Cold Feet

Mourning Dove in winter (photo by Marcy Cunklelman)
Mourning dove (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

11 January 2010

Yesterday a mourning dove landed at my feeder with a clenched foot, probably suffering from frostbite.  The temperature was 9oF when I saw him.  It had been 2oF at dawn.

Even in severe cold weather we rarely see birds with frostbitten feet.  Gulls and Canada geese stand on ice, cardinals and chickadees hop on snow, and we take for granted that their bare feet won’t be hurt as ours would be. Birds can do this because of a special adaption that allows their feet to be cold in comfort. 

Birds’ feet have fewer nerves and blood vessels and a unique circulatory system.  The veins and arteries in their legs are intertwined so that cold blood leaving their feet is warmed by the arteries delivering warm blood.  As Dr. Tony Bledsoe pointed out, “This operates as a counter-current exchange system, so that nearly all of the warmth in the descending blood is transferred to the ascending blood.”

For some reason this system isn’t as effective in mourning doves and their feet are prone to freezing.  Since they’re a game bird (did you know they’re hunted in 38 states?) they’ve been studied extensively.  In one study, mourning doves with frostbitten feet were rescued.  They recovered from their injuries in six weeks but their damaged toes fell off.  They survived to a normal life span with fewer toes, but life is short for a mourning dove anyway.  Their average adult life expectancy is only one year.

Though the mourning dove in my backyard may lose some toes I know he’ll survive if he has enough to eat.  The real killer right now is lack of food and since mourning doves eat from the ground their food is repeatedly covered by snowfall.

I’ll keep my feeders filled and hope for the best.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

14 thoughts on “Cold Feet

  1. I didn’t know that the life expectancy of mourning doves is only 1 year? There seem to be so many of them I guess a lot of the time I think every year the same ones come back but perhaps not…I think this winter’s been hard on quite a few of our feathered friends. Yesterday there were 2 Canada geese sitting mostly down at the end of my yard (which borders a farmfield in which lots of geese and wild turkeys roam) and my son pointed out to me that through the binoculars it looked as if one had a broken wing or a wing frozen to its side. The other was probably the mate staying closeby for comfort. I place apple halves, corncobs, and carrots down there against the trees for the deer and turkeys and crows, so that was consumed quite rapidly by those 2 geese. I was going to try and help it out (wrap a warm towel around it) but when I tried to approach it they both made lots of noise and tried to leave, so I felt maybe it best to just wait longer and see. Today they aren’t there but most of the geese are on the river’s edge (where this one perhaps fell asleep too long) and haven’t seen any “bodies” laying around. Interesting about the doves, thanks…

  2. Mourning doves can live up to (I think) 10 years in the wild – they just don’t. Amazingly 50-70% of their population dies every year but they make up for it by being very prolific.

  3. Have you read about the pelican flock in Maryland that has suffered from frostbite and starvation? Most of them have finally been captured and are being rehabilitated at TriStateBird Rescue in Newark, Delaware.

  4. This morning I was up with the sun, outside watering my garden. I was treated to one of the most gentle, beautiful sights I have experienced thus far this Summer. Two baby morning doves emerged from my pine tree, with Mom close at hand and fledged before my very eyes! Morning Doves seem to be very social. The two siblings flew to the ground and when one would wander off to explore – the other was close to follow. Mom flew to the bird bath and they flew up to join her. Mom flew to the clothesline, they tried to follow her. One made it to the fence, one missed and landed in my strawberry patch. It was like a game, Mom would go somewhere and they would follow.
    They eventually ended up under the sunflowers, against the fence. I needed to water and I didn’t like that they were cornered there (without knowign they were, they were happily pecking away) because of my dogs and cats in the neighborhood. So I sprayed water near them and they flew in a flurry to the clotheline and garden gate. Mom was up on the telephone line watching with her head cocked at me. Other adults joined the parent on the line and they all seemed to be watching ME and not the offspring ..

    Eventually the babies flew to the neighbors yard, then away. I don’t know if they’ll be back or not.

    It was beautiful. Morning Doves are one of my favorite urban birds. Such beautiful, gentle things. I feel privledged to have seen their first flights.

  5. My husband found a morning dove stuck in his birdfeeder ! I had a really hard time getting him out . He has severe frost bite to one of his feet ! I am currently trying to find a place to let me know if his foot will need to be removed before he is released into the wild. I would love any advice that you can offer to me! This is only day two and otherwise he is doing great.

  6. Take the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator that treats birds & they will know what to do about the mourning dove’s foot. If you live in the Pittsburgh area I highly recommend the ARL Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at 6900 Verona Road, Verona, PA 15147. Phone: 412-793-6900

  7. Their nests are… horribly inadequate. I had a “nest” in my window-mounted bird feeder one year. I think there were… two sticks? I gave the birds a privacy curtain because in the evening, they could see movements through the one-way glass in the feeder and they spooked. Well, the egg was cracked, despite my efforts.

    1. Heather, I agree. I once saw a mourning dove ‘lay’ (actually drop) an egg on the ground under my bird feeder. She didn’t even bother to go to the nest!

  8. I always heard that if birds get their feet wet and it is so cold, that’s when they get frostbite and lose toes. My Mom had a flock of domestic ducks that went in the water dish and their feet fell off. She was devastated. That is why I don’t have heated water for them. But they do get cracked corn and seed everyday. Oh, and peanut butter sandwiches for the squirrels and Blue Jays. 🙂

    1. Susan, the doves are being careful to stand on the dry patch. They must know this story about the ducks.

  9. There is a 3 week old dove in the tree outside of my patio. ‘She’ can fly, but, doesnt ever go far. The parents feed her during the day, and one always sits beside her at night.
    It’s April in the Texas Panhandle, but, a coldfront blew in yesterday. Nighttime temperatures are mid 20’s. Today’s high was 30° with snow flurries. No sunshine. Two more nights of mid 20’s. So, she is wet, and the wind chill is in the teens.
    She flies when I come near, so I can’t bring her inside. I’m watching closely. If she falls out of the tree, I’m rescuing her.
    All I have is quinoa and brown rice and cheerios, but, I’ve read that those items are good for doves. I don’t knife if she would eat from a plate, though. Or drink from a bowl.
    I’ll sure be glad when its warm again, and she can survive on her own.

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