There'd been storms in the night and the next morning my two cats were looking with particular interest out the living room window. Something had caught their eye, likely a bird, so I joined their stare fest. It took a while but I finally saw what they were focused on, two small, well-camouflaged mourning doves huddled on the ground.
The birds had the scalloped, mottled appearance of very young doves, and looked as if they'd just dropped out of the nest. That part didn't surprise me, since mourning doves are known for their scanty nests, sometimes so flimsy that eggs or youngsters fall through gaps in the vegetation.
I tossed the dovelets some millet seed and vowed to keep an eye on them — their situation was a little worrisome since they only waddled away if I approached. Too young to fly yet, they were vulnerable to many predators, from cats to hawks.
Two days later they'd moved to the backyard, eagerly pecking the ground around a clump of shrubs. At one point, when they suddenly become aware that I was nearby, they rushed toward each other and huddled side by side. One little bird extended its left wing, the other its right wing, to cover its sibling, leaving only small heads and wide wings in view. I'd never seen protective behavior like this before and it was very endearing.
Within a week the little doves were flying freely, but they stopped by several times a day to peck up millet seed. They inspired me to take a good look at a species I'd often taken for granted.
Mourning doves bob their heads as they walk over the ground, picking up seeds with those small beaks, sometimes accumulating thousands of them, from weed seeds to grass seeds to corn. These they store in a bulge in their esophagus, then fly to a safe perch to digest them. They're thirsty birds, which anyone with a birdbath knows, and have a humanlike drinking style: They stick their beaks into the water and suction up a drink. (Most birds must raise their head and beak in order to swallow.)
Like a lament
They're not songbirds, but most of us are familiar with their soft coo, coo, coo-coo call, sounding like a lament to human ears, almost always given by males to attract a mate. Mourning doves make another sound, too, and if you're around when a flock of them takes off, you'll never forget it. As each bird vaults upward, the wind whistles through those long wings, a blizzard of noise that diverts most predators. Even a single bird launching is loud enough to startle those within hearing.
These streamlined members of the pigeon family are migratory, heading in autumn for winter homes as far south as Mexico. But many remain here all winter, and these are the birds you see on a cold afternoon sitting on the edge of a heated birdbath, drinking eagerly but also seeming to warm their feet. If it's a winter with prolonged cold, some doves may lose a few toes.
They fly fast and straight and can maintain a flight speed of around 55 miles per hour, but they spend a good part of each day perched on utility wires or moving over the ground in search of food.
Parent doves raise three or four broods, with two offspring per nest, during spring and summer in our area (although Southern birds may nest year-round). They're a highly successful species if measured by population: I've seen U.S. estimates ranging from 100 million to 350 million doves. They're considered a game bird in many states, including our own.
By late this fall, those two little backyard doves will have become long-tailed, sleek birds like the rest of their clan. And when there's a gathering at the steaming birdbath this winter, the cats and I will tell ourselves that the twins are among those sitting on the rim.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.