What to Know About Doves

Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 25, 2022

Doves are a diverse group of cooing birds that are found all over the world. They symbolize peace in folklore and literature. Certain species even make great pets. Just make sure to thoroughly research these animals before you bring them home.  

Doves and pigeons are the only two types of birds in the biological family Columbidae. This family contains five subfamilies, 42 genera, and 308 species. 

In general, ornithologists — scientists that study birds — tend to call smaller members of this family doves and larger members pigeons. But there’s no formal way to distinguish one from another.  

If you live anywhere outside of Antarctica, then you’ve likely encountered a number of these birds in your daily life. They’re easy to recognize because all doves and pigeons share certain traits. Of course, there are also species-specific differences.

Examples of particular species of doves include: 

  • Mourning doves. The scientific name for this species is Zenaida macroura. They’re one of North America's most common types of doves, second only to rock doves. 
  • White-winged doves. Their scientific name is Zenaida asiatica. They’re a beautiful bird found throughout the U.S. They help disperse the seeds of a particular type of cactus. 
  • Zenaida doves. The scientific name for this species is Zenaida aurita, and one of their many common names is the turtle dove. They’re popular in Cuba.  
  • Inca doves. Their scientific name is Columbina Inca. This species has developed many notable behaviors that help them adapt to their environment. They thrive in warm human environments throughout the U.S. and Central America.

Throughout evolutionary time, doves have found ways to adapt to almost every environment on Earth. This includes: 

  • Urban settings
  • Rain forests
  • Deciduous forests
  • Savannas
  • Deserts
  • Swamp forests
  • Agricultural settings

They can thrive anywhere from sea level to over 16,000 feet up. Their wings are so strong that they easily colonize remote islands. Truly, the only climate that they haven’t yet adapted to is the arctic.

All doves and pigeons have relatively small heads, short beaks, and stubby legs. They tend to have plump, rounded bodies. 

Their flight muscles take up about 44% of their body weight. This makes them exceptionally strong fliers. 

They’re also great navigators. They use both the Earth’s magnetic field and the position of the sun to navigate. Some species travel 25 miles a day to forage for food.

A dove’s exact coloration depends on its species. Feather colors range from dull browns and grays to bright oranges and reds. Their beak, leg, and eye rim colors also depend on species. 

For example, the white-winged dove has brownish-gray feathers with white bars on their wings. They also have: 

  • Pinkish legs and feet
  • Red irises
  • Blue rings around their eyes
  • Distinct black spots just below their eyes — called ear spots 

For comparison, the Zenaida dove is a cinnamon brown color with shimmering purple spots on its neck. It has a black beak, and red legs and feet. 

The average dove bird's lifespan depends on the species and environment. Some species can survive for about ten years in the wild and 17 years in captivity. The oldest dove known to humans was a mourning dove that lived 19.5 years.

Doves spend most of their time foraging for food, preening their feathers, and bathing themselves in water, dust, and sunlight. 

During mating season, they build flat or gently cupped nests and lay one to two eggs at a time. Most species tend to be monogamous — meaning that the same male and female meet up for multiple mating seasons. Both males and females incubate the eggs and feed their young. 

Doves use a lot of different behaviors to survive in unfriendly environments. Examples of these behaviors include: 

  • Threat displays. To deter predators, many doves fluff themselves up and even start flapping or buffeting their wings while on the ground. They also tend to feed in flocks and avoid areas with low visibility. 
  • Piloerection. This is a skill that some birds use to cool themselves down. They lift all of their feathers until none of their tips touch. This allows hot air to escape. 
  • Dove stacking. This is a unique cold adaptation practiced by Inca doves. They gather in groups of 12 or fewer and stand on one another's backs for warmth. They consistently rotate so everyone can benefit from the heat at the center of the huddle. 

Most species are very social. Make sure you have room for more than one dove if you want to keep them as pets — though there are some exceptions. Do your research before deciding on a particular species. Most species will be happiest when they can live in mating pairs.   

When kept as pets, the typical dove personality is calm and peaceful. They’re gentle animals that are comfortable with human interaction. They usually don’t bite.

All members of the Columbidae family survive off of either seeds or fruits

Seed-eating birds pick up all sorts of grains from the ground. They also need to consume bits of grit throughout the day. The grit is used in a special organ called the gizzard to grind up the tough exteriors of seeds. 

Fruit-eating doves pluck their food straight from the tree. Different species have adapted to prefer the fruits that grow in their particular habitats.     

As pets, seed-eating pet doves do well on commercial grain mixes with 12% to 16% protein. They also need pigeon grit and water. For treats, you can supply: 

  • Special seeds — like safflower seeds and millet
  • Greens — like romaine lettuce
  • Mixed vegetables

They should get a mix of these treats a couple of times a week. 

You’ll need to research your particular species if you want to keep a fruit-eating dove as a pet. In general, you should feed them fruits that are common in their natural environment.

Most owners find that doves are easy birds to love. Doves don’t demand a lot of resources and have simple care needs.

Before bringing your new pets home, you’ll need to provide them with a suitable environment. The most important part of this is the enclosure. 

For a single dove, the smallest acceptable enclosure size is a 24" by 30" cage. With a cage this small, you’ll need to let your bird out daily for exercise and stimulation. This requires a secure area where they won’t be able to escape into the wild. 

The best size for two doves is an indoor flight cage that’s at least 62" high, 32" wide, and 21" deep. Bigger is always better, especially since males can be territorial. For some species, you’ll need to allow at least four feet of enclosure for every mating pair. 

For outdoor pets, you’ll need to build a sturdy aviary that keeps them safe from both weather and predators. 

Each species of dove is distinct and many have unique care needs. Make sure that you’re prepared to handle your chosen species before you bring them home.

Show Sources

Animal Diversity Web: “Columbidae doves and pigeons,” “Columbina inca Inca dove.” 
Columbia University: “Introduced Species Summary Project White-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica).” 
Oklahoma State University: “Mourning Doves.”
Palomacy: “Pigeons and Doves as Pets.”  
Penn State New Kensington: “Zenaida Dove.”  
The Rescue Report: “Ringneck Doves as Pets, guest post by Cathy Kendall.”

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