September 2007 As the summer nights cool enough to leave the windows open, each new day is most often greeted with the lonely call of mourning doves wafting through the screens. Anyone who takes advantage of mornings to walk the trails and washes around the neighborhood will also begin the day flushing flocks of long-tailed doves, adding their distinctive wing whistle to the dawn concert.
Mourning doves are the most common of four species of doves that visit the Deem Hills and surrounding neighborhoods. Others include the smaller Inca dove, the white-winged dove, and rock dove, aka pigeon. All but the rock dove are native to the southwest; rock doves were introduced from Europe hundreds of years ago as game birds. All of the doves are well adapted to suburban environments where there is more water and agricultural areas for food than may be available in natural habitats. Whether you consider these birds a menace (they do poop a lot!), or beautiful members of the community, they are fun to watch and listen to.
Phoenix native, Stevie Nicks, made the white-winged dove a household bird in the 1980’s with her hit song “Edge of Seventeen.” They are named for distinctive white patches on their wings, most obvious in flight, and also have red eyes accented by a dark streak below their cheek. These are the least common of the four doves in our area by the fact that they are also the most closely tied to natural areas with saguaro. White-winged doves feed on pollen, nectar, fruit and seeds of saguaro cacti, and are one of the most important pollinators and seed dispersers for our state symbol. These birds are also migratory, breeding in southwest deserts between April and September, coincident with Saguaro flowering and fruiting, and wintering further south.
Inca doves actually have no known relationship with native tribes in South America, but are very common throughout Mexico and Central America. Like the white-winged dove, Incas are best adapted to warmer tropical climates, and are less common in cooler northern areas, though they are expanding their range. They are much smaller than the other doves, and are also easily recognized by the scalloped pattern of their dark-rimmed feathers, plus a rusty-colored underwing in flight. If you ever see a group of doves huddled on top of each other, they would be Incas. “Pyramid roosting” is an odd behavior they engage in, stacking up to 3 layers of about a dozen birds, possibly to help keep each other warm.
Robust rock doves are found throughout North America, mostly in association with people. Their throaty “purring” call and iridescent feathers are a staple of most urban environments where they will roost on building ledges and feed on leftovers.
Even with all these avian cousins around, it is the slender mourning dove that seems to soften the hot desert days with its song and beauty. Look for the long pointy tail and spotted wing feathers, which are common treasures to find on trails, although usually a sign that a dove has been prey to owls and hawks in the area. Whenever I pick one up, I also pray for the peace and hope that doves symbolize.
Since May 2005, I have written a natural history column for a neighborhood newsletter published by Jennifer Moore called "Our Big Backyard: Natural History of the Deem Hills," and since 2010, "A Suburban Naturalist."All of these columns are reproduced here. Deem Hills is a City of Phoenix Desert Preserve located just north of Happy Valley Road in north central Phoenix, and just west of I-17. The Preserve and adjacent hills comprise over 900 acres of open space with several miles of hiking trails. For more perspectives from the Deem Hills and suburban Phoenix, also check out my companion blog, Kat Tracks.
As a naturalist with a special interest in botany and plant ecology, some of my greatest passions are to explore, photograph and write about native plants. If I can spark an awareness or interest in natural history in others along the way, that is my greatest reward.