By Jon Friedman
No bird exemplifies Latin America as much as the White-winged Dove. Its coarse ‘who cooks for you,” whether heard in Phoenix, Tucson, or Alamos, Sonora, always conjures up an aura of the Neotropics and a promise of exotic happenings.
The White-winged Dove is a bird whose range is largely south of the border through Mexico and Central America into western Panama. And, according to Alexander Skutch (my favorite ornithologist) is found in isolated colonies in several South American countries, especially Ecuador. The species northernmost summer range brings it to the American southwest. In the spring, those that breed in the United States fly over 1,000 miles north, following the east and west coasts of Mexico to their nesting grounds. Its northern summer range includes southern Nevada, southeastern California, central and southern Arizona, southern New Mexico and the lower Rio Grande valley in Texas. The migrating flocks usually number from a few birds up to 50 individuals, but flocks as large as 3,000 to 4,000 have been seen. It has been found as far north as New York, Vancouver Island, Maine and Ontario. In 1959, a few White-wings were released in Homestead, Florida. By 1968, over 200 were seen at a single backyard feeding station in Florida. The Florida population is resident and does not migrate.
Always known to be found in the Sonoran Desert, for many they are the bird that typifies saguaro habitat. In fact, some references dating back to the 1850’s, referred to this species as Sonoran Pigeons (pigeons are in the dove family). The White-winged Doves are slightly larger and heavier than the similar Mourning Doves. Their rounded-off tail, and overall size, gives them a resemblance to a pigeon. White-wings are basically gray birds that can be told from Mourning Doves by their large white patches on the wings and broad white corners on their tails. When perched, the white patches show as a white border along the folded wings. At close range you can see a featherless bright blue eye patch and yellow-orange to red-orange eyes. They are handsome creatures. The head and nape of the neck are brownish with crowns of purple or red-purple. Iridescent flecks of gold, green and purple adorn the sides of the neck. The bright red legs and feet add a contrast to the basic gray, white and brown of the bird. The males and females are very alike. The slightly smaller females tend to have less purple and less iridescence. The juveniles are grayer and have no iridescence. The eyes of the young are hazel or brown and their feet and legs are brown. Until they are about 18 weeks olds, they retain light tipped primary coverts.
In Arizona, you can pretty much find White-winged Doves wherever you find saguaros. They are talented in the art of desert survival. When the saguaro fruit ripen, they are often seen feeding on them. It is thought that they derive much of the water they need from the saguaro fruits. They also eat the seeds and/or fruits of the organ pipe, prickly pear, ocotillo, and other fruit-bearing cacti. Additionally, they forage on willows, century plants, agaves, and some grasses. They have extended their range to the Mohave Desert. In warm climate towns and agricultural areas, they have learned to eat milo and other human-supplied grains. While they were much more numerous before 1900 in Arizona when large bosques of mesquite dominated the Santa Cruz River, they are common birds over much of their present day range. Those who feed birds here know how abundant and aggressive they can be at feeders. The Wild Bird Store carries many dove/pigeon-proof feeders to ameliorate the presence of White-winged Doves at seed feeders. (See additional article about dove-proof feeders at the end of this article).
Nests can be found from 300 feet elevation along the lower Colorado River to over 4500 feet in the mountains of Southern Arizona. These doves do not like to nest on the ground or in low growing shrubs and bushes. They look for dense well-foliated trees 20 to 40 feet high – like mesquite, palo verde, ironwood, acatia, tamarisk, and citrus trees. Willows, hackberry, saguaros, cholla cactus, oaks, and tangled vines are also potential nest sites. In towns and suburbs, they use many trees and ornamentals. Over 200 nests per acre were noted in the dense branches of the tamarisk stands along the Gila River west of Phoenix in 1968. Our upland desert White-winged Doves do not nest in clumps, nor do they tend to nest so close to water. Instead they more evenly distribute themselves across the desert. Even when development made more water sources available to them, the density of the birds overall did not change.
White-wings start to arrive in Arizona in the middle of April. They keep on returning until mid-May, when most have followed rivers and washes leading to the north. When the mesquite and salt cedar (tamarisk) have leafed out and the saguaro provides high-energy food, they are back. Nest sites are plentiful and the pollen from the saguaro provides a favorite high-energy food. They have it timed well.
