Have you ever been captivated by the iconic “hoot hoot” of an owl? These distinctive calls have a special place in our hearts, and they can convey various meanings. From marking their territory to communicating with their mate, owls use their melodic hoots to express themselves. While owl calls predominantly fill the nighttime air, there are instances when you might hear a similar sound in the daytime, leaving you wondering if another bird could mimic the familiar hooting.

Enter the mourning dove, a bird that shares a striking resemblance to an owl’s call. Commonly found throughout North America, this species is also known as the turtle dove or Carolina pigeon. This article will provide insights into their taxonomy, distribution, habitat, physical characteristics, and social behavior. Additionally, we’ll explore their diet, feeding habits, and ecological significance. By the end of our discussion, you’ll be able to differentiate between the calls of an owl and a mourning dove and gain a deeper appreciation for these fascinating birds.


The Mourning Dove belongs to the family Columbidae, which includes other pigeons and doves. Its scientific name, Zenaida macroura, is derived from a blend of two languages. Zenaida is a reference to Zénaïde Laetitia Julie Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s niece and spouse of the renowned French ornithologist, Charles Lucien Bonaparte. The term macroura is of Greek origin, resulting from the combination of makros, meaning “long”, and ouros, meaning “tailed”. This bird is closely related to the Eared Dove and Socorro Dove.

Interestingly, the Mourning Dove shares a connection with the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon, as they were once grouped under the same genus. Despite its resemblance in name, it has little connection to the Mourning Collared Dove of Africa. To prevent confusion, it is also known as the American Mourning Dove. Presently, there are five recognized subspecies of the Mourning Dove, which can be found among various North American bird populations.

Distribution and Habitat

Mourning doves can be found across the United States, Mexico, Central America, and parts of southern Canada. They also inhabit various Caribbean islands, such as Bermuda, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica. Five subspecies of mourning doves exist, each with its unique geographic location, but their ranges might sometimes overlap.

During winter, birds living in Canada and the northern United States tend to migrate south. On the contrary, those in warmer regions generally remain year-round. Mourning doves occupy diverse habitats, from urban areas and grasslands to woodlands. However, they steer clear of wetland areas and dense forests.

These birds are often seen living near humans and do not seem to be fazed by people’s presence. They prefer to build their nests in trees, but they may also choose bushes, buildings, or even ground-level locations for nest sites. Overall, the mourning dove’s distribution and habitat are characterized by their adaptability and proximity to human environments.

Physical Characteristics

Mourning doves are medium-sized birds with a distinctive owl-like sound. They are usually about 12 inches long and have a wingspan ranging from 14.5 to 17.7 inches. Their weight typically falls around 4.5 ounces, but in the wild, they can vary between 4 and 6 ounces.

These birds have broad, elliptical-shaped wings and rounded heads. Their slender bodies are accompanied by long, tapered tails, resulting in a pointed appearance. Like other perching and songbirds, they have three forward-pointing toes and one backward-pointing toe. Mourning doves also have short, dark-colored beaks, and relatively short, reddish legs.

Their coloration consists of light gray and brown shades, with black markings on the back and white on the tail. Both males and females possess similar appearances, however, males can be distinguished by a bluish crest and pinkish patches on their necks, adding to their unique physical characteristics.

Social and Mating Behavior

Mourning doves often reside in sizable groups when they are not involved in mating or raising offspring. They enjoy cooling themselves with birdbaths or dust baths, particularly on hot days. As the breeding season approaches, males attract females with their noisy wing flapping and chest puffing. These birds form lifelong partnerships and raise numerous broods over consecutive breeding seasons.

Together, the male and female choose a suitable location for their nest. Although the male assists in gathering nest materials, it is the female who constructs the nest. In some instances, they might occupy an existing abandoned nest left by another dove, bird, or squirrel.

Typically, female mourning doves lay only two eggs per brood. Both parents play an active role in incubating the eggs and protecting their nest. In case of predator threats, adult mourning doves cleverly distract the attacker by pretending to have a broken wing and leading the predator away from the nest.

After the eggs hatch, both male and female contribute in feeding the baby doves, also known as squabs. For the initial few days, squabs are fed on pigeon’s milk, or crop milk. Gradually, their diet shifts more towards seeds. By the time they are ready to leave the nest, approximately two weeks after hatching, their diet becomes identical to that of their parents.


Mourning doves primarily consume seeds, which account for 99% of their diet. They’re known to feast on a variety of seeds, such as rapeseed, corn, safflower, millet, and sunflower seeds. They especially relish corn, pine nuts, sesame, and wheat seeds. Besides seeds, they may occasionally snack on insects.

After collecting seeds with their crop, morning doves fly to a perch to digest their meal. They also eat fine dirt, sand, or small rocks to aid digestion. Here’s a summary of the mourning dove diet:

  • Seeds: The primary source of nutrition (99%)
    • Corn, pine nuts, sesame, and wheat: favorites
    • Rapeseed, safflower, millet, and sunflower: also included
  • Insects: Consumed occasionally, but not a vital part of their diet
  • Fine dirt, sand, or small rocks: Helps with digestion

Ecological and Cultural Importance

Mourning doves contribute significantly to ecosystems as seed dispersers and pollinators. By consuming and later excreting seeds, they help distribute plant seeds over vast areas, supporting plant growth and diversity. Their presence also supports predator populations such as hawks, falcons, snakes, wildcats, and foxes.

In various Native American tribes, mourning doves have been an important part of oral traditions. Moreover, they symbolize peace and love worldwide. For example, Wisconsin recognizes the mourning dove as its official symbol of peace, Michigan considers it as their state bird of peace, and it is the national bird of the British Virgin Islands.

How to Tell an Owl Call From a Mourning Dove Call

Mourning doves sound like owls, so distinguishing their calls may seem challenging if you are not familiar with their differences. There are, however, specific characteristics that help differentiate the vocalizations of these two birds.

The male mourning dove’s call typically consists of four parts: “cooOOoo-wooooo-woo-woo.” It begins with a trilling “coo,” followed by a long “woo” and two shorter “woos.” They also produce a short “cooOOOoo” when greeting their mate or a brief “roo-oo” to alert others of potential threats. On the other hand, owl calls usually sound more distinct and less melodic. Many owls, like the great horned owl, produce hoots comprising quick, staccato “woos” that may resemble barking. Some owls even emit single “hoos,” which sound more guttural and deeper than the lighter, airier “coos” or “woos” of the mourning dove.

Here are some points to assist in telling these calls apart:

  • Mourning doves have a melodic, trilling coo
  • Owls, such as barn owls or snowy owls, often have sharper, guttural hoots
  • Owl hooting sounds more similar to barks, while mourning dove calls are airy and gentle

Frequently Asked Questions About Mourning Doves

  • How abundant are these birds?

    Mourning doves are considered among the most widespread birds in North America with an estimated population of around 475 million. However, some populations might be facing a decline due to issues like lead poisoning and environmental factors. Despite this, the IUCN categorizes them as Least Concern species.

  • Which predators target mourning doves?

    A variety of predators prey on mourning doves, such as snakes, cats, and hawks. Some bird species like corvids and grackles may also feed on their eggs.

  • What is their top speed?

    With their powerful and broad wings, mourning doves can achieve impressive speeds of up to 55 miles per hour.

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