By Elizabeth Cavanaugh
In challenging times, the rhythms of nature offer solace.
Last month, while stepping into the carport to steer my Dodge in search of toilet paper and potatoes, a baby mourning dove fluttered and fell in my path. The fledgling, as startled as I was, flapped her wings again. She took flight, tumbled, and then twirled upward to safety.
Seeing such a steadfast little dove – especially during this difficult time of global pandemic – made me pause and remember last year’s Mother’s Day surprise.
After enjoying that Sunday celebration with my own mom, I left for home with one of her well-loved hanging baskets. Its semi-dry soil held weathered periwinkle sprigs that I had promised to resuscitate. After arriving home late that night, I temporarily hung my adopted periwinkles on an abandoned hook outside my front door. I had planned to find a proper spot and give the plant its needed TLC in the morning.
The mourning dove, named for the sound of its sorrowful coo, generally builds or borrows a nest and reproduces during spring and summer.
By breakfast the next morning, I heard that soulful avian call coming through my dining room window. On closer inspection, I found that sometime between my late-night arrival and my early-morning oatmeal, Mr. and Mrs. Mourning-Dove had begun to assemble a wad of twigs for their soon-to-be growing family. Right there in my mom’s old flowerpot that swayed by my porchlight. In clear view of my dining table.
So, it seemed, the thirsty little periwinkles would have to wait a couple more months for their new location and anticipated TLC.
Two months. The magical amount of time, I discovered, for two successive dove offspring clutches to incubate, hatch, grow, and…fly the coop. All the while, what a joy to have had a front-row seat to such a spectacular nature episode: the daily and nightly goings-on in the mourning dove nest. By way of my observations and curiosity, I learned that mourning doves tend to mate for life. Plus, the male and female share all the child-rearing duties!
Dove parents work as a team to scout and settle on a spot, ideally sheltered from intense sun and wind and hidden from aerial predators like hawks and ground hunters like cats. The male generally collects building materials, such as twigs, stems, grasses, and pine needles. Then, the female arranges them. In a pinch, the couple may even reuse a deserted nest.
I watched from behind my window’s lace sheers as the new parents prepared their own nest. And, in the rare moment when both birds flew away together, I stepped outside to peep into the periwinkle pot and catch a glimpse of that delicate nest. It held one small white egg.
In a clutch or nesting period, the female often lays two eggs spaced a couple days apart. Mourning dove parents take turns keeping the eggs warm during the fourteen-day incubation period. When the baby birds hatch, their eyes remain closed, and their fragile, featherless bodies stay silent, even at feeding time.
Vulnerable to temperature and predators, these nestlings need constant care. One parent sits with them, while the other sets out in search of food and water. Then, the adults switch places, about every six hours. The female often spends more nighttime hours on the nest. The male generally keeps his brood warm, fed, and protected mostly during daylight hours.
“Crop milk,” a protein and fat-rich secretion produced in the throat of both adult birds, nourishes the hatchlings. A hungry baby reaches with its closed beak, like a straw, into the open beak of the parent. After the first few days, nestlings begin to eat regurgitated seeds in the same way. These seeds will be their diet for several weeks, until the birds leave the nest and are able to gather whole seeds on their own.
As the nestlings on my porch grew stronger, their dove parents left them unattended for short periods. With that opportunity, I peeked once again into the nest. This time, I found two hearty young birds, newly covered in feathers with eyes wide open.
In a few more days, flying lessons began. The eldest fledgling stepped to the rim of the hanging basket and fluttered to the ground first. Both babies, under the watchful gaze and regular feedings of both parents, stayed nearby. At first, they ventured short distances along the ground and eventually lifted themselves up to sit on the walkway railing around my apartment. Then, they flew, in starts and stops, into the courtyard. And beyond.
To my delight, Mr. and Mrs. Mourning-Dove extended last year’s spring visit into the summer. They filled the air with the soft squeak of their wings and their little nest with two more eggs. The wonderous cycle repeated!
Then, as the midsummer sun hit with full force against the west-facing flowerpot, the second clutch matured. Soon, the entire mourning dove family winged from my front porch into the South Pasadena neighborhood. Grateful for the magical routine the birds brought to my life, I suddenly felt like an empty nester, missing their gentle presence.
The time had finally come to tend the resilient little periwinkle with the withered leaves. I soaked the plant with fresh water. But remaining hopeful that the birds would visit there again, I did not have the heart to move it.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” and, in fact, a lovely, feathered dove couple did return. They settled comfortably into my mom’s periwinkle pot just a few weeks ago, filling it with two more eggs.
As a firm believer in finding beauty in one’s own backyard, I have since discovered that in South Pasadena natural, calming beauty dwells even closer. Right outside my apartment door.
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