WILD THINGS: THE DRAMA OF THE DOVE IN THE BACKYARD


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You couldn’t tell Tony Soprano just by looking at him. You had to wait until he started acting like a jerk. Usually that involved him running head first to one of the other mourning doves. Sometimes he would fling his wings upward in a threatening manner. Sometimes he stabbed them with his bill. But the message has always been clear: Get the hell out of my manger.

I had never had much luck with feeders. My wife and I set up hummingbird feeders a few times and then got sad when no hummingbirds came to drink the free sugar water. (Hummingbirds in the Keys seem to prefer real nectar.) I had never been too excited about seed feeders, because in the Keys it seemed likely that they would just attract a bunch of mourning doves, and these are boring ass birds.

But then my friend Geoff started having buntings painted at his feeders, and someone gave me a free 20 pound bag of birdseed, so I thought, why not?

At first I used a few tube feeders that I ordered from Amazon, but when they had no action I started leaving little piles of seeds on an old mahogany stump in the backyard .

The mourning doves were the only things that showed up, but I thought it was a start.

I took a tray from a long dead toaster oven, punched a few holes in the corners, threaded it with string, and poured a cup of seeds into it. For a while it rocked there unnoticed, but then the seed pile started to come down. We started to see mourning doves occasionally and then whole groups.

I mean, it doesn’t get more basic than a grieving dove. There are somewhere between 350 and 475 million of them worldwide, most of them in the lower 48 states, with some population incursions across borders into northern Mexico and southern Canada. Sometimes it seems more difficult not to see them than to see them. I see a dozen of them sitting on the wires every time I leave my house, and I wish them well, but it’s hard to feel much excitement about them.

Yet no matter how mundane a bird may be, when it shows up in your garden every day, you start to invest in its life – sort of. It’s hard to build stories and understand a social scene when you can’t make out the characters. And mourning doves all look alike. You can tell young birds because there are scallops in their feathers, but looking into my old Sibley there were no field markings to differentiate the sexes.

My wife appointed Tony Soprano. She noticed how aggressive he got with the other doves and pulled them away from the feeder until he had filled his esophagus with food. So while we didn’t have a lot of noticeable intrigue, we did at least have one known antagonist.

For the first two months, we watched the whole drama through the window of our air-conditioned living room. Every once in a while I forgot that we had mourning doves hanging out in the yard, and I opened the door to enter the yard, and the doves would all fly away in an explosion of panic.

But then time broke and we started to keep our doors open.

Mourning Doves squeak as they fly – Sibley calls it a “light, airy hiss” – and the squeak has started to take on nuances. You could tell when a dove took off and when it landed, when it felt comfortable and safe, and when it felt nervous. You could tell when they were going to land on the manger, see Tony Soprano and think about it better in the air, as well as when they decided to challenge Tony Soprano and land on the manger, then ran away when he chased them. You could tell when a hawk hovered over and they all panicked at the same time, the squeak starting to sound more like applause.

You could also tell, just by listening, when it was Tony Soprano on the manger. Most doves, when they ate, would take a seed in their beak, then lift their heads and throw it back, engulfing them one by one in a sort of slow motion sewing machine rhythm. Tony Soprano ate much like the Cookie Monster, slamming his face harshly into the heaps of food, trying to swallow it all at once, seeds flying all over the place, most of them landing with a soft click on the deck.

If you are a person who seeks fairness in the natural world, it may seem like a great injustice to all the other doves. But in reality, it was a version of the spinoff economy that actually worked. The doves that Tony Soprano scared off, and the doves that avoided all the drama from the start, just took all the spill. There was more than enough for everyone.

While working on this column, I did some reading on the social dynamics of the grieving dove, and it turns out that the dominant bird in a flock is not determined by gender, which made me to think that there is no reason Tony Soprano cannot be a Tonya Soprano. And then I searched for mourning doves in both the National Geographic guide and the new edition of the Sibley Field Guide to Birds, and it turns out you can differentiate doves by gender – males have a slight iridescence. in the nape of the neck and the lightest caps on the top of the head.

All of this means that I know less about the Tony / Tonya Soprano situation now than when I started writing this. But I can accept it. I have another 20-pound bag of seeds and a pair of binoculars, and I’m going to keep paying attention until I make sense of it all.

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