The Doves of Texas

Texas is home to eight different species of doves. Make sure you can tell them apart.

Texas is home to eight different species of doves. If you spend any time in the city, the pigeon is probably the one you are most familiar with. Two species are only found in the Rio Grande Valley – the white-tipped dove and the red-billed pigeon. The primer that follows should help you be able to identify the other five species of doves commonly found in Central Texas.

White-winged Dove

The white-winged dove is named from the noticeable white-marked feathers on the upper wing surface. The call of the white-winged dove is distinctive with a loud cooing sequence that sounds like “who cooks for you” with emphasis on the last note.

Following the introduction of irrigation and grain farming to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) in the early 1900’s, the white-winged dove population increased to an estimated 4-12 million birds by 1923. However, due to the continued loss of native habitat that was being put into farming the population declined to about 500,000 birds by 1939. The destruction of 90% of its critical nesting habitat through intensive agricultural farming and heavy hunting in the 1920’s and 1930’s contributed to this decline.

Historically, the white-winged dove has nested primarily in the LRGV with their distribution apparently restricted to the sub-tropical to temperate environment that reaches its northern limit here. A study conducted in 1968 did not even mention birds as far north as Bexar County (San Antonio). Within the last 20 years however, a dramatic increase in nesting populations have increased throughout Texas and even into other states. The range expansion apparently started during the 1980’s, when citrus groves that had become major nesting areas for white-winged doves were decimated with killing freezes. A 2000 census found 264,000 white-wings in Travis County alone!

The majority of nesting occurs within the cities. The nesting white-winged doves seem to prefer the older more established residential neighborhoods with large live oak, pecan, and ashe trees. This may be due to better protection from predators and consistent food and water sources due to watering of lawns and bird feeders.

Mourning Doves

The mourning dove, slightly smaller than the white-wing, is the most common and abundant game bird in the United States. It breeds in each of the contiguous 48 states and is the only native Texas bird that occurs in all of the state’s 254 counties. As long as there is enough water present to allow the bird to drink once a day, the mourning dove can thrive in almost any habitat. This adaptive ability and its year-round multiple-nesting cycle contribute to its abundant numbers. Millions are harvested each year without endangering the population. Its cruising speed of 40 miles per hour has enabled it to avoid many a shotgun blast and tests the skill of any bird hunter. When flights of mourning doves and white-wings mix, the mourning dove can be distinguished by its more rapid wing beat, erratic flight path, and pointed tail. Its mournful ooah, cooo, cooo, coo call is made year-round and from a distance only the three coo’s can be heard.

Inca Doves

The relatively tiny Inca doves are gray with white outer tail feathers. Inca’s have a distinctive fish scale pattern on their breast, head, and back feathers. This common Southwest species is one of the most desert-adapted of the family. Its plump body can survive both extreme heat and cold. They can go four or five days without drinking and fly 10 or more miles to reach a water hole.

Their melodious “hoo hoo” repeated up to 30 times a minute fills the air during early summer. These doves are almost always seen in pairs. In the winter, Inca doves gather in flocks of up to 50. On cold winter days they have been known to form pyramids two or three tiers high in order to stay warm. Inca doves seem to be increasing in areas of human disturbance. These seed-eating doves are common visitors to bird feeders. With their soft cooing calls, males strutting for females and their regular use of bird feeders, Inca doves have quickly become backyard favorites.

Common Ground-Dove

The ground-dove, slightly smaller than the Inca, weighs little more than an ounce and is about the size of a sparrow. Its chunky body has a short, round tail that often is elevated as the bird walks around on the ground, nodding its head. Whereas the Inca dove is more common in urban areas, the ground-dove prefers less-populated rural surroundings. The flight of the ground-dove is close to the ground. As the bird rises, its wings make a soft, whistling sound, similar to that of the mourning dove, but much less noticeable. Its soft, monotonously repeated call of woo-oo seems to merge into a single wooo with a rising inflection when heard at a distance. This call, primarily heard during the breeding season, is used for courtship and to designate territory.

Eurasian Collared-Dove

An exotic dove has invaded urban areas of Texas. Originally from the Indian subcontinent, Eurasian collared-doves are bigger, more aggressive and more prolific than our native doves. Their expansion across Europe began in the early 20th century, and they were introduced to the Bahamas in 1974. Eventually some escaped captivity, and they are now found across much of the U.S. The dove is pale gray all over with a black collar around the back and sides of the neck, dark primaries, a collar with a white upper border, and a tail that is long and square.

Since they first appeared in noticeable numbers around northeast Texas in 1995, Eurasian collared-doves have spread to nearly all of the state’s 254 counties. Several hundred thousand collared-doves live in the state now, in contrast to an estimated 35 million mourning doves and eight million white-wings. The redistribution of water for agriculture and urban landscapes and resulting land-use changes probably helped collared-doves expand. Doves need supplemental water to digest dehydrated, nutrient-rich seeds. Urban landscape irrigation makes water consistently available and also increases the seed production of plants and weeds.

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