Some pairs arrive already mated. Nesting territories are set up right away. Often the same birds return to the same nesting locations year after year. The males flap upward and soar in graceful arcs over their spots. Starting about 15 minutes before the sun is up and continuously until about 9:00 am, the White-wings coarsely call “coo-coo-coo-coooh,” or “who cooks for you.” They continue calling on and off all day long from their selected perches. An unmated male calls more often and continues calling longer than mated males. The cooing crescendos until near the end of May, or thereabouts, when nesting efforts begin. It is the most noticeable natural sound in Tucson during the spring.
The nest itself is a clumsy affair, built of sticks, twigs, a few grasses and weed stems over a period of two to four days. Both parents bring the sticks and the female starts to build. She places the nest up about 12 feet at the fork of an inclined branch, often in a tree with thick interlocking branches. Sometimes she puts it on top of a deserted nest of a thrasher, mockingbird, oriole, flycatcher or chachalaca, or even on top of a clump of thorns. On alternating days she lays two creamy-white eggs. Some birds lay only 1 or as many as 3 eggs.
The parents share in the responsibilities of incubating the eggs, which takes from 13 to 19 days depending on temperature and elevation. White-wings keep the eggs cool by pressing the skin of their belly on the eggs. Their body temperature is lower than that of the surrounding air. They use their belly to actually absorb some of the heat of the eggs. The female nests from mid-afternoon through midmorning of the following day. The male takes the shift from about 7 to 10 am and then again during the heat of the day from 3 to 5 pm. The parents flush from the nest easily and repeated disturbance can cause them to abandon the nest.
The naked, blind and helpless babies hatch about a day apart in the order they were laid. Consequently, one is noticeably bigger than the other. They grow quickly on the “pigeon’s milk” that the parents secrete from their crop glands. After about 2 weeks, partially digested food and then seeds are added to the diet. By this time, the young are almost ready to fledge. Until they do, they need to be shaded from the sun during the day and brooded at night. Parents have been known to fake a broken wing to draw intruders and/or predators from the young in the nest.
During incubation, the parents feed on an alternating schedule that coincides with their brooding schedules. The males feed first in the early morning on saguaro pollen or fruit. The females follow when they are relieved from sitting at mid-morning. They also like cultivated grains, so as the season goes on, the birds increase their visits to milo, wheat and barley fields. The same goes for backyard feeders.
At least once during the day, often twice, the White-wings have to get to water. The males drink immediately after their early morning feeding and late in the afternoon. They can fly 10 miles or more to get water. By 4:30 most of the moms are back on the nest. By 8 pm, most of the dads have returned to the nest to roost nearby.
Even in the most luxurious riparian habitat, the life of a nestling is far from secure. Only about 70% of the babies live to become fledglings. A startled parent can easily knock a baby out. The young doves are squirmy things that manage to fall to fall out or leave the nest way too soon. Cats, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters make a quick meal of any downed youngster. Even after fledging, the young are not strong fliers at first and many are taken by Cooper’s Hawks and other raptors. Even so, successive nesting often compensates for the high mortality rate of nestlings and fledglings.
Most of the White-wing Doves in the desert leave for their wintering grounds after only one nesting attempt. Small flights of White-wings heading south can be seen throughout July. The colony nesters and those birds close to farming and/or in an urban area usually re-nest, and leave later on. These birds often leave their nests and form large roosts near feeding areas. Farmers have complained that hundreds or even thousands of birds cause them to lose crops, but this claim may be overstated. Urban bird feeders can be mobbed if they do not prevent access to the White-winged Doves.
The stimulus for migration is not well understood. In any case and for whatever reason, the White-wings become more and more restless as September approaches. The adults leave first, followed by the first year birds. Once it gets started, the migration happens quickly. Only a few very late nesters and birds too young to fly remain after the first week in September. In towns, a few White-wings winter over and do not migrate, but this is not the norm. The Arizona birds fly swiftly and directly to Sinaloa south along the coast to Oaxaca.