Mourning doves, frequent visitors to our backyards throughout the United States, are one of the first birds that many children learn to identify, both by sight and by the distinctive mournful cooing call of the male bird during nesting season. These peaceful-looking birds have conquered almost every type of habitat from our backyards to open forests to grasslands with scattered trees to semi-desert landscapes.
I love the call of the mourning dove during nesting season. The Chumash Native Americans of coastal California also must have heard this over the centuries. The name of the bird in the Chumash language is "an˙we hu hu hu hu." It's wonderful that a bird can connect people of different times and places.
Every year I like to mark in a calendar the first day that I hear the call. Here in Northern California, last year it was in late January. So this is my crocus bird, a bird of very early spring, and I associate it with Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, and Valentine's Day.
After Lent, comes Easter, and eggs. Mourning dove nests aren't ambitious about nests. They place a few flimsy sticks together in a plate or bowl shape. Despite this, the birds are attentive parents. They are monogamous and can have up to 5 broods per year in warm climates. Similar to all in the pigeon and dove family, they produce a milk-like substance for the young. Adult mourning doves like to eat seeds off the ground. They sip up water instead of throwing their heads back as most birds do.
For several years, a pair of mourning doves have been nesting in our garden. They started out on the ground at the top of our hill, but they traded up in later years to the top of a slatted roof over a swing. Kiwi vines decorate the roof, but they have never produced any fruit. The only fruit has been dove eggs.
Sadly, we feel that a Cooper's hawk may have forced the birds to abandon the nest. The raptor flew into our yard, and suddenly, a dove crashed into its stomach. Undeterred, the much larger bird settled on the edge of the kiwi roof. I rushed there and flapped my arms as menacingly as possible. It flew away, and we could see the small dove mother (pictured above) still on her nest. Sadly, we have not seen her in the days since.
Here in Northern California, I have observed these birds most often in suburban landscapes featuring many trees. In our new home in a grassland area with fewer trees, I have not observed as many of these doves, although according to my research, mourning doves do live in grasslands.
As doves settle in our backyards, grace our roadways, and even provide a soft contrast to semi-desert landscapes, they constantly surround us as symbols. No bird or even any other animal has perhaps a stronger symbolism in Christian faith than the dove. Since doves are so common, we are reminded of what they symbolize many times a day.
A descending dove is a symbol of part of the Trinity itself, the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is present in baptism, artists often carve doves on baptismal fonts. During the baptism of Jesus, "out of the water, he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him." -- Mark 1:10. Some Christian artwork develops this theme by depicting seven doves each carrying banners inscribed in Latin with one each of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Early Christians often buried their loved ones symbolically with the peace of doves by using headstones featuring carvings and decorations of doves. Scriptural references form the basis of this symbolism:
"If only I had wings like a dove that I might fly away and find rest. Far away I would flee; I would stay in the desert." --Psalm 55:7-8.
Be "simple as doves." --Matthew 10:16
A dove also played a role in the journey of Noah's ark. He sent the dove out once only to have it return, because it could find no dry spot to land. Then he sent the dove out again, and it returned with an olive leaf in its bill, a sign of hope that some brave tree was growing on dry land.
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