This story is unfortunately all too common. Doves are very poor nest builders. That is, they are good at building very unstable nests. The female will lay in this shallow, thin and delicate construction two eggs. When they hatch, she will feed them in the manner of all birds -- she will barf on them. She provides regurgitated food. After a few weeks, she takes them down to ground level and teaches them to scrounge for their own food, which for doves is primarily small seeds, such as grass seed.
Often, if a storm of only moderate intensity strikes before the hatchlings have been taught to ground feed, they will fall from the tree and lie helpless on the ground. There's not much a mother dove can do at this point. The babies cannot fly or feed themselves, and are therefore prime candidates for both predation and starvation. This happens so often that many wildlife rehabilitators will often euthanise young doves or pigeons rather than put in the time, effort and materials to raise more of what are, after all, a very populous type of animal. Nobody doubts that doves, pigeons especially, are ubiquitous to the point of annoyance.
Well, on July 27, 2005 such a storm struck our area, and a pair of mourning dove hatchlings found themselves homeless on the neighbor's yard. I decided to take them in and see what I could manage.
I set them up in a small cage with a heat light and a dish towel arranged in a nest shape. As they drifted off to sleep, I ran to the pet store just minutes before closing and picked up a bag of baby bird food. The next morning, two little puffballs cheeped angrily when I came into the room, demanding breakfast.
Hand feeding baby birds isn't really that hard, and I had experience with hand feeding parrots. So I grabbed a syringe and mixed up a batch of food and set to work. I learned a couple of things very quickly. First, wild birds are much less likely to help you feed them than are tame birds. Second, the vast maw of the parrot allows you to literally shove the syringe all the way into the bird's crop and empty it all in one go, while the tiny throat and bill of the dove necessitate a slow bite-by-bite feeding to the back of the bill, which allows a great deal to spill out and become a mess. By the time they were done eating, it was difficult to see their original color under the dull yellow of formula. So they got twice-daily baths.
We were trying not to become too attached to these birds, of course, but it's hard when they're so cute and you have two little boys constantly wanting to pet the birds and hold the birds and watch the birds. So Arizona named them Pileuf and Backe -- don't ask us where he got these names -- but we re-named Backe to Whiner, because it never stopped it's little low-grade whine. "Wheeeep! Wheeeeep! Wheeeep!"
They were very close to being ready to leave the nest when they fell, so the whole process was surprisingly fast. Within a couple of days they had gone from downy puffballs to having an almost complete set of flight feathers. With every day that passed, they were less co-operative in the feeding process. After just 4 days, I tried putting a small bowl of finch seed in the cage. The more aggressive bird immediately started playing with it. A day or two later, the smaller bird also started playing with it. Soon, they were both eating enough from the dish that I could drop to only one feeding a day.
We were also conducting flight training. When I'd take them out of the cage, I'd hold them in my hand and bobble them a bit (not enough to hurt them, of course) to encourage them to flap their wings -- a lot like correcting a parrot for bad behavior when you've got him on your hand. Well, that went so well that we went into the living room (carpeted floor for padded crash landings) and tossed them gently into the air. They had no problems at all. After just two days of this, they could fly all over the room.
When they'd been with me for a week, they had made so much progress that I decided to move them to an outdoor aviary where they would have a chance to fly a bit and learn to find seeds in the grass. I whipped up a small flight cage and scattered a bunch of finch seed on the ground, and they took to it instantly. They were only in there for 3 days before I decided they could probably survive on their own. So, I banded them (so I could keep track of them) and that weekend, August 6, we took them to the front yard and let them go.
This was less than hugely successful. At first, they just hit the ground and refused to move. After about half an hour, we were able to get them into the lower branches of the spruce tree. We chose this spot for two reasons. We have a bird feeder under that tree, so there was a supply of seed ready for them, and there are a lot of mourning doves in the neighborhood that spend time at that feeder, so there was a flock of their cousins ready to take them in.
For three days, they stayed in that tree or on our driveway. We had to shoo them off every time we wanted to drive anywhere. This was worrisome not only because we didn't want to squish them with the car, but also because they were exposed to all the natural dangers that birds on the ground in any suburban setting would be -- kids. Arizona at one point ran out there and grabbed Whiner, and he squoze the poor thing so hard that it barfed on him. (The bird recovered just fine, and Arizona spent some time in his room, so they both learned from this incident.) Then they seemed to figure out how to stay in a tree, so that wasn't such a big issue anymore. But they obviously had begun to identify us as pseudo-parents, because (as young birds just evicted from the nest often do) they continued to beg from us whenever we'd appear. A person couldn't go out in the front yard without hearing the spruce tree start whining and whining, "Wheep! Wheeeeep!" One day Whiner even swooped down upon us and landed on Kim's head, demanding a snack. (We didn't provide snacks that day, but we did on one or two other occations -- just like a real mom bird would do.)
All of a sudden, almost a week after we released them, they vanished. There was no sign of them in the trees or in the yard. We have a family of hawks in the neighborhood, and lots of coons and foxes and other predators, so this was a little un-nerving. We needn't have worried though, because that evening, when the local flocks all came to our feeder for dinner, there in amongst the flock of doves was Pileuf and Whiner, and as soon as I approached they all flew off together. Our little orphans had found their family.