Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tale of a Tail

Mourning Doves visit our feeders every day, all year round. They are elegant birds, with sleek dove-grey plumage (what else?), long pointed wings, and a long tail, like this individual that came to feed on our deck this morning:

But its mate was a very different-looking bird:

What happened to this bird? Where it its tail? What happened to its wing? What's that white stuff?

The dove probably had a near escape from a predator, which ended up getting the dove's tail and not much else. You can see that the wing is slightly disturbed, and there appears to be loss of plumage, and perhaps a slight injury, at the fold of the wing next to the body. The white stuff is little fluffy feathers.

What sort of predator was it?

Probably a hawk, and most likely a Cooper’s Hawk, the most common accipiter in our region at this time of year. It's about crow-sized, and can easily take a Mourning Dove, a favorite prey species. Here’s an adult Cooper’s that patrolled the feeders during January:

And here’s a young Cooper’s that made several forays around the deck last summer (look at those talons!):

The dove might also have been potential prey for a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the smaller cousin of the Cooper’s, or a Red-tailed Hawk (though they generally seek slower-moving prey). There’s also a good chance that the dove might have been injured by a cat. Cats have no place in our ecosystem and should be kept indoors, without exception.

What will happen to this bird now?

There’s a good chance that this dove will survive. The tail feathers will grow out again, and the wing injury doesn’t seem to affect the function of the wing. The real challenge for this bird in the coming weeks will be to stay out of sight of predators.

Without its tail, the bird cannot fly as strongly, and cannot control its flight as effectively; this will make it more likely that it will be left behind as it moves around with its flock, and will this be more vulnerable to predation. However, perhaps this pair will lie low together until the healing is complete.

I’ll keep an eye out for this bird, and try to get photos to show the regeneration of the tail feathers. It’s fascinating to observe.

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