Baby Mourning Doves: Caring for and Feeding Abandoned Dove Babies

Baby Mourning Doves: Caring for and Feeding Abandoned Dove Babies

You step outside to get the mail and you find a baby bird in your driveway—what do you do? Should you leave it, rescue it, try and put it back in its nest?

It can be nerve-wracking finding a baby bird on the ground and wondering what the best option is, especially since not all species can be treated the same.

Here are a few tips to prepare you for that day:

Step 1: don’t panic 

Step 2: read this article

Here, you’ll learn all about baby Mourning Doves and how to care and feed them if they’re abandoned. It’ll be just a little more information in your pocket, should you ever be in this situation. 

Let’s dive in!

Baby Mourning Dove identification

Baby Mourning Doves are called squabs or chicks. 

When they are just hatchlings and a few days old, their bodies are covered in patchy, yellowish down. The down is very thin and you can still see their naked bodies. Their bills are dark, as well as their faces, and their eyes will be closed. At this point, they are only a few inches long.

Around 7-ish days, the squab’s eyes will be open and will be dark. They also will have started to get in some pin feathers. These look just like the shaft of a feather without the barbs. They will lay in a relatively ordered fashion. You’ll also still see the scraggly, yellowish down poking up around the pin feathers, which makes the nestling look pretty frazzled and messy! They will have almost doubled in weight and size. 

Around 12 days, the Mourning dove will be a fully feathered fluffball. It’s feathers will be a slaty brown color. They will have grown so much that they will be larger than your palm. At this size and age, the babies will be about ready to leave the nest and take flight for the first time!

What do baby mourning doves eat?

Unlike many other baby birds, little doves don’t gape—the mouth wide open, begging for food behavior. When they’re hungry they will root around. The parents provide “crop milk” to their babies. 

Crop milk (also known as pigeon milk) is a semi-solid excretion that is made by the sloughing of fluid-filled cells from the lining of the crop. 

The crop is a thin-walled, sac-like food-storage chamber that extends off the esophagus and is normally part of the digestive system. Food can be stored here quickly while the bird is foraging in the open and allows the bird to go back into a secluded area to digest. Most birds have crops, but not all make crop milk.

As said before, the crop is normally part of the digestive system, but it shifts its function to milk production just a day or two prior to the eggs’ hatching. This is believed to be caused by hormonal changes. During that time, the parents may stop eating entirely so there is no seed in the crop. Brand new hatchlings aren’t able to digest seed yet, so this is for the better! After several days of feeding crop milk to the babies, the hormone levels taper off and the crop no longer produces as much milk. By this time, the squabs are able to digest regurgitated seeds from mom and dad. 

Crop milk is nutrient-dense and contains more protein and fats than human or cow milk. It also has immune-building properties with antioxidants and antibodies from the parent. 

Both parents can produce crop milk, so both are able to feed their babies. This is done by opening their mouths wide and allowing the squab to stick their little heads in and suck it up through their bills like a straw. This is important to keep in mind if having to hand feed baby doves, as sucking is their natural instinct and the safest way for them to eat. 

Crop milk substitute

If you find a squab that needs rescuing (we’ll talk about how to determine this in the next section) chances are you’re going to need to make a homemade crop milk substitute or purchase a formula.

A great formula substitute is RoudyBush Squab diet. Yes—there are pictures of parrots on it. Don’t worry, it can be used for baby doves, too. 

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The only potential issue with this is it will need to be ordered online and might take a day or two to arrive. If it’s likely you’ll be hand-rearing the baby for a few weeks, this is a good option. 

Another substitute is Kaytee Exact Handfeeding Formula which is available at pet stores. Some reviewers say this formula doesn’t offer the babies as well of a nutritional panel as RoudyBush, and the birds are often below the curve for weight. If it’s a matter of life or death for a squab, this is better than nothing.

A last option if you don’t have access to a pet store and need it immediately is homemade formula using baby cereal. Make it more runny if the baby is wee little and gradually thicken it up as they get bigger. A good test is to see how quickly their crop empties. If it empties too quickly, start to thicken it up. 

How often do baby mourning doves need feeding?

Brand new babies will need to be fed more often than older squabs. The younger doves will also eat formula that is more watered down. All feedings should occur within a 12-hour span. 

  • 0-4 days old: 5 feedings per day
  • 5-7 days old: 4 feedings per day
  • 8-14 days old: 3 feedings per day 
  • Fledgling: seeds

The safest way to feed a baby dove is by pouring the formula onto a tablespoon and letting them suck it up. Remember earlier when I said to keep their straw-sucking instincts in mind? If food is poured into their mouths, they may aspirate by trying to suck while you’re pouring or dropping it in. So it’s best to let them take the lead and let them slurp it up themselves! 

Does the baby mourning dove need to be rescued?

A few different factors go into the response to this situation. 

The first step in deciding if a baby dove needs rescued is by determining what stage of growth it’s in. The second is analyzing what the situation is while keeping its growth stage in mind. For example, a 2-day old baby found in the driveway vs a 14 day old found in the driveway will have different solutions!

Baby dove growth stages

Stage 1: unfeathered

A picture of mourning dove babies in the nest.

