I enjoy surprising you. For instance, what is the No. 1 game bird in America?
The mourning dove.
Surprised? I was. Forty-two states allow the hunting of mourning doves. More than 20 million are shot each year for both sport and food. More mourning doves are shot in the United States each year than any other animal, yet the population is growing and the range is expanding. With that kind of hunting pressure, you may be wondering how the mourning dove can remain one of the most abundant birds in North America.
There are many reasons. Foremost, any critter that can adapt to being near humans tends to do pretty well. When mourning doves moved into suburbs, their survival was assured. They are prolific breeders. In warmer regions, they can produce broods up to six times a year — more than any other bird species in North America.
The majority of hunting takes place across the south, where large swaths of agriculture offer ideal habitat for mourning doves. It is sufficiently prized as a game bird that additional habitat is deliberately created and preserved for them in some states, easily sustaining the population.
Mourning doves have benefited from a few historical advantages, as well. In the 1800s, when hunters were exterminating vast numbers of birds to sell on the open market, mourning doves were lucky. They were smaller and less desirable than passenger pigeons. By the time the last passenger pigeon died in 1914, laws were on the books to protect migratory birds. The laws were too late to save the Carolina parakeet — the last died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1918 — or the Eskimo curlew, but they were in time to spare other species from overhunting.
Indeed, it took awhile for mourning doves to be considered game birds. The American Ornithological Union didn’t get around to recognizing the mourning dove on its list of game birds until the 20th century, and that came about only because it was clear that the birds were being hunted anyway.
Mourning doves are monogamous, but that doesn’t prevent young males from trying to steal a bride. It’s commonplace to see multiple males strutting their stuff in front of a female under the bird feeder. You might see three mourning doves flying together. It’s a social display where the lead bird is the mated male, the second is the rival, and the third is the curious female who is watching to make sure that she still believes in monogamy. Hey, girls just wanna have fun.
The mourning dove gets its name from the low mournful cooing sound that most Mainers recognize instantly. Mourning doves weren’t around when I was a toddler. They started to move into the state in the 1950s, and have now spread into Atlantic Canada. Doves have benefited from suburbanization and bird feeding. Because they can be so common in the neighborhood, it’s easy to think of them as an abundant bird in Maine. In truth, they are not fond of forests or wetlands, which describes most of the state. Occasionally, someone suggests a dove hunting season for Maine, but I suspect this is unlikely in the near future. With most of the doves clustered around houses and therefore unhuntable, it would not take too long for the remaining population outside of cities to decline. The mourning dove is still relatively new to northern states. In New England, only Rhode Island has a dove hunting season. New York and New Jersey do not.
For hawks, of course, mourning doves are always in season. The accipter family of hawks is particularly fond of them. If a hawk flashes by your window and snatches a mourning dove, chances are it was a sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk or northern goshawk. In winter, the Cooper’s hawk is the most likely suspect. This is a bird whose presence in Maine has increased along with the dove population, and the proliferation of feeders has encouraged more of them to stick around through the cold months.
This explains one survival strategy you’ve probably witnessed. Mourning doves often gather under the feeder and gorge on fallen seeds as fast as possible. They store these seeds in their crops, an enlargement in the esophagus. Once filled, the birds fly to a safe perch to digest the meal — either sheltered from view among the tree branches, or well out in the open where they can see trouble coming.
Life isn’t easy when you taste a little like chicken.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.