30 May 2009

The Walk of Life

About a month ago I spotted the beginnings of a mourning dove nest atop a corner post on the fence that surrounds our backyard. "Typical doves," I thought. Always making nests in really risky places and vulnerable to attack by predators, other birds, and the weather. I went on about my business and a few days later I saw a dove sitting on the nest. She (I assume it was a she) sat tight, even when I came up close to look. Although I didn't keep a close eye on the nest it seemed like she was always there and almost always in the same position on the nest. I wondered whether she ever flew off to find something to eat. One day I got my answer to the eating question. Another dove was there, presumably her mate. He was bringing her food. He also brought additional nesting materials and poked them into the nest structure even as she sat on it.

Over the next couple of weeks she sat there through fair weather and foul, heat and cold, sunshine and rain. I did notice that even though the nesting spot was out in the open, these doves had placed in it such a say that it and their own coloration formed a very good camouflage against the background of the gray fence post and surround slates. Grackles, those thugs, came and went past the nest, but none of them seemed to take notice. Grackles will destroy a nest and eggs and kill nestlings if they get a chance. So will blue jays and squirrels. I saw some squirrels skittering along the fence top, but papa dove (I guess) always placed himself between the squirrel and the nest but never attacked the squirrel like jays and grackles do. And then there are the feral cats in the neighborhood; sewer cats, we call them because they hang out in the storm drains.

I suppose that a couple of weeks into the project the two eggs hatched because the dove seemed to be riding higher in the nest. If you look closely you can see some pinfeathers sticking out from under the nesting dove. Life went on for us. Since the grass was growing like crazy I had to mow weekly. I deliberately tried to stay away from the nest as much as possible, mowing the area around the fence post only after everything else was mowed. The first couple of times the dove left the nest but quickly returned when I finished mowing around the fence post. Then she seemed to get used to it because I could mow right up to the post and she would sit tight. I guess she decided I was just a noisy nuisance and not a mortal danger.More time passed and it was clear that there were a couple of nestlings being tended to. Papa dove would come and go while mama dove just sat on the chicks. We wondered how the chicks were being fed. One afternoon I looked over at the fence post and saw that one of the adult doves was on the nest and one of the chicks had its head in the adult's throat. It looks like the adults bring food in their crops and pass it to the chicks by regurgitation. Pretty safe way to protect your young. An adult is always on the nest protecting the kids while the other is off foraging.

Mama dove was a good parent. The wave of warm weather we were experiencing suddenly changed: it became cool, almost cold, and rainy. But she sat there with the rain showers rolling off her back making sure that her brood stayed covered.

Another week passed. The weather warmed again and the chicks were noticeably larger. Sometimes they would peek out from under mama dove but most of the time she made a determined effort to keep them out of sight. One of our dogs started nosing around the base of the fence post, but I couldn't see any signs of bird droppings on the ground. Maybe she smelled the doves but couldn't locate them.

As we checked in on the doves, now on a daily basis, the size of the chicks changed dramatically. They seemed to get bigger by the hour. They were getting so big that mama dove couldn't keep them covered. Sometimes she would offset herself on the nest and the two chicks would peek out and look around. Both doves were almost always close by now. Still, other birds and predators seemed to be unaware that they were there. It was clear that the chicks had more than just pinfeathers.

As the days passed the chicks were more and more allowed to look around and remain uncovered. They seems as unalarmed by our presence as the adult birds, although there was at least one adult bird around at all times. Then yesterday the more adventurous of the two, I guess, started perching on top of the fence slats with one of the adults. It was clear that it was almost time for them to go out into the world. I looked like they had most of their flight feathers, but they still lacked the long pointed tail of the adults. They were also noticeably smaller than the adults and their feathers didn't have the smooth coloration of the adults.

This morning, when I let the dogs out around 6:30 I looked over at the nesting post. It was empty, except for the nest. The doves clearly are pretty neat about the droppings their young leave. I looks like everything just stayed in the bottom of the nest. Those filthy grackles take every poop sac their young produce and scatter it all over the neighborhood -- mainly on our back deck.

That was the first time I've seen doves successfully raise young. In the past storms or predators have always destroyed the nest, the eggs, or the chicks. This time they managed to get the job done.
UPDATE: Now I have a clue as to where the chicks went. They headed to the deep cover of the shrubbery. The parents are still taking care of them for a while.

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