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Mourning doves aren’t as pathetic as you might think

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What is the mourning dove so sad about? I hope it’s not the comments I made about it in my column last week on unreasonable antipathies. I described the mourning dove as “stupid,” “fearful” and “chubby.”

No one likes ad hominem attacks (ad birdinem?), especially people who like mourning doves, people like susana isaacson.

“I love mourning doves,” she wrote. “I find their cooing comforting and it reminds me of my childhood in Transylvania, where I also used to hear them. I like the way they make eye contact with me outside my sunroom in Arlington. We checked each other out.”

Michael Kirkland of Chevy Chase, Md., also appreciates mourning doves. They serve an important role in his backyard’s literal pecking order.

“Mourning doves are strictly ground feeders who sit beneath the sunflower seed and finch food feeders for any seeds that fall to the ground,” Michael wrote. “I supplement their diet by tossing cracked corn on the patio twice a day. They are among my most grateful diners!”

Michael noted that the bird’s name comes from the sad sound it makes while communicating, a sound the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says a dove creates by puffing up its throat but not opening its beak. (Cornell’s All About Birds website points out another reason mourning doves may be sad: They are the most frequently hunted species in North America.)

That signature hoo-hoo is not the only sound the birds make. “Doves’ wings whistle when they fly — up to 60 mph in the open field!” wrote Michael. The sound you hear from a startled dove taking flight comes from the wings, not the mouth.

Jim Showalter also thinks my antipathy may be misplaced. “Doves are survivors,” he wrote. “From a design point of view, they work. I grew up being told their calls, on a moody afternoon, made them the ‘rain birds,’ ie, predictors of a storm.”

When they walk, mourning doves may seem awkward, Jim wrote, “but if you see them as they fly, they are lovely.”

Many different birds frequent the area around Beth Hughitt’s Luray, Va., home: eagles, hummingbirds, orioles, bluebirds, blue jays, goldfinches, swallows, all kinds of woodpeckers — and mourning doves.

“There’s a fun fact about mourning doves that I thought I’d share with you in case it might help you appreciate them just a tiny little bit more,” Beth wrote. “I agree with you that mourning does seem like waddly, kind of stupid and timid birds. And those first two characteristics are pretty much true — they move in an ungainly way (like me from ages 13-17) and they don’t strike many people as high on the bird intelligence list. But scary? Oh think again!”

Beth and her husband put out quite the banquet for visiting birds: high-quality seed, dried mealworms, and both shelled and unshelled peanuts. “It’s pretty much an expensive pile of delicious food that our entitled birds are expecting to be replenished every morning,” she wrote.

Smaller birds defer to bigger birds, scooting off the feeding bench when jays or mockingbirds come in for a landing. But the mourning dove retreats for no bird.

“The lowly mourning dove, who by all accounts would be expected to tuck and run if a sparrow even looked at him funny, will sit there comfortably plopped on his pile of primo seed and Will.Not.Be.Moved.Until.He’s. Good.And.Ready,” Beth wrote. “We’ve watched all of the bigger birds with much scarier-looking pointy beaks try to move in on the feeder when a mourning dove is there. And even though it’s technically a two-seater bench, when a mourning dove is already plopped, there is not second seat.”

The dove defends its place on the feeder with something Beth calls the kung-fu wing slap. It’s a quick fwap! of the wing that smacks any bird that dares to get too close.

“That innocent-looking mourning dove can slap the bajeebers out of a bigger bird so fast that you can’t even really see what just happened,” Beth wrote.

And this, Beth said, makes the mourning dove more fearsome than fearful.

In my Monday column, I misplaced the original location of Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center, the Wheaton music store. It was on H Street NE, not NW.

Tomorrow: In praise of the lowly Argus C3 camera.

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