Unfeathered babies are roughly 0-6 days old. This early in the brooding stage, it’s unusual to find babies out of the nest, but not impossible. 

One reason a baby might be out is if the entire nest was blown over or knocked down. Wind, predators, or weather can all knock a nest loose. 

Babies can also be found on the ground if the parents perceive it to be defective in some way and decide to remove it from the nest. 

Babies this young cannot be left on the ground!

At this point in their life, they are too young and too naked to keep themselves warm. If a baby is found, it needs to be warmed up immediately. This can be done using a heating pad on the low setting or using electronics that heat up and are warm to the touch, such as laptops or game systems. A little heat goes a long way for them, and this is the first priority.  

While the baby is warming up, see if the nest can be located. If the nest turns out to be blown over, see if it can be put back securely so it won’t fall again. If it can’t, find a new place for it that isn’t entirely out in the open and won’t get drenched when it rains. 

Once the baby warms up, put it back in the nest and watch for the parents to come back to it. If they do, you’re good to go. If not, the baby might need hand-reared. 

If the baby you find is not from a blown over nest and was kicked out by its parents, it will need to be hand-reared with a crop milk substitute, at least for a few days. After a few days of feeding, put it back in the nest and see if the parents take care of it. If they kick it out again, it will need hand-reared until it’s old enough to survive on its own. 

If it turns out that you have to hand-rear the baby for a while, a makeshift nest box will be needed with either a fake nest inside or nesting material like straw. A heat lamp is the best option to keep the baby warm, so your heating pad doesn’t get dirty.

Stage two: partially feathered

Partially feathered babies are roughly 7 days old to fledging age (12-15 days old). 

At this age the babies are far enough along that the parents probably didn’t kick them out, so if a baby is found on the ground, it’s almost always from nest failure. This is actually a good thing because there’s a better chance the parents will take back over when the nest is fixed.

As with the younger babies, get these squabs warmed up. Once they’re warm, investigate the nest situation. It either fell in a storm or broke apart because it was poorly constructed.

If it only fell, try and secure it as mentioned before. If the nest is found to be broken or falling apart, a new one will be needed. You can buy fake nests from a craft store, or make one. Don’t be afraid to make them, there are online tutorials to show you how! 

Once the old or new nest is up, put the baby inside and wait for the parents to come. If they don’t come by nightfall, bring the baby in for the night and then return them again in the morning. If the parents still don’t come back, by the afternoon or evening, the baby will need to be hand-reared and kept in a nest box with heat. 

Stage three: fully feathered 

Fully feathered babies are fledgling age (12-15 days, give or take) and are nearly self-sufficient. If one of these babies is found on the ground, it doesn’t need to be returned to a nest. Actually, it’s highly possible that this baby just took its first flight from its nest to the ground!

Babies at this age are still being monitored from afar and fed by their parents. The best thing you can do for this little one is to leave it be. Of course, there are exceptions. 

If the fledgling is in a high traffic area, like a driveway or close to a road or sidewalk, move it somewhere more relaxed. Don’t move it across town, because the parents are still caring for it, just move it a few feet away to safety. 

If the fledgling doesn’t try to run away from you when you approach it and it appears cold to the touch and lethargic, it might not be getting fed by mom and dad. You can gently palpate the crop to feel if there’s food inside. If there is, the bird might have an injury or may be sick, in which case it’s best to call a wildlife rehabilitator. If there isn’t anything in the crop, the bird might just need a meal. Some mashed bird seed might help it out.  

In conclusion 

Helping out a baby bird can seem daunting, but with the right information, you can do it safely and confidently. If you’re still unsure, you can always call a rehabilitation center to see if they can take the baby in!

Credits

Chaifetz, T. (2017, September 26). How to Determine the Age of a Mourning Dove Hatchling. Retrieved 2020, from https://animals.mom.me/how-to-determine-the-age-of-a-mourning-dove-hatchling-12452713.html

Ehrlich, P., Dobkin, D., & Wheye, D. (1988). Bird Milk. Retrieved 2020, from https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Bird_Milk.html

Mayntz, M. (2019). Do Birds Produce Milk for Their Young? Retrieved 2020, from https://www.thespruce.com/glossary-definition-of-crop-milk-385209

Mihaylo, K. (2017, August 11). How to Care for a Baby Mourning Dove. Retrieved 2020, from https://animals.mom.me/care-baby-mourning-dove-6968.html

Sebastiani, J. (2012, April 26). Baby Birds: A Dove Story. Retrieved 2020, from http://blog.delawarenaturesociety.org/2011/11/10/baby-birds-a-dove-story/

White, H. (2014). Mourning Dove. Retrieved 2020, from http://www.diamonddove.info/bird13%20Mourning.htm

Sydney Spotts

Sydney is a blogger and content writer in the realms of nature, outdoor recreation, and sustainability. Her nerdiness shines on the topics of birds and bugs. Her love for birds was founded in high school academia, reinforced in undergraduate curricula where she received her degree in Zoology and Environmental Studies, and is currently sustained through photography and avid birdwatching. She has worked hands on with several native and exotic species in the field and out, including at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and abroad in Australia. You can find her blog, Sycamore and Clay, at sycamoreandclay.com, where she writes to inspire and help people cultivate their own special connection with nature.