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Seeing nature close-up at Mission Trails Regional Park

By Audrey F. Baker

For several weeks, a highlight of the Trail Guide-led nature walk on Visitor Center Loop Trail was the opportunity for eye-level observation of the nesting activities of a Mourning Dove. The female displayed abundant patience as park guests enjoyed the hushed thrill. Memorized expression lit the faces of adults and children alike.

Zenaida macroura is a member of dove family (Columbidae) which worldwide represents 300 species of doves and pigeons. Eight are native to the U.S. The species name references its long, tapered and pointed tail with white outer edging. The graduated tail is a unique attribute among North American doves and allows quick identification.

Morning Dove at Mission Trails regional Park (Photo by Wendy Esterly)

Living life in the thickets, Mourning Doves of our area exhibit a geographic morphism — paler tones that match its surroundings. Our doves are delicate brown to buffy-tan. Black spots grace wing coverts and a black “ear” patch is behind the eye. The distinctive streamline shape features a plump body with small head with proportionate bill, and reddish short legs and feet.

The Mourning Dove as a minimalist. Seeds from wild grasses, weeds, and forbs, as well as cultivated grains make up 99 percent of the diet. Add to that berries and the occasional snail.

These selective foragers are efficient food collectors. Seeds are accessed on the ground and swallowed for storage in an enlargement of the esophagus, the crop. Once filled, the birds perch to digest the meal. They ingest grit (sand and gravel) acquired from mud flats, road edges or sandy soil, that is retained in the gizzard to aid in digestion of hard seeds.

That comfortable roosting posture belies their agility. With a 17- to 19-inch wingspan and falcon-like wings, flight speed reaches 45 mph and is arrow straight. At takeoff, the wings make a distinct, sharp whistling sound. Sudden ascents or descents and aerial dodges are part of the survival repertoire. Should the nest be a predator’s focus, the crafty adult bird will lure away an enemy, using its famed diversionary tactic — feigning a broken wing.

Mourning Doves evoke rich symbolism.

The mournful song aired from a conspicuous perch by unmated males echoes unrequited love. While you may never see a dove carrying an olive branch, a lucky observation during nesting season may catch a mated male carrying native plant-building material in beak!

His future secure, the male offers his mate potential nest sites. She has the last word. For two to four days, he serves as construction site foreman, standing on her back to pass along twigs and grass stems she will weave into a frail 8-inch-across assemblage suiting minimalist specifications and offering little insulation for their offspring. Favored sights include Laurel Sumac and Cottonwood. Ground nesting is an option.

Occupying a vast range from southern Canada, throughout U.S. and south into Panama, the Mourning Dove has the dubious distinction of being the most frequently hunted species in North America.

In 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the U.S. population at 274 million individuals. The report cited that over the last 49 years, numbers have increased in the eastern portion of the country, while decreasing in the mid- and western states.

At nest building, the males chimes the nest call, “coo-OO-oo.” The females articulates an “ohr ohr” while nesting.

A successful pair of Mourning Doves may annually raise six broods, each producing two eggs. Exceptions are rare. Both parents participate in the 14-day incubation period, and in feeding the young “pigeon milk,” a.k.a. “crop milk” for the first three days of life. The regurgitated substance (rich in protein and fat) is secreted from the adults’ crop lining and has a cottage cheese consistency. A seed diet is next introduced. By two weeks, fledging begins. Youthful doves remain near-nest, feeding for another week or two.

At Mission Trails, the Mourning Doves frequent sage and chaparral for cover, and mindfully mill over patches of bare ground amid woodland, grasslands and trail sides are ideal for seed collection.

Watering sites include shallow accesses to the San Diego River and Kumeyaay Lake. A quick fly-in onto gravel bars and mud flats also quenches.

By the way, on your next visit to Mission Trails, don’t forget your water bottle!

—Audrey F. Baker is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park. Check the MTRP events calendar published here or at mtrp.org or call 619-668-3281 for more information on the park’s free trail guide-led nature walks and opportunities to learn more about natural Southern California. Special walks can be arranged for any club, group, business or school by contacting Ranger Chris Axtmann at 619-668-2746 or at caxtmann@mtrp.org.

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