Northland Nature: Mourning dove song 'sad,' yet welcome

Mar. 22—March has continued the pattern of the earlier months. We have an average temperature above normal with below precipitation and snowfall.

The night was clear with a chilly calm morning. I'm up early to walk in these conditions. As expected with a clear cool night, the dawn is frosty. In this quiet windless time, sounds stand out and I hear plenty as I walk.

The usual crows, ravens and bluejays are active. Nuthatches give their nasal calls. And several kinds of woodpeckers are drumming. I hear the four species that wintered with us: downy, hairy, red-bellied and the resonating pileated woodpecker.

In addition to these avian residents, there are loud flyovers. Canada geese and trumpeter swans blast sound as they pass.

But there is also a quieter flock going over, too. I note about a dozen tundra swans. Smaller and not as noisy as their trumpeter cousins, they fly further to the north to breed. Recently, in a nearby lake, I also noted a few ducks: goldeneyes, mallards and wood ducks. And, as expected, we have a very early ice-out.

During my morning walk, I pause when I hear another sound, a regular song of spring but one I have not heard yet this season: the cooing of a mourning dove.

Mourning doves are common breeding birds in the region. Bodies are sleek and about 12 inches. They are not so colorful, they tend to be a brownish-gray color. The head and bill are small, but the tail is long. Mourning doves get their strange name from the call that consists of a plaintive cooing: "coo-AHH, coooo, coo, coooo" — almost as if the birds are sad or mourning.

Many are summer residents; some do winter, but never in large numbers. They are early nesters. In spring, they construct a platform of sticks that appears too weak to last for raising the two young. Birds feed on seeds. By starting early, they may have another brood later in the summer.

Like other doves, mourning doves are closely related to pigeons. In different parts of the country, there are various species of doves and pigeons. We most often see feral rock doves (rock pigeons) that have learned to live quite well in cities and frequently in large barns.

Unlike these descendants of homing pigeons, the mourning dove is native. Their spring "sad" song of cooing is always a joy to hear in the early days of this growing season.

Soon, other sounds will fill the early daylight hours as the arriving red-winged blackbirds, grackles and robins will proclaim territorial ownership to a site that will later be their homes. Song sparrows and purple finches will add their notes, too. Not songs, but the drumming of

ruffed grouse

and gobbling of


will be heard in the morning calm. Maybe an early hermit thrush will contribute its melodious songs from the woods as well.

In addition to the avian chorus, early ice-out means that the local amphibians, especially frogs, will quickly take advantage of the water. Despite the low water levels in ponds, they will find places to breed, and their vocals will be heard, too, usually later in the day. They are mostly quiet in the early mornings.

It's still March and early spring (this year even earlier than usual). There will be more active sounds and songs from birds returning here from winter elsewhere. But now, this plaintive cooing is present in the chilly early spring mornings. I hope to hear plenty more.