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May 17, 2015

The black oil sunflower seeds that fill our birdfeeders beckon a variety of feathered friends.  Bright red cardinals and brilliant goldfinch join perky black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, and Carolina wrens for a quick snack. The nutritious morsels also attract other birds considered by some to be less desirable. Among those are mourning doves.

Clare, who makes no claim to being an ornithologist, refers to the large brownish-grey birds as “big ol’ doofus birds that eat all the food.”

The birds we usually call doves are rock doves. They come in several varieties:  turtlenecks, mourning doves, ring-necks, diamond doves, and homing pigeons.

Mourning doves are the ones we see in our backyard.  As Clare and I sip our morning coffee on the back porch, we enjoy hearing the cooing of doves. It is that plaintive call that gives the bird its name. During takeoff and landing, the mourning dove’s wings create a distinctive whistling sound.

Mourning doves are almost exclusive seedeaters. Because they devour many weed seeds, they are called the farmer’s best friend. Also known as the turtledove, the Carolina pigeon, or Carolina turtledove, they are one of the most abundant and widespread of all North American birds.  They are the leading game birds hunted in the fall of the year in the United States.

Doves are generally monogamous. The courtship begins when the male brings the female nesting material. She will either accept or reject his gift, thereby indicating her intentions. It is this mating for life that gives doves the reputation for being love birds. Mated pairs develop nuanced songs to communicate only with each other.

As romantic as this may seem, the death of one bird does not cause the mate to pine away and die of loneliness. Quite the contrary! The single dove seeks a new mate almost immediately. They are not solitary birds. They have a need for companionship. A single dove does not fare very well.

In some cultures doves are symbols of sensuality. As the fertility goddess Aphrodite’s constant companions, they represented sexuality and lust.  In both Indian and Syrian mythology, the dove was a totem of lust. In Greek mythology, the bird was associated with the goddess Athena. It represented marriage and the renewal of life.

Perhaps this sensual connotation led Mars, Incorporated to select Dove as the brand name for a chocolate candy and for chocolate-covered ice cream bars. Dove is also a Unilever brand of soap and other personal care products.

The dove is one of the most storied of all birds.

According to Genesis, when the rain finally stopped, Noah stood at a window in the ark, gazing upon an endless sea.  Through watery eyes he hunted for some glimpse of hope.

He dispatched a raven that flew to and fro searching for dry land. Then Noah sent forth a dove, but it returned with nothing. After seven more days, Noah released a second dove, which returned with an olive leaf in its beak. Noah received the dove carrying in its beak a sprig of hope.

A dove also symbolizes the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus, according to the Gospels.  In Christian iconography, the image became prominent.  Often accompanied by the word peace, the design of a dove carrying an olive branch was incorporated into the funerary art of the Roman catacombs.

The dull brownish-grey birds at our feeders have a noble heritage. Archeologists have uncovered terra cotta representations of doves dating back to Old Testament times in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

In a second century writing, Jesus is presented as a divine child with miraculous power. The story is told of him, as a boy, molding clay pigeons on the Sabbath. When criticized for making images on the holy day, Jesus clapped his hands. The doves received life and flew away.

In our day, the discs launched in trap or skeet shooting are called clay pigeons. Those who participate in this competition, called sporting clays, sometimes feel as though the discs take on a life of their own.

The dove has been a symbol of peace throughout history. Doves are usually featured in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. Pablo Picasso’s lithograph “The Dove” was chosen as the emblem for the World Peace Congress in Paris in 1949. He explained that he presented the bird in his art because, “I stand for life against death; I stand for peace against war.”

Homing pigeons are rock doves that have been selectively bred for their ability to return home over long distances. These birds fly at speeds up to eighty miles per hour and cover distances of thousands of miles.

Doves have served in times of war and even been awarded medals. Three honored birds deserve mention. Cher Ami, enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution, was awarded the French Cross. G.I. Joe received a medal for preventing the bombing of an Italian village saving the lives of more than 1,000 people. On Guadalcanal, Blackie Holligan was dispatched into a barrage of enemy fire. He showed up long overdue, bloody from shrapnel. He still delivered his message.

White homing pigeons – symbols of love, hope, and peace – are sometimes released at weddings. They fly back to their dove cotes after leaving the marriage ceremony.

White doves are also used at funerals. Three birds representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are generally released first. They are trained to circle the cemetery.  Then a single bird, symbolizing the spirit of the dearly departed, is released to join the other three as they fly over the grave. This reunion of birds indicates that the spirit of the deceased has joined the Holy Trinity as they rise toward the heavens.

A funeral director had planned such a dove release for the bereaved family at a service at West Springs in Union County, South Carolina. The release did not go as planned.

The director did not realize that he had scheduled the funeral on the same day that dove season opened. Hunters in a field near the graveyard were not aware of the funeral.

Soon after the first group of birds was released, those at the cemetery heard shotgun blasts. Instead of circling as they had been trained to do, the doves took off like darts back to their owner in Gaffney.

The funeral director released the fourth bird ahead of schedule. The pretty white dove flew directly over the hunters. More blasts were heard.

The following day the owner of the birds called the director and said, “Three of my birds came home, but I haven’t seen the fourth one. Any idea what happened?”

“No, not really.”

“Maybe he’ll show up. Sometimes the males get a romantic urge and venture off.”

Sure enough, two days later the stray returned home, no worse for the wear.


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