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Coo-Coo Mourning Doves

Dove

The Mourning Doves have returned to my yard and I now know it is time to get in the swing of the warmer months. The Cherry Blossom Festival has come and gone, as have many early spring flowers (with more blooms, and chores, to come) but for me, it’s only when the Mourning Doves return that I know it’s time to adjust to the rhythm of life for summer to approach.

Outside the kitchen windows in the house we bought almost 30 years ago, I have lovely views of the front and back yard. Often, sitting at the table, I glance all around me and take in the view. Over one shoulder is the “Green Bed” with a dry stream bed running through the mixture of predominantly green plantings and over the other way, I see the perennial bed and a few older trees and shrubs inherited when we purchased the house.

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Opposite the “Green Bed” is a Juniper tree as tall as the neighboring house it leans against and within the perennial bed are some hollies I’ve tried to shape, or hide, in an attempt to blend them with the overall feel of the garden(s). I’ll admit I haven’t been too successful when it comes to the aesthetics of these older, established plantings but over time, I’ve come to appreciate them for other reasons.

The Juniper is top heavy and although I appreciate the screen of its evergreen bluish-green branches, it’s not a “people friendly” tree when it comes to texture. When my twins were young, the prickly branches got in the way of their backyard games, limbs broke during storms and required significant effort to prune and collect (inevitably requiring protective gear for the most simple clean up) and recently, in one of the heavy snows, the tree toppled off the wall.

Maybe it would have been easier simply to take advantage of this event and remove the tree – surely I could find a nice way to plant on that side of the path and complement the Green Bed. But I just couldn’t and I never will do anything but treasure the Juniper tree. I now love the tree – not for the aesthetics, but for its purpose. That Juniper has been home to innumerable Mourning Dove nests and in decades, only one nest has fallen prey to predators.

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Moreover, the kitchen table is in the addition we put on our kitchen and it allows me, pardon the pun, a “bird’s eye view” directly into the tree. When I see the Mourning Doves gathering nesting materials in their beaks and fluttering into the prickly branches, resting deep within the thick branches, I know it’s only a matter of time before I get out the binoculars, keep the camera close at hand and begin nest watching.

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I’ve learned to keep my distance rather than spending time outside and glaring into the tree in hopes of spotting the nest and getting the Perfect Picture. Predators follow a human’s movements and inadvertently, we can clue them into the location of their meal(s). The pictures I’ve been able to take have been what I refer to a Dumb Luck Shots. For the most part, I’ve been able to get these pictures simply because we built an addition with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the garden and we didn’t remove the Juniper. I’ve watched the eggs hatch, one at a time, and have observed them mature into fledglings.

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Every single nest is built the same way and every nesting cycle is the same. And yet? They are all unique, beautiful, exciting and emotional. Adult Mourning Dove, male and female, look after the to the nest, taking turns caring for the hatchlings. Once the eggs have hatched and the adult leaves the nest in search of food, the other adult stands guard nearby to alert the other adult of danger. That “coo” is a screech, not the gentle cooing I hear at dawn and dusk.

image015The flimsy nests somehow withstand D.C.’s violent summer storms, the normal activity in trees (including squirrels running across branches), hatching eggs, their growth and the weight of an adult tending to those vulnerable newborns.

As time passes, the young doves stay close to the nest and gradually; the adults leave them to fend for themselves. Maybe they’re still unsure of their independence – I don’t know – but it’s somewhat reassuring to see them in the yard and watch them develop.

Last summer, during one particularly wet week full of strong summer storms, I worried about those doves and thought they couldn’t possibly withstand the elements. But when I looked out the window, I saw a young dove in the dry stream bed calmly sitting on one of the boulders. It looked like a decoy.

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The next day, when the storms had stopped, the dove was quietly situated in a clay pot of herbs.

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend Kelly and we noticed the Mourning Doves hopping around the yard gathering nesting materials. They were particularly enamored of the dried lavender stems and it was comical watching them tugging at the stems to get a long enough strand to weave into their nests.

Now is a good time to watch the birds activities – as they gather nesting materials in their beaks you can follow them: they might as well have a neon sign on their back saying “NEST BEING BUILT THIS WAY” because by following their movements, they might lead you to a nest being built.

Surprisingly, we watched a nest being built in a new location – the holly bushes. As of right now, I have two active Mourning Dove nests (that I know of) –and both can be watched safely from a distance.

As I was planting a few new additions to the bed below the hollies, I casually looked up and could easily see the nest had two eggs. That flimsy nest might withstand the elements, activity and some weight, but they do not hide the eggs. If you look straight up into the slapdash gathering of dried twigs and leaves you can easily see what’s happening in the nest.

Now I know my days will begin with a quick check to see if the nests are still there and as I sit at the kitchen table, I’ll watch for signs of life in those trees. Soon I hope to hear the sweet, quieter and lovely gentle coos from the nestlings and hatchlings and eventually watch them test their wings.

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If you’re interested in learning more about how to identify birds, and/or would like to participate in Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology’s Citizen Scientist program by becoming an official Nest Watcher, please go on their website – www.NestWatch.org. I promise you it doesn’t take much time (only a little data gathered via casual observations every few days, taking a minute or two to take notes) and you can be the eyes and ears for the scientists. Your input helps them keep track of the increasing and declining bird populations and you’ll be surprised by all you learn.

Meanwhile, you can find me at my kitchen table with binoculars and camera in hand, glancing to each tree in hopes of movement and growth.

Please take a moment to look around your yard and/or neighborhood and learn more about what’s happening. Seasons aren’t always about the weather or what’s growing in a garden – sometimes it’s about what is actually happening, often benefiting, from that garden’s growth.

To learn more about nest watching, go to www.NestWatch.org

Tell them a Mourning Dove sent you.

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Posted By: Emily Stashower Behnkes Guest Blogger

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this beautiful piece. I love your descriptions of the nesting process and the care you take to keep the birds safe by watching them from inside. I also love your learning to love the juniper for its function and purpose even when it’s aesthetics and prickliness are not particularly pleasing. It’s a different kind of beauty and your description really brings it out. Your posts always inspire me to slow down, look around, and appreciate the life and beauty around me, as close as my own backyard. Like Blake, seeing a “world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.”

  2. I love this piece! It was a lovely way to start my morning – and a beautiful reminder to stop, look, and appreciate all the nature and life in my own backyard (as well as in yours). I love that you are able to take such beautiful photos while also being mindful to protect the birds from predators. Your descriptions of your garden and your ability to draw deeper lessons from them inspire me and make me look at my surroundings with new eyes. Thank you.

  3. I didn’t mean to post twice – I did the first one from my phone earlier this morning. When I went back to reread the post, I didn’t see my comment so I thought it hadn’t gone through. Now, of course, I see that it did. 🙂

    1. No problem, we moderate all posts before making them live, it helps to keep down on the spam. Thanks for the great comments on Emily’s blog post.

      Larry B

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