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Year of the Dove


 We live on an old dairy farm which still has a functional barn. The lower part of this barn (once the milking parlor) has always been a favorite spot for barn swallows. These delightful little birds fly up from the south each spring and enter through open barn windows. Once inside, they build nests out of mud and dry grass (or occupy existing ones) which they somehow manage to attach to the barn rafters. They then set about hatching eggs and raising young on a diet of flying insects which presumably includes mosquitoes. 

We appreciate this.

In late August, the swallow parents and their offspring head south to warmer climates and more bountiful skies.
Until this season, I’d never seen a swallow nest occupied by any other avian species. I was therefore surprised and somewhat amused when I walked into the barn on a Sunday morning in May and noticed a mature mourning dove, a significantly larger bird, sitting where a swallow would normally be. Admittedly, there was a small bowl-like depression of roots and twigs imposed on the former occupant’s mud nest, so the dove had done some remodeling before moving in. 

Mourning doves are slender, graceful birds, noticeably smaller than their relative, the pigeon. They are prolific breeders. In warm climates a single pair can manage up to several broods of two young in a year. They prefer to live around farms, fields, and open country rather than in mature forests. Often they are seen on the ground where they forage for a wide variety of seeds. They are willing to live in close proximity to humans, despite the fact that they have been widely hunted as game birds — probably because they are fast flyers, rather than for their edibility. Weighing just four to six ounces, they don’t offer much to eat.

How did the mourning dove get its name? I can only guess because of its long, melancholy call that has a mournful sadness to it. In fact, the birds use several different calls to communicate depending on the situation they find themselves in and the time of day. These include a greeting call, an alarm call when threatened, a summons to nesting duties call, and, as is common in the world of birds, the call of a male wishing to attract a female. Sometimes people who are unfamiliar with birds mistake its call for that of an owl.

Mourning doves are generally monogamous and mate for life unless one member of a pair dies. During incubation of eggs, sitting duties are shared. Both also care for the young once they are hatched and nourish them with a secretion known as crop milk. 

A week later, while setting up a sprinkler system in one of our high tunnels (large greenhouse-like structures in which we grow tomatoes, peppers, basil, and other heat loving crops), I noticed another mourning dove on a rather unkempt nest built on the 2×4 framing of one of the tunnel end-walls. Not a bad spot, I thought, except that every minute or so the oscillating sprinkler rained down on the bird for a few seconds. No matter, she (or he) remained steadfast and motionless.

Most unexpected of all, though, was — I can only assume — a hastily thrown together nest on the canopy of one of my tractors. It was a wet spring, often too wet to take heavy machinery into the field. The tractor in question, a John Deere 4040 which weighs about 10 tons, had been sitting idle in a pole barn for at least a week.

Apparently this was long enough for an inexperienced dove to decide a tractor canopy, 8 feet above ground level, would make a good spot for a nest. Each time I walked by and noticed the bird was still there I couldn’t help but think: How long can this last? Soon the day would come when I’d have to start the tractor and get to work.

The dove’s nest on my tractor canopy.

And the day did come. I climbed onto the machine and the bird, just 3 or 4 feet from my head, did not budge, did not even blink a dark shining eye. But when I started the big diesel engine the noise and vibration were too much. Away it flew and settled in a Norway spruce on the edge of the lawn. Before backing out of the pole barn, I twisted my torso enough to peek into the nest. There were two eggs in it, both white and about half the size of chicken eggs. 

First with a chisel plow and then a rototiller, I prepared a couple of acres of land for planting, then returned the tractor to the pole barn. Before going in for dinner, I checked on the status of the nest. It was still there and so were the eggs. A half hour later, when giving our dog, Kobe, his evening meal, I noted the dove was back on its chosen spot, sitting calmly as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I wondered if the lapse of a few hours in the incubation process could be problematic, but assumed the dove knew what it was doing. 

The following days were dry and there was more tractor work to do. Each time I started the engine of the 4040 the dove withdrew to the spruce tree for a few hours but returned to the nest when I came back. Then one afternoon, after a long spell working with the tractor, I saw that both nest and eggs were gone. With a twinge of guilt, I recalled that while travelling along the edge of a field an hour or two earlier I had passed under the low hanging limb of a black walnut tree and could hear the leaves and branches scraping across the top of the canopy. The nest and eggs must have been swept off. Life is a dicey business, I thought, and my carelessness had made that crystal clear.

Each winter the number of mourning doves living on the farm decreases. It appears that some migrate south as the cold weather approaches, while others stay with us. In the deep chill of winter, we hang a bird feeder from the bare branches of a mulberry tree on the lawn. Along with many other feathered permanent residents, usually a couple of mourning doves come by daily to partake of the seeds on offer. 

A pair of dove hatchlings, safely tucked behind a pitchfort and shovel.

The more I live in the company of these unassuming birds, the more I understand why doves in general have become an almost universal symbol of peace and reconciliation. In addition to their plaintive, soulful call, there is a gentleness and composure about them that seldom fails to put me in a more open and peaceable state of mind. 

I can’t be certain but think it very likely that the pair of doves whose nest was swept off the tractor canopy have not been deterred from fulfilling their procreative instinct. In fact they appear to have set up shop in the same pole barn just a few feet from the same tractor. But this time they have built on an adjacent wall where a tool rack is situated. Specifically, they have located their new nest between a pitchfork and a shovel. It looks like a fairly secure spot, so long as neither I nor anyone else attempts to remove one of these tools. I’ll try to make sure this does not happen. 

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!