Foam Lake Birding No. 44

No. 44
Since my last article, I have seen many new spring arrivals in our back yard. These include Grackles, Mourning Doves, Northern Flickers, Purple Finches and Purple Martins. Killdeer, Lesser Scaup Ducks, Mallard Ducks and Snow Geese have arrived in rural areas, but can be seen flying overhead right in town. By the time this goes to print, there will be still more arrivals.
This week, I want to cover a bird that is quite common, but generally overlooked and misidentified. Most surprisingly, most people do not even know the bird exists. As a youngster growing up on the farm, every farm yard had at least one nesting pair, yet nobody seemed to be aware of what they were. In this piece, I want to reveal this bird which is the only member of its family west of the Rockies – but, not just yet.
For years, I have been befuddled by people reporting the sighting of a Robin-sized grey bird. Some observes even noted that the bird had some dark spots or dots on it. The description of the spots as to size, number and location were very vague and not helpful at all. Nobody seemed able to compare it to an existing bird such as a Crow, duck, Grackle or anything else. Then, I happened to be observing a flock of birds in Texas when it dawned on me what this mystery bird was. Later that spring back in Foam Lake, an eleven year old boy, an ardent birder, came to our house to look at my bird photos. When the same silhouette, as included in this week’s article, appeared on the computer screen he immediately said, “Mourning Dove”. Without hesitation, he identified it by shape alone.
I do have excellent pictures of Mourning Doves, but I did want to make a point. Shape and behavior of a bird are, at times, more important than colour or size. This example is a classic! The silhouette clearly shows the bird to be a pigeon. All I would have needed to identify the mystery bird is to have had somebody say that it looked like a pigeon. Remember the old adage, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”.
In the preceding paragraph, I described the Mourning Dove as a pigeon. The words pigeon and dove serve no distinction in the birding world and are considered the same. Through general usage, however, dove refers to the smaller members of the group, while pigeon refers to the larger ones.
There used to be three wild pigeons in Canada, but with the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon in 1914, there are now only two – the Band Tailed Pigeon of the Rockies and the Mourning Dove over most of Canada. Males and females of the pigeon family are the same. The Band Tailed Pigeon is our largest pigeon exceeding the familiar “elevator” pigeon in size. “Elevator” pigeons are feral (domestic pigeons that have turned wild). The Mourning Dove is a Robin-sized brownish grey bird with nine, or so, pea-sized black spots on the sides of its lower back and wings that are noticeable only when the bird is perched. Its “song” sounds like an owl far away which has given rise to a curious and long standing myth discussed elsewhere.
Mourning Doves have two characteristics, common to all pigeons, which make them unique in the world of birds. First, they are seed eaters all the time. Unlike other seed eaters they do not feed their young animal protein. Instead, seed is digested by the parents to the point where it becomes a thick liquid, which the parents then feed to the young by regurgitation. This “soup” is known as pigeon’s milk. Second, Pigeons are the only birds (at least in North America) that have the necessary throat muscles to drink water directly like a cow or a horse. Other birds have to scoop up a beak full of water then raise their heads and let gravity pull the water down their throats. Should Mourning Doves come to your bird bath, watch how they drink.
There is a very common myth surrounding Mourning Doves that I must mention. My parents and their contemporaries always predicted rain when they heard “owls” hooting in the day time. Once, when my father made this statement, I decided to find these strange owls by following the source of the sound. Instead of owls, I found two Mourning Doves cooing and billing. (It was mating season.) Mystery solved and myth busted. I do not remember if it rained.
This year the Mourning Doves returned earlier than I ever recall. Every morning they can be heard cooing away in our yard right at sunrise. This is a bit early for me, but I am glad they are back.