At the time of European settlement in West Texas, the mourning dove may have been the only dove species living in the area. Its soft coo sounds somewhat like an owl. West Texas has long been known as a great place to hunt dove.
Mourning doves nested in the pocket forests of mesquite, soapberry and hackberry in the draws. During the fall migration, thousands upon thousands would land in the sunflower covered shinoak sandune habitat and prepare for moving farther south where the ancient oak mottes of the Pecos Canyons gave them winter succor.
In the late 1940s Inca doves moved north, establishing year round residences in towns with plentiful Siberian elm trees and thick shrubbery to nest in. Inca doves are much smaller and reddish under their wings. Their call has been portrayed as "cold cokes! cold cokes!" They didn’t colonize the pocket forests, rarely went to an exurban yard in the cotton farming areas and almost never to a rural ranch house.
In the 1950's, White winged doves, who say "who cooks for you," were found around rural homesteads south of modern day Interstate 10. By 1980 white winged doves also moved north and again colonized the towns. Inca dove and mourning dove populations began declining due to the fierce competition offered by the much larger white-winged doves. But these days, the mourning dove population has recovered and again nest in the pocket forests of the draws.
In the late 1990s Eurasian collared doves arrived in West Texas after escaping captivity in Florida only a decade before, but they first began nesting in cemeteries and exurban yards, before finally moving to the urban forest about 2005. Today white wing doves still dominate, but the even larger collared doves are steadily increasing. Eurasian collared doves are legal to hunt year round, but by finding safety within the city limits, their numbers have increased.
Pigeons are doves, too, and came with pigeon fanciers who were with early day settlers, but not more than a few thousand have ever colonized the rooftops of the taller buildings, large billboards and other man-made nesting and roosting sites. In the mountains of the Trans-Pecos, native Band-tailed Pigeons have always lived at the higher elevation. In a cave of the Guadalupe Mountains, one mummified specimen of the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon has been found, but no other records exist for the area.
All doves build flimsy nests. Rarely are the nests more than a few dozen sticks seemingly haphazardly thrown in a pile in a fork of a tree branch. They begin nesting in March and nests have even been found in November, indicating there might be as many as 6 sets of 2 young each year, which allows for the possibility of quick population growth. As a major prey species for several species of hawk and as targets for tree-climbing mammals like gray fox and bobcat, doves in the wild have controls, but in town, only hawks do the work and only in the winter.
When the population of doves reaches a saturation point, all of the species are prone to respiratory diseases. Lots of people feed birds, and if the feeding areas are not kept relatively clean, their droppings "turn on them" and disease lowers their numbers -- a standard ecological response to overpopulation.
Other birds, especially house finches, can get respiratory diseases as well. Canker, the most common, is a deadly disease characterized by swelling in the throat and cheesy growth in the mouths of the birds. It’s caused by a protozoan.
In the summer of 2012 hundreds of dove have been dying mysteriously in a 4 county area around Midland. You can help by reporting any sick or dead birds to your local game warden.
Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams of the Sibley Nature Center.