I’ve always felt friendly toward pigeons and doves, mostly because they’re the only flighted beast that purrs. Also they look like stodgy little English gentlemen. But the first years after moving abroad, my opinion of the Columbidae family diminished. Not because I think they’re dirty or disease-ridden. I’m radically un-germaphobic by modern standards, and the mere fact that pigeons dwell in cities doesn’t convince me of their hygienic inferiority.
My critique had more to do with their WEAK-ass nest-building abilities.
Every spring, two collared doves have tried to build their flimsy little stick circlets atop the light fixture on our apartment balcony. And every spring, they have failed spectacularly. Twig piles mount upon my potted plants below as they try in vain, week after week. Rather than giving up, they regularly drop enough debris to fill the smaller of the biodegradable bags the local government gives us for “green waste.”
“Give up, dummies!” my family would hear me shout. “It’s not happening. Dump your lousy stick piles somewhere else! You’re an embarrassment to birds!”
But this year, in the midst of her mate’s futile and much-delayed efforts, the expecting female “Harriet” couldn’t wait a second longer. She cooed the collared dove equivalent of, “Ozzie! It’s TIME!” Then she hopped into my potted lavender and laid an egg right then and there. The next day, she dropped another egg. Then she and her mate scrambled to assemble sticks around their little clutch, and I officially leased out my lavender.
Since then, our own chicks have been singing them daily nursery rhymes:
After a few weeks of sharing our balcony with this family, they’ve earned my maternal respect. Here are five reasons these birds put me to shame:
1. Part of their mating ritual involves the male showing the female potential nesting sites.
I’ve already pointed out that these nesting sites err toward the illogical and literally untenable. But even so, that’s some responsible courtship. I certainly never asked a guy to suggest possible family housing before accepting a second date. The idea that potential beaux give their belles little birdie real-estate tours is just sweet.
2. They take 12-hour incubation shifts without breaks for food or drink.
Apparently the male takes the day shift (when I imagine it’s considerably harder to doze), and the female gets to settle in for the night. But either way, while awaiting our newborns, I couldn’t go two waking hours or even a full night’s sleep without a lot of water (and/or coffee) and a hefty snack/meal.
3. They make their own milk.
Pigeons and doves are the only small birds that produce “crop milk” (which requires prolactin, the same hormone lactating mammals need) to feed their young. Both females and males “nurse” this way.
Though I did breastfeed both babies for more than a year, if I had to gag milk out of my own throat (and later regurgitate food from my tummy), I’m pretty sure I’d be stocking up on formula.
4. If their babies don’t attempt flight after about two weeks, the parents stop feeding them until they try. But once the fledgling flounces out, they rush down with food.
That’s some impressive tough-love. Regardless of whether such methods have an appropriate human analogy, I appreciate that these birds know when not to over-parent. And the fact that they perch attentively nearby, waiting for their chance to feed and comfort, warms my heart.
5. They have no apparent need for wide child-spacing.
I thought having kids 19 months apart was damn hard, but collared doves think nothing of nine broods (of two) a YEAR. They breed year-round in mild weather, sometimes either laying new eggs alongside their previous, nearly fledged twins or even building a second nest nearby, then taking turns either incubating their new clutch or feeding older chicks.
(I guess this means I’m not getting my lavender back.)