If you provide water for your backyard birds you may have noticed that your visitors collect a small amount of it in their bills and then tip their heads back to swallow. Not so with doves. Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura), pigeons and others in the family Columbidae are able to drink by dipping their bills into water and sucking up the liquid. As a rule, doves require more water than other birds and this ability to sip allows them to swallow more water and to watch for predators as they drink.

Susan P. Smith_/Great Backyard Bird Count

Mourning Dove feeding habits play on this same theme. Other birds are actively catching insects and other invertebrate prey, then whacking the creatures against branches to render them edible. Or they are busily cracking open plant seedpods or hulls before consuming the nutritious seeds within. Meanwhile, the Mourning Dove is casually feeding as it walks along the ground, without bothering to prepare its food beforehand. It picks up large quantities of whole seed as it forages and stores the meal in its crop (a sac-like storage chamber in the throat). This permits the dove to expose itself to predators for only a short period of time. It then can fly to a sheltered area to digest its meal. You may notice a flock of mourning doves quietly perched on tree branches in your yard or woodlands. Their previous meal is working its way from the crop to the first chamber of the stomach where digestive enzymes and acids start to break down the seed. In the second, larger stomach known as the gizzard, further breakdown continues. Birds that consume hard seeds, such as Mourning Doves, need the muscular gizzard to grind up the seed. To aid the grinding process, doves will ingest bits of gravel and sand, called grit. Look for doves collecting grit along roadsides and gravel drives.

Andrew Atzert CC BY 2.0

With the breeding season over you are likely to see Mourning Doves flocking and roosting together. See if you can pick out the juvenile birds in the group. These youngsters do not possess the creamy, smooth appearance of the adults. Instead, their wing and breast feathers are edged with a pale tan, giving a scalloped effect to the feathers and a ruffled appearance to the young birds.

Cindi Kobak