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Mourning Doves

July 20, 2012

We spent the last week trying to save a baby dove that fell two stories from a nest in our gutter to the concrete slab in front of our door. It sat there for two days before the postal carrier alerted us to it. Because we never use our front door, the storyline might have worked itself out without our knowledge–except that once the carrier told us about the bird, we became responsible for it–and thus moved to do something to save it, if we could.

My husband and I spent an evening searching wildlife refuge web sites and making phone calls to rehabilitators in our area who specialize in birds. Studying photos we found online, we attempted to identify the stage of the baby dove, or squab, and determine its condition. It appeared to be a fledging and seemed healthy enough; it just couldn’t fly. In fact, maybe it hadn’t fallen at all. Maybe it had gone for its first flight and not been ready to go any further. I called White Flicker, a wild bird rehabilitation clinic in Ambler, Pa., only to learn from a voicemail message that they were not accepting any new birds for another few days.

Eventually we heard back from one of my husband’s colleagues, who is a birder. She wanted to know if one of the baby’s parents was around. In fact, we had seen an adult dove near the baby, sometimes sitting on top of it to keep it warm, sometimes hovering nearby on one of the steps. Good, she said. Build a soft little nest. Put the squab in the nest. Then leave it alone and let the parent take over. As long as the parent does not abandon it, in a few days, maybe a week, it should be ready to fly.

My husband lined a Wheat Thins box with a scrap of his old pajama bottoms and took our six-year-old , the family animal lover, out to the front porch to take care of business. The parent bird–we were referring to it as “The Mother” by then even though it easily could have been The Father–took one look at my son and dive-bombed his head. My husband took advantage of the distraction and gently placed the squab in the cracker box nest while The Mother flapped an angry ruckus.

Doves, we were told by another expert, are notorious for building flimsy nests in less than ideal locations. It’s not uncommon for their nests to break apart or for their eggs, and babies, to tumble out. But despite such obstacles, or maybe because of them, mourning doves are also fiercely protective of their children. It’s just the way they are wired.

For three days, we watched warily as thunderstorms rolled in and out and the heat index reached 105. The Mother was often there, sitting on her baby or perched nearby on a step. Whenever she flew away, we wondered if she would come back, and she always did.

Two nights ago, I went to check on them, and they were gone.

In an impressionable biology seminar that I took in college, we examined anthropomorphism and our tendency to ascribe what we think are strictly human characteristics to animals and plants. Our professor sided with the critics who dismissed anthropomorphism as sentimentalism, as a barrier to scientific objectivity. I get that. But in my own humanistic discipline, anthropomorphism is also a device that helps to corral complexities and parse out wisdom. It’s a means to understanding.

This past week, watching an animal refuse to abandon its young on my front step, I found it difficult not to think that I had been handed some kind of metaphor, on my birthday no less. There was a lesson in this tale, not just about the instinct of a parent but about the way I have framed, sentimentally, subjectively, my own adoption story in an attempt to make sense of it, in an attempt to live with it.

I mean, I was absolutely riveted by The Mother bird, the way she stood guard over her baby, nursing it with crop milk in her beak, sitting atop it to keep it warm, refusing to leave it behind. It’s just a bird, I kept telling myself. But my God, a bird!

I look again at the photos I took of The Mother sitting on her fuzzy squab and try to force myself to see a more objective narrative. But this isn’t science. No matter how hard I try, I simply see The Mother Who Won’t Let Go. She lies in wait, fending off predators, warning us all to keep our distance, until the time comes for both of them to fly.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Paula permalink
    June 12, 2016 11:06 pm

    What a great write-up! And as for parental care and love, I don’t think that’s anthropomorphizing at all. I believe animals do love, because I think it’s an instinct. They care for their young as fiercely as humans do, and for the exact same reason. But I did find your comment about dove parents being really protective interesting, because I was surprised by the opposite behavior. I have, right now, two young fledged doves in my backyard, and also a nest of newly-hatched scrub jays. The other day a cat was on the neighbor’s roof, and eventually made its way into my yard. The jay parents, as everyone knows, are very aggressive in their protection. They were shrieking and flapping and dive-bombing the cat, even though that nest was probably pretty safe. The doves, on the other hand, sat passively by up on a wire, watching the scene, never intervening. It could have been because they were in the separation process — at some point you have to let go! And yet, they were still coming to care for the two fledglings occasionally.

  2. Helen Sasse permalink
    September 15, 2012 7:31 pm

    Jenny, there is little doubt in my mind that animals possess a desire of protectiveness and loyalty to their young, or other’s species, as well, and to their human owners. Read & heard many true stories to back this up. As ALWAYS, your feelings put into words are admirable.

  3. July 20, 2012 4:43 am

    I really enjoyed this piece. I wouldn’t say they don’t feel parental love because I think to be sure of that I would have to judge them from my own perspective. It’s clear that animals feel emotion, although we sometimes misunderstand their actions.

  4. July 20, 2012 2:20 am

    It’s hard not to be anthrpomorphic about that – just instinct? If something had happened to the little squab the momma would have shrugged and flown off, never to think of that baby again?

    • twinprint permalink*
      July 20, 2012 2:34 am

      Yep–likely so! I read that they often abandon their young if the young are defective. And in 30 days, they stop their parenting and part ways. I mean, you can only take an anthropomorphic metaphor so far. 🙂 But still, it was a fascinating scene to watch and I feel on the verge of some kind of understanding that is just out of my grasp. The doves flew me closer. Thanks for your comment!

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