By John Thaxton
When I think of unsung beauty I think of mourning doves, with their gorgeous, smooth pale brown plumage flecked with black and their pretty, pale blue eyelids. I also think of their squeaky wingbeats as they take to the air from a branch overhead or from the ground. Who could help but contemplate their profoundly sad and mournful calls?
I remember a camping trip when a woman at an adjacent site asked if she could accompany me down the river to get some water. When we got to the river she exclaimed, “Oh my God, someone’s hurt!”
I explained the sorrowful sounds she heard came from a bird.
Suddenly, two mourning doves blew off a branch right over our heads and the woman asked if their wings always squeaked like that. Their wings always squeak when they fly, and they can move through the air at an astonishing 55 miles per hour, approximately the same speed as a peregrine falcon.
Mourning doves store seeds in their crop. One researcher set a record by counting 17,200 bluegrass seeds in that pouch of a mourning dove’s neck. They consume 12-20% of their body weight every day, and in warmer parts of the country can have six broods of two young each. In the Adirondacks they probably have up to three broods a year, compared to most birds that have just one.
The cooing birds partner in pairs and may migrate if food is scarce.
People mourning a loved one have frequently thought of “MoDos” as a visitation of the deceased, and others believe the birds and their calls are a message sent by God. Their dreamy, haunting laments certainly do sound like something supernatural.
A Huron legend describes a maiden, Iohara, who took care of the mourning doves, and when she suddenly died they followed her hoping to join her in the Underworld, but Sky Woman, the goddess who guards the entrance, blocked the birds with blinding smoke. Their feathers turned gray from the smoke, and they have mourned the loss of Iohara ever since.
You can see mourning doves everywhere in the Adirondacks, and I think listening for their comically squeaky wingbeats remains the surest way to detect them. I had a pair that started building a nest 20 feet from my front door, but I never noticed them until I came home one afternoon and they blew out of the tree with a rataplan of noisy wingbeat squeaks.
They never came back.
You can see mourning doves just about any place in the Adirondacks, including in the winter, but you will probably hear them first, either squeaking by on rapid wingbeats or holding forth with their mournful coos.