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White-winged Dove at Cabela's

White-winged Dove

Author: Craig Springer

Graduate school was tough. The two longest years of my life were those I toiled at the University of Arizona. Sure, schoolwork is hard for the non-studious types like me, but the heat was another matter. I'd complain about the searing heat and my professor would quip his canned, "There's two seasons in Tucson, summer and summer's coming."

White-winged dove photo by Thomas Ulrich
He was right. Sometimes it was hot and other times it was really hot. But with summer's coming, so too came a whole host of birds up from Mexico and the tropics to nest. Among the spring migrants were white-winged doves.

On the upper Salt River where I was researching smallmouth bass, the first white wings would show themselves by about the first of May. As the mercury climbed, a precursor to the misery to follow, the white-winged doves became more abundant and more vocal.

Males and females are already mated by the time they show up in the states. The male white wing quickly sets up housekeeping and announces his home turf in song and display. Their arrival in southern Arizona is a testament to nature's splendor -- they show up just in time to partake in the fruits of saguaro cactus and mesquite blooms. This highly nutritious food goes a long way in feeding the needs of soon-to-be parents and the young squabs soon to follow.

Courtship is a delightful display. The male tips forward with his tail raised high. He quickly spreads his tail and flashes a striking black and white. Other times he puffs his chest and flutters his wings seemingly in a superfluous nature without cause. At intervals the males take to the air, flying up to 40 feet before circling back down to the original perch.

White-winged doves also nest in loose colonies on the same plants, the closest thing to "trees" in the desert. In other parts of their range, southern California and Nevada to southeast Texas, white wings nest in the crotches of cottonwoods and willows along stream courses. Like the other doves and pigeons, the nests are rather unsophisticated platforms of stiff twigs and grasses and straw. The nests are usually above ground 10 to 25 feet. Nests are sometimes built on top of an old thrasher or wren nest, and the nesting doves have a tendency to return to the same place in consecutive seasons.

Both parents share duty raising the young, but not so for incubation. An early dove researcher, Major Charles Bendire noted in 1892 something that you may have heard lamented in your household: "the male relieves the female somewhat in these duties, but does not assist to any great extent; he in some cases assiduously helps care for the young."

A pair of eggs are incubated in about two weeks. A set of parents may raise one brood per year on the northern parts of its range; three broods a year may leave the nest farther south, of which two or three may reach adulthood and fly south for the winter. After hatching, the young grow quickly on a diet of regurgitated seeds and rich and fatty "pigeon milk." In two weeks time, the young fledge and set about eating seeds almost exclusively. Seemingly any seed is fair game: watermelon, muskmelon, wheat, barley, mesquite and berries.

White-winged dove's throaty call sounds like it's not at full potential, kind of a half-hearted attempt to sing. Bendire described it as pleasing and musical, and similar to a barred owl's "who cooks for you" but as he put it, "given with rather insulting emphasis." Bendire added, "Its monotonous repetition becomes rather tiresome, but it is an impressive performance, which once heard can never be forgotten."

With the young out of the nest and the approach of autumn, the parents and young alike congregate in large flocks to head south for winter. Generally, the adults leave first. Later in the hunting season most of the migrant birds are young of the year. September may bring with it large flights of birds on the wing. But those flights today are reduced in number compared to years past.

In 1878, Army surgeon, Dr. George Moran wrote about white wings he saw marching to Ft. Yuma near the California border: "The common dove, and a beautiful species - commonly called the Sonora pigeon - abound in countless numbers. I marched to Yuma with the troops in July, and returned in August, and cannot tell you how I wished for a shotgun."

That longing is still shared today, I'm sure, but it may be more directed at longing for more birds. It's almost cliche, but habitat loss has impacted white-wing dove populations. Some nesting birds are showing up farther and farther north, as far as Albuquerque, but that may be more of a sign that habitat in Central America and Mexico is under assault. That is to say, the birds could be generally shifting northward as opposed to expanding northward.

Nonetheless, white-winged dove still offer fine wing shooting in Texas, southern New Mexico, and Arizona. Their direct and deliberate flight requires a skilled gun. Seasons in the Southwest typically run the month of September and again part of December. Bag limits have slowly ticked down since the 1960s from 25 birds per day to just six per day. A measure of habitat stability and pressures on white-wing dove populations, the number of birds harvested annually has moved all over the board. Harvest numbers have fluctuated from zero taken in closed seasons to hundreds of thousands. Careful population monitoring and habitat management by bird biologists, as well as concern from those that hunt the birds, lends some degree of security for white-winged doves.

This autumn in southern Arizona, as it cools down to just "hot," the birds will start moving through keeping time in nature's clockwork. And like surgeon Moran, I'll be thinking about a shotgun and wishing I could go back to Tucson -- but just for a visit.

Craig Springer
Craig Springer holds a bachelor's and master's degree in fisheries and wildlife ecology from Hocking College, New Mexico State University, and the University of Arizona. He's about to receive a master's in English from the University of New Mexico where he's concentrated on the rhetoric of science and nature.