The dove is believed to have been a favorite tamed bird for thousands of years, having been known as the symbol of peace for a very long time. By Biblical times, the dove had become a familiar symbol. According to the biblical account of the flood, Noah had sent out a raven first, which didn’t come back and then a week later, sent a dove that returned with an olive branch in its beak, which was a sign of land and of the peace that was to come. Because of this, it seems, the dove has been kept domestically at least since the early Biblical years of Old Testament.
In the New Testament, it was a dove that landed on Jesus when baptized by John the Baptist. “At that moment heaven was opened and the Spirit of God came down in the form of a dove and landed on Jesus. And a voice from heaven spoke and said, ‘This is My beloved, in whom I am so pleased with!’ (Matthew 3:16-17).”
Since then, the dove has become the familiar Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, since Biblical days, doves have been kept and loved all over the world. In the beginning, doves were used for sacrifices in religious rituals and for meat, and only later were bred as pets. Several species of dove were originally bred as a food species and are still used as food, today. Many breeds were bred especially for their meat-bearing qualities, the large breast muscles of the dove, being a good quality meat.
Characteristics of Domestic Doves
The best known doves, which are kept as pets today, are the Ringneck and the Diamond Doves. The domestic Ringneck Dove is probably the dove of the Bible. The Ringneck Dove has been bred in several colors. The best known colors are beige-pink and pure white, but there are many other varieties. The original wild colored bird has smooth brown and gray feathers on the back and wings with a rich rose-colored head and breast.
The bird is named for its small collar of black feathers around the neck, or in the white variety, a small collar of white feathers growing horizontally against the grain of the neck feathers. These doves measure about 10 to 12” in length from beak to tail tip, and have a wingspan of about 15”. The Ringneck Dove is also known as the laughing dove or turtledove, and the white ones are sometimes called the peace dove or sacred dove. They are not natural to the United States, but probably came from Africa or Arabia. Diamond Doves come in a variety of colors as well, including reddish browns, yellows, snow white, and silver. The Diamond Dove, sometimes called the Little Dove or Little Turtledove, is naturally from Australia.
They were imported to Europe in the late 1800s, and have become one of the most popular tame birds today. It’s one of the smallest of the Australian doves, weighing less than an ounce and only about 7 to 8” long. The adult birds’ eyes are have orange irises with a pronounced orange-red ring and can often be sexed by its thickness and the color of the wing feathers. At about one year, the males have a silver gray color and a wider eye ring. The females tend toward a brown gray color and have a thinner eye ring. Diamond Doves have a variety of cooing calls, and will sometimes imitate human coos, too. They are very affectionate birds — when one in a pair returns to the nest, they often greet each other with low, raspy coos and then snuggle with each other if they aren’t nesting. They will also give their mate several quick pecks around the neck and head while slightly shaking their wings. Diamond Doves are faithful and loving birds.
Doves are in the familyColumbidae and are a good choice for beginners, rarely getting sick, and can be kept with other peaceful birds such as finches. They do well both inside and outside and are best kept in pairs. The dove lives an average of about 10-15 years in captivity, though some may live over 25 years. The Dove is best known for its gentle temperament. They are good-natured social creatures that do well, whether kept in indoors in a cage or in outdoor aviaries, as long as they have plenty of room to fly. They do well in outside aviaries if they can slowly adapt to the weather, being tough birds that can take the worst winter weather.
The White Dove or Sacred Dove is often thought of as a separate species but it is actually the most common color of the Ringneck Dove. This bird is often confused with the domestic white homing pigeon which is used to release at special occasions (weddings, anniversaries, etc.). The dove shouldn’t be released into the wild as it doesn’t have the homing instinct of the pigeon. Though it is difficult to distinguish between the two, the smaller species tend to be known as doves, and larger species as pigeons. Doves are generally sleeker and smaller with pointed tails, while pigeons are larger and stockier with rounded tails. Both doves and pigeons can make great pets, but doves tend to be less messy. They are pretty, quiet, have a calming, gentle coo, are fairly easy to tame, generally healthy, require little up keep, and are not too expensive. They are fairly easy to breed and make good parents.
Basic Care of Domestic Doves
In general, doves should be kept in pairs, but if yours was hand reared, and if someone is home often, you can keep it by itself. It won’t be lonely, if it has company. Wing clipping is not needed and is not recommended for doves. They can be kept in either indoor cages or in outside aviaries. Cages need to be large enough to allow wing-flapping room in order to avoid hitting tail and wing feathers on the bars. Include at least two natural-wood perches or a perch and a shelf, the shelf being about 6” deep and being the highest of the perches. Perches can be made of natural wood such as fruit tree branches (no pesticides), or of hardwood, about ½” thick.
