The Fate of the Mourning Dove

A few months ago my wife and I noticed a pair of doves were building a nest in a nook above the front door of our home. Atop a piller, beneath an eve, inaccessible to any creature who couldn’t either fly or use a ladder, the location for this nest was thoughtfully chosen. Through the rainy days and nights of February, the birds completed their nest and sat on the eggs.

For nearly a month the birds were always there, until sometime in early March when they abandoned the nest. My wife checked the nest and verified the eggs were still there – apparently not destined to hatch, the Doves had left them to scavengers. Within a few weeks the eggs were gone, with the parents away another winged creature had broken them open and consumed them. But the doves weren’t through with us.

In April the birds returned, the female lay a new pair of eggs, and through the lengthening days they sat atop them. This time we were skeptical as to whether or not the eggs would hatch, but we were starting to get attached to this persistent, quiet pair. The neighborhood cats were also paying close attention.

On the morning of May 12th we left our homes to go to work and noticed the eggs had hatched. Within a few days we could see them, huddled next to their mother, always quiet, always still. Often the mother would perch on a rooftop nearby but away from the nest, trying to fool the ever present cats. Each day the birds grew bigger, until the pair of them began to look like small doves, and not just hatchlings.

We will never know what induced the larger of the babies to leave the nest, but on May 19th only the smaller one was still there. It didn’t take long, unfortunately, to find the larger one. The cats had captured it and mangled it, not bothering to eat it, and left its body down in the front yard by our driveway. We buried it, and hoped the mother had pushed it out so there would be enough food to feed one hatchling to maturity.

After this setback, we kept our two cats inside. Accustomed to being free during the days when we are home, the animals weren’t happy with this fate, but we figured they would only have a few days of confinement before the 2nd baby dove left the nest. We couldn’t control our neighbor’s feral cats, however, two full-time outdoor cats who preferred our property to their own since we don’t have dogs. These two cats, beautiful long haired calico females, were certain to pounce on the one remaining dove if given the chance.

What could we do? But the bird stayed in its nest, and got bigger by the day, until it was more than half the size of its mother. I remember leaving for work on May 23rd, noticing the baby sitting in the nest with its mother. Both of them were motionless, watching me, melded into each other. It is easy to anthropomorphize this mother and child. The devotion of the mother, the dependence of the child. And it was impossible to be unmoved by the sight of them, in their precarious perch above our door, menaced by the cats. The safety of the nest could not last, but they clung together and viewed the world together. What silent understanding did they share in the stillness, during this final, fleeting moment of togetherness?

During these long days of spring the sun sets to the northwest, and for a few lingering hours each evening the rays of the lowering sun shine directly onto our porch, which faces north. I will never forget the sight of this baby dove, nearly ready to leave its nest, on the evening of May 23rd. It sat alone, so motionless, so silent, bathing in its daily moment of sun, sitting in the only world it has known, its small nest, gazing towards the light. What dim awareness, what dawning realization, what rising instinct could it feel? What sense of fate served wordless notice that its time to leave had arrived?

When I left for work on May 24th I looked at this bird for the last time. It was standing in the nest, bigger than ever, motionless as always, watchful, silent. The mother was gone. The day was sunny and bright. It was time.

Later that day my wife called me at work. She had already come home for the day, and the bird was gone. She had looked around for it, and sure enough, its body was left by the driveway, in the same place as the first one. We buried its mangled body next to its sibling. My wife put flowers on the grave.

As an example of trauma, this story is trivial. As an allegory for life, this story is telling. The implacable food chain. Birds eat worms, cats eat birds, coyotes eat cats. At what level in the food chain is there awareness? When is there terror? The worm scarcely knows the bird is picking it apart. Does the bird know fear? Is the bird’s caution merely stimulus and response mechanisms, or is there a glimmer of consciousness? Certainly a cat knows the terror of being hunted, as well as the casual joy of killing. Yet we love our cats, and we love our neighbor’s cats, and see ourselves in their antics.

The fate of this family of mourning doves might symbolize scenarios of our own destiny. What fate will we encounter when we leave the nest of this solar system? Or what if the cat is the symbol of an angry planet, or a collapsed financial system, or a collective madness where the center cannot hold? What if the mourning dove is the symbol of our fragile eras of peace, so easily sundered by the feral and ravenous cats of war? In the eyes of this winged mother and her doomed child we saw the tenderness and terror of the world, and wept.

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