Noe Valley Voice June 2005

Florence's Family Album: A Summer of Doves

By Florence Holub

Editor's Note: Because "Holub" means "dove" in the Czech language, it seems appropriate that a pair of mourning doves would choose Florence and Leo Holub's Noe Valley home for a nesting site. Here's Florence's enchanting description of the lovebirds' first visit, originally recorded in the September 1987 Voice.

Mourning doves, so named because of their plaintive cooing sound, are related to pigeons, but are much smaller and sleeker. Their plump little bodies are light grayish-brown on top and buff underneath, and feature a long pointed tail with white end-feathers. The bird books say the mourning dove's closest relative is the passenger pigeon, which once flew in enormous flocks throughout the country but was hunted into extinction by 1914.

Shy and less prolific than pigeons, though, mourning doves are rarely seen and generally only in pairs.

Consequently, my man Leo and I were delighted this summer to spot a pair of doves moving into the pepper tree that hangs over our deck, where we could observe them inconspicuously from behind our kitchen blinds.

All day long the first day, the male flew back and forth from the garden to the pepper tree, carrying twigs to construct a loosely woven platform nest, while his mate supervised from a nearby limb. When the nest was completed, both doves mysteriously departed. However, after a few days, when it seemed probable that they had abandoned the site for one without nosy neighbors, they returned.

For a long tender interval, the birds sat quietly, close together on a limb, embodying those qualities of peace, gentleness, and purity that the poets write about.

From that day on, the nest was occupied by a solitary bird. Day after day she sat, hardly moving. Days became weeks, and still she sat alone. Where was that good-for-nothing mate of hers? How much longer would she wait?

After consulting my field guides, I realized that I had done the male a great injustice. You see, both parents share the duties of hatching and feeding. During incubation, which takes from 12 to 14 days, one parent sits on the eggs while the other forages for food (mostly seeds). The male and female look almost alike, so the untrained observer could easily miss their swift changing of places at regular intervals.

Finally, after two weeks of suspense, the big moment arrived for the doves in our 21st Street back yard. One egg hatched, and a small dovelet, covered with down, clambered up on the back of Mom (or Dad). Soon a second appeared.

The young birds grew rapidly and in a few days had doubled in size and sprouted light brown feathers that matched their parents. The nest became a busy place, full of motion and bobbing heads.

But alas! Leo and I were not the only observers. A dangerous black shape, with its ears back and eyes riveted on the nest--our neighbor's cat--was stealthily inching up the pepper tree. He was within five feet of the nest when I burst outside, stomping and yelling. He fled in terror.

Knowing he would be back, Leo went to work, and in short time had devised a wire-mesh collar for the tree, which later proved to be cat-proof!

Since the nest had become crowded, the parents were now gone for short stretches of time. The young, by flapping their wings, were developing the strong breast muscles needed for flight. One day we saw a young dove flap so vigorously that he managed to lift himself about two inches above the nest.

The parents, who had started to disappear for longer periods, returned one day but not to the nest. They perched instead on a limb a couple of feet away, forcing the young to walk out to them.

Suddenly, the mother seemed to be giving her offspring a good thumping, and the young were stretching their mouths up to welcome it. What we were witnessing, however, was not dove discipline, but feeding time. The parent with the bobbing head was pumping up a fluid called "pigeon milk" from glands located at the base of the nostrils and pouring it down the throats of the young doves. Both parents are equipped to feed their young in this manner, as are other doves and pigeons.

On the same day as the "thumping," one of the adults made a graceful solo flight from the limb--out, over, and away. It was done so deliberately that it could only have been a demonstration. The next day, a young dove walked out to the takeoff place, looked out over the abyss, and...retreated to the safety of the nest.

Unfortunately, at this critical point in the birds' upbringing, we had to go away for the weekend. And when we returned, we found the fledglings had flown. The nest was empty.

Since mourning doves mate from March through September, perhaps another brood will occupy the nest before fall. Or if it's too late for that, they may possibly return to us next year. In any case, we extend our sincerest invitation--in pidgin English, of course.

The Next Generation: In mid-August [of 1987], Florence dropped this note in the Voice office: "The doves have returned! The mating ritual has begun again, with soft cooing sounds from the rooftops, and dazzling displays of white tail feathers. Soon the nest in the pepper tree will be occupied by a new brood of mourning doves."