few in number.

Too close for comfort

The starling gets a little too close for comfort and the dove decides to move to a different perch. Starlings are also known for kicking more passive birds from nesting boxes. One of their main victims is the Purple Martin, but they’ll also kick out bluebirds, tree swallows, woodpeckers (including the hefty Northern Flicker), and just about any other bird that happens to have chosen a box the starling desires.

Starling and Blue Jay

Only the birds of similar size will challenge the starlings, as this Blue Jay prepares to do here. Blue Jays themselves are charismatic, bold and pushy, both with other birds…

Starling and Blue Jays

…and between themselves. The starling waits her turn.

I’m pretty sure this one’s a female. Starlings are neat because, although males and females have essentially the same plumage, during the winter and subsequent breeding season the “cere”, the soft fleshy part at the base of their bill, changes colour. Appropriately, the males turn blueish, and the females turn pinkish. Males also have nice, long, glossy throat feathers that they puff out and show off when singing. Incidentally, the white speckles you see on winter birds wear off over the winter so that the black, irridescent “summer plumage” is really just the same feathers they had all winter, minus the white tips.

Starling and cardinal

A female cardinal gives the suet a once-over. Cardinals rarely visit the suet, instead preferring the fat-rich sunflower seeds. A starling’s beak isn’t as well-designed to cracking open the hard shells of seeds, and their summer diet is primarily insects and berries. In the winter, the suet is their favourite. It’s not such a problem here, with just a few birds, but if you live in town and have a whole flock of them descend on your feeder, their powerful beaks can hack it apart and gobble it up amazingly quickly.

Their scientific name is Sturnus vulgaris. Back when the species was named, “vulgar” meant “common”, rather than ugly or unpleasant as it is often used now, so the scientific name basically meant “Common Starling”. I’m sure there are a lot of North American bird watchers who would also identify with the word’s other meaning, however.

Sunny day

Late morning the sun came out, and it was a beautifully bright day. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much time to enjoy it, working as I was.

I’m using my mom’s computer to post this evening. Most of my photos were a little underexposed because of the overcast, snowy conditions this morning, so I had to brighten them up a tad on the computer. Unfortunately, I do most of my photo editing in a different program at home, and I can’t seem to make Photoshop accomplish the same things, even though I appear to be using the same or similar command. So, because I was shooting through a window, some of these may seem a little cloudy, or the snow overexposed now; I just couldn’t seem to fix it, for some reason!