Today I want to talk about a bird. Specifically, a dove–the mourning dove. Not morning like the time of day, mourning as in “I feel sad for a great loss I am in mourning.” It’s a powerful moniker to be sure but I feel it somewhat robs the sad little bird of some nuance. But it’s not called that for no reason.
You see, the mourning dove is a peculiar creature but not something I was very aware of. In fact, they’re quite common. US Fish & Wildlife reported this year that there are at least 165 million individuals in the country. Thing is, they’re also a popular game animal, with 9 million harvested last year alone. The mourning dove is known for its soft, sorrowful cry. An expression of grief–a mourning. What exactly the mourning doves mourns is uncertain but I think I may have an idea.
Dead kin aside, the mourning dove as a symbol means different things to different people. Love, hope, peace, what have you. In myth, it’s said to have been covered by the ashes of a dead lover, giving it distinctive chalky grey plumage. Thus, the mourning dove shares its pain not only through its call but its appearance. Personally, I can’t quite define what the dove means to me but not for a lack of trying. I was first introduced to the bird by my mother. She had one as a pet but it was sickly and would struggle to hold up his head. “You take it. Go ahead and make it better,” she said. She dropped off the bird at my apartment, hoping for the best.
Stargazing. That was the name of my new feathered friend’s disorder. It’s called stargazing because birds with it seem to look up towards the sky, as if they’re admiring the stars. A poetic ailment for a poetic creature. I was in a terrible place when this bird came into my life. Lonely and heartbroken. Through it all I would try my best to care for the dove. I couldn’t let it fly, because as soon as it took off it would hit a wall head first and plomp to the ground. So I made sure it had an easy going existence with occassional handling with hopes that it could acclimate to people. Whenever he’d perch on my finger I had to hold his belly to keep him up. Somehow I felt he was at peace.
The one thing I never got used to was the crying. Mourning doves don’t have a set time when they coo. No, they make these sad, pitiful noises at all hours. So every morning I’d wake up to this deep bellowing lament of a cry. Every night I’d lay my head down to the pitiful murmurs of a tired creature. Vividly, I remember coming home from one of the worst experiences of my life–a story for another day–and I was exhausted and miseriable and sad. I collapsed on my floor and balled up. I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t feel anything, I couldn’t speak. But I could hear. And what I heard was that cry. At my lowest point in life, it didn’t feel like mourning, it felt like a mockery.
But no, the mourning dove was simply doing what a mourning dove does and if anything he was cooing at the sight of me, happy to see me safe and sound. In my mind, I took that sad cry of his as an affirmation. “Things are bad now, but they can always be better. This too shall pass.” I would use it as my mantra. Human language couldn’t quite capture what I needed to hear in that time of my life but somehow this tiny little bird had all the wisdom in the world. In an odd sort of way, I wouldn’t be here without his cooing.
Eventually, I had to let go of him but there are mourning doves where I live now and at dawn I can hear them play that old familiar tune. Coo coo. A gentleness washes over me in those moments and all I can do is appreciate their encouragement.