Stuffing Your Mouth at Lathrop

by Barbara Walvoord

When our little grandchildren share a meal with us, we try to combat their tendency to stuff their mouths as full as possible and then brag about (or show us) how much food they have in there.

Meanwhile, outside our window are some creatures that REALLY stuff their mouths. The mourning doves in our yard eat fast, bobbing around, scarfing up the seeds that are their only diet (except for an occasional escargot). They stuff the seeds into their crop–a pouch in the esophagus. The record is 17,200 bluegrass seeds in a single bird’s crop, according to the Cornell University web page. Don’t ask me how some ornithologist (or graduate student) counted–I don’t know.

Feeding on the ground, as they do, makes these birds vulnerable to predators (including your cat, if you let it outdoors contrary to Lathrop rules). So they hastily stuff seeds into their crop and then fly to the relative safety of a branch to digest their meal. They stop eating a few days before their eggs hatch, so their crops can use the seeds to produce “crop milk” which the parents will pour from their beaks down the throats of the babies–an image enormously entertaining to our grandchildren.

Mourning doves eat up to 20% of their body weight each day. That means if you weigh 150 pounds, you would eat up to 30 pounds of seeds daily. That’s 300 of those little snack packs of salted sunflower seeds we like to eat while watching TV.

All that eating, plus the hard work of monogamous parents who raise up to six broods a year, and the fact that mourning doves live comfortably in urban and suburban settings, means there are lots of mourning doves. They are the most popular game bird in the U.S. Each year hunters kill about 20 million of them, but there are still 350 million left.

To help these adaptable, voracious eaters, you can throw seeds on a platform feeder or on the ground, or plant seed-bearing native flowers and grasses, and leave them standing during winter so they drop their seeds on the ground for birds.

You can count the mourning doves, too, along with your cardinals and bluebirds, as part of the national citizens’ Backyard Bird Count that runs Feb. 12-15. Join up and report the birds you see by going to http://gbbc.birdcount.org/.

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