If your doves are kept in a cage, a medium to large sized cage is ideal, as long as they get some flight time outside the cage each week. You do want as large a cage as possible for your doves comfort, and it can never be too large; the bigger the cage, the more enjoyable it is for your doves and you will enjoy your doves more. Just make sure that the bars are close enough together so that your doves’ heads can’t be caught between them. They can hurt themselves, or even die! For a pair of doves, you need a larger sized cage, the larger wrought iron cages being the best. Place three or four perches at least 8” from the sides of the cage, and at least 15” apart to give some flying room. Cages should be located in an area away from heating and cooling sources, open windows, fireplaces and kitchen fumes. You can also add a light attached to a timer for light and warmth. Doves love to bathe, so give them a large, flat dish of water a couple of times a week, or mist the birds with their own clean spray bottle. You should also provide a cuttlebone, and dried grasses for nest building.
Doves eat seeds whole and suck water. Doves are ground feeders, so provide their seed, water and grit on or near the floor of the cage. Provide separate food, water and grit dishes. Grit should include crushed eggshells for calcium, sand for food grinding purposes, and tiny bits of charcoal, which is a digestion aid. Clean, fresh water is needed at all times. Water bowls should be open and fairly deep so your doves can suck water into their bills. Some birds sweep their beaks through the seed looking for their favorites, so you may need to clean under the cage often. Change the food and water every day, and keep the cage bottom clean. Soiled feed on the ground may spoil and cause illness. Doves feed on seeds, fruit, and plants, with seeds and fruit forming the major part of the diet.
For regular feeding, a parakeet seed mixture works well. There are also some seed mixtures available, specifically for doves. Though commercial “Dove and Quail Mix” seed is available, it’s sometimes hard to find. But commercial seeds or pellets are available at most feed stores. Pigeon pellets or the smaller game-bird pellets (20 percent protein), or “crumbled” poultry feed, if reasonably fresh, are good, and will supply vitamins A and D3, the D3 being needed if direct sun is not available. Grit or sand is also needed and should be provided in a separate dish at all times. Doves enjoy fresh seed grasses and other greens, such as mustard greens and dandelion leaves, whole seeds such as rice, millet, cracked corn or popcorn, vetch, chopped peanuts, safflower, tiny black sunflower, peas and other grains. Some good treats for them are crumbled whole wheat bread, crumbled hardboiled egg yolks, and small pieces of grapes, strawberries, watermelon, or other fruits. Small worms are also good treats.
Training Domestic Doves
Doves are easy to care for and make great pets. They are not known to bite so they can be handled by most people. Doves can be tamed easily with just a little effort. Let your dove(s) see you often, always use slow gentle movements, talk softly, and offer treats from your open hand, and within a few weeks your dove(s) should trust you enough to step up onto your finger. If your dove raises its wing over its shoulder and backs away, try again later. A scared dove can flap against the cage and injure itself. When cornered, a scared dove may also “slap” at you with its wing, although most won’t bite or peck. If you let your doves out, they will probably fly up to the highest curtain rod and down to the floor to look for crumbs or nesting materials, usually returning to their cage in their own good time.
Their droppings harden quickly, and are easy to clean up. Don’t get upset if your doves spend a few minutes each day lying around on the bottom of their cage or on the floor, as long as they get up and go back to their perches within about an hour or so. Doves usually do this in the late afternoon, which is their rest-period. Doves can be sweet and loving pets, given some time and patience by their owners. They are great pets for apartment living, as they are fairly quiet, clean and non-destructive. If you buy a hand-raised young bird, you’ll be sure to have a tame pet in just a few short weeks. Doves can be tamed with gentle and continued handling, but will be friendliest if bought young from a small breeder who has handled them from the time they were hatched. Doves are beautiful creatures and will provide hours of quiet amusement and pleasure. Their gentle ways and laughing coos offer an interesting and enjoyable atmosphere to any home. Doves are delightful birds and make a wonderful addition to the family. Doves bond easily with humans, especially those that feed them, and a tamed dove, kept alone, will become a faithful and loyal companion.
Breeding Domestic Doves
Owning a mated pair is not needed unless you are breeding or showing them. It is not uncommon for a mating pair to raise several broods in a year, so unless you plan on having a flock, or on selling or giving away some birds, it is best to remove the eggs. Dove hens will probably start to lay eggs at about 6-8 months of age, sometimes even without a male. Often the hen will sit in the food dish to lay her eggs. If you notice this, place an 8 to 10-inch basket in the cage, away from the perches so droppings won’t fall in it, then line with paper towels for easy cleaning and put some clean straw or small sticks in it. If you don’t want babies, take the eggs out when the second one appears or about four days after the first is laid, since some hens reabsorb an egg once in a while. Hens lay eggs about once a month in the spring, but if kept in warm rooms they will lay year-round, so you may need to take away several eggs per year. If you do want babies, they’ll hatch in about two weeks. Both parents will take turns sitting on the eggs and feeding the babies, and when the babies perch on the side of the nest and get ready to try their wings, you can start finger-taming them.
Because doves mate for life, these birds are happiest when kept in mated pairs. When mated birds become separated they will make a two-note call until they become reunited. A mated pair of birds will produce young on a regular basis, with both the male and female incubating the two small white eggs, which are usually laid one day apart. The incubation period lasts about 10 to 14 days, with hatchlings remaining in the nest with parents until one to two months of age. The male will sit on the eggs during the day and the female at night, with both birds brooding together toward the end of the incubation period. The babies are hatched without feathers but are fully feathered within a week and are flying within two weeks. Both sexes produce a highly nutritious substance called crop milk to feed to their young, which are called squabs, and both will feed the young regurgitated food until they are able to eat on their own. Doves are very good parents and will continue feeding their youngsters for some time. Sometimes, even before the babies are weaned, the parents will start a new brood.
About the only way to determine the sex of most doves is by watching their behavior. Males, being quite vocal tend to bow, coo, and strut with fanned tails around the female, which are much more reserved. Usually, only males bow coo, but isolated females may bow coo when presented with another bird. Perch coos and nest coos are slower and softer than bow coos, with the nest coo always being accompanied by wing flapping. Perch coos and nest coos are given by both sexes. Some of their vocalizations sound like rippling laughter, from which the common name, laughing dove, comes.
The bow coo is the fastest coo in courting behavior, and is always directed at a female with an accompanying head bow, and the feet stamping in an alternating pattern. This courting behavior is enjoyable to watch. The male dove usually begins the mating sequence by flying to the nesting site and calling for the female to join him. Once she is interested, they both fly to the ground where the male will display his tail feathers like a fan, while touching his beak to the ground. Sometimes he will puff up his feathers and strut around the female, repeating this several times. Sometimes, the female will open her beak and the male will feed her like he would a baby, but the actions are much more aggressive and often end with the male aggressively slapping his wings against the ground. After mating the male will give a series of very short coos for a minute or so while both remain very still.
Breeding Cages for Domestic Doves
The only safe way to house breeding doves is to put only one pair to a cage. Males tend to be territorial and may fight, especially when a female is present. Females usually get along well together, but may occasionally fight, too. If you want to breed different colors or to show your doves, you will have to keep them in separate cages as well. This is the only way to be sure of the family line of the offspring. As with all birds, doves need enough room to move around in their cage, to roost and to exercise comfortably. A pair can be kept in as small as an 18 inch square cage but should be allowed to fly around indoors every day. The minimum size for a flight cage should be about 3′x 4′x 6′ and can be made out of hardware cloth or welded wire screen.
If you want to keep several doves, you may keep them in a loft, like pigeons. The loft may be a built in a garden shed or an out-building that can be converted. When kept in a loft, your doves need to be able to enjoy the sun and fresh air. The best way to do this is to attach a flight to the building, which is an uncovered caged in area that can be as small as a few square feet, or big enough for you to walk into. If the area beneath the flight is bare ground, construct the flight as a suspended cage, so your birds will not come in contact with their own droppings. You also want to keep down the contact between your doves and the droppings of wild birds. The wire used to construct the outer flights must be small enough to keep out small birds, which may transmit disease, and may eat your doves’ food. Mice and rats, may also be attracted to the bird food, wasting it, and spreading disease, as well. Larger animals may even kill and eat the doves and eggs. Though doves can become prey to cats and dogs, both cats and dogs can be an advantage to the dove keeper. A pet on guard can get rid of rodent problems and can be taught to stay away from the doves. A well trained pet can be very useful.
A good dog will scare off larger pests and may even keep unwanted people and curious children away from your birds. It’s your responsibility to keep your doves safe, so the loft must be designed to keep them out. It’s best to build on a concrete floor, but if this isn’t possible, leave a space under the loft to keep them from getting in. You can clean under the flight with a rake. If you want to be able to walk into the flight, you will need a solid floor of some kind, which can be cleaned and hosed down, to have good sanitation. All surfaces, especially the floor must be easily cleaned, which should be done every day, with the whole area being completely disinfected before each season. Disinfectants that are safe to people and birds are sold by veterinarians and feed stores. On an outside flight the best wire to use is the ½” x 1” welded wire, which will keep out most pests and predators. Mice will still be able to fit through it, so you can use two layers of wire, one being the ½” x 1”, and the other being ¼” mesh, which is strong enough to be stapled to a wood frame. You can also wire it to a metal or PVC frame. When your flight is finished, paint it with black polyurethane paint so that your doves can be seen more easily – before putting your doves in – of course. Be sure to check any relevant building and health codes laws.