Things to Cherish
Beginning a new year with the grace of mourning doves.
I put off my usual "summer vacation" article all last year because there were too many other urgent things to write about. But this piece is kept free of the anxieties and criticism and cares of life among humans and looks toward the relatively pristine world of nature.
January is a good time to sweep the year clean and to look, like Janus, in both directions at the same time.
The birds of the Chihuahuan desert that populate my neighborhood are what interest me often. I'm not a real bird-watcher, but I notice them and consult my Peterson Field Guide with questions once in a while.
I watch quail with their water-drop sounds, hummingbirds shimmering, sparrows and more sparrows shawling the air and the scrubland, the roadrunner running and spouting its electronic gobbledygook, the black-and-white lark bunting who comes in winter, western bluebird families that flit from branch to branch of the mesquite, the occasional falcon with a black teardrop in the corner of its eye.
I'm writing this mainly from memory because now that I have two cats, some birds make themselves scarce around my house. The mourning doves and house finches, at least, stay away.
Last year I discovered to my surprise two baby mourning doves in a nest in the cholla plants in front of my house. They were the first doves I'd seen in a few years there, since I got my cat Leppy. I was completely delighted and eager to witness the development of the babies.
One afternoon I saw a large raven swirling around in the air above my cactus garden. I was admiring its luxuriant blue-black feathers, when I realized that my hopes to see the mourning doves grow were being dashed before my eyes.
I turned away from looking at it, but that was the last I saw of the babies. (Okay, this article is not totally free from negativity.)
One reason birds draw my attention here is that the landscape is more naked and open to sight in the desert than in the woodlands where I grew up.
I never saw a mourning dove nest before I moved here, although I knew the birds well. But in the cholla their careless housekeeping is open for everyone to see. They just toss a few twigs and pieces of straw in the crook of a branch and expect their offspring to survive somehow. Too often their sweet-looking white eggs are found lying broken on the ground with the yellow yolk seeping out.
I don't remember seeing where crows or ravens lived when I was young, although they were common. There were so many trees that I didn't know where they came from. But here, about two years ago, there were two ravens near where I live that were inhabiting the 50-foot-tall pine trees serving as a windbreak at a neighbor's house across a field from me.
Although not extraordinarily tall, the pines look lofty in this flat-as-a-pan landscape. I had often heard the ravens making a sound as if they're gargling carbolic acid, or falling out of the trees.
I had also never seen birds nesting in windows as I have here, although that has nothing to do with the landscape.
Not long after I moved here a house finch laid some eggs in a nest in my narrow crank-open-type bathroom window. A house finch looks like a sparrow that's blushing up to the top of its head.
They're common in Mexico, and are sometimes called gorriones mexicanas — Mexican sparrows. Their name in Nahuatl is nochtototl, "prickly pear bird."
When the eggs hatched, the babies were a gawky mess. They sprawled without strength enough to hold up their heads
When they were a little bigger I saw the father putting insects or caterpillars in the mother's mouth and the mother in turn processing the bugs and pushing them into the spread-open mouths of the babies.
One summer afternoon, I swear, when there were triple-digit temperatures, I saw the mother house finch standing with her feet straddling the nest, her wings held out straight like a paper parasol over her babies to shield them from the heat.
It's hard to understand how little creatures with a few feathers and a few bones light as sticks could express such tenderness.
In a 60-miles-an-hour gale one evening, I saw the house finch absolutely immutable and calm as she rode out the storm while covering her babies in their window nest. It was as if she didn't notice the wind. I'd creep into the room without turning on the light, so I wouldn't scare it.
This house finch acted as if she were the eye of the storm for two or three hours.
As I understand it, there are mourning doves, white-winged doves (which look like their name), and the smaller inca doves in this area. Inca doves have only been known to live in human settlements. Mourning doves are the most common, and they're my favorites. Palomas, Mexico, is named after these birds (paloma being Spanish for "dove").
When they are very young, and you get a chance to see them peering over the edge of their nest, mourning doves look just like Groucho Marx with their thick, frizzy eyebrows and grumpy expressions.
When they get a couple weeks older, they've already developed the wise, sorrowing, compassionate eyes that give them a grace nothing else has. I've had one inside my house perched on a curtain rod. She looked down at me so kindly and condescendingly, even though she was helplessly trapped.
They get almost as large as the mother before they learn to fly. Somehow she squashes them under her body until they're ready. That's the way my mother treated me, I said to two female co-workers in the public schools once, and they said their mothers were the same. It's a nice way to relate to friends.
I think there's no more beautiful image of maternal devotion than the mourning dove. With her big gray bosom she settles onto her babies the whole day long without budging in the searing summer heat that bears down like metal. She doesn't leave the nest for about 12 hours on the longest days of the year. She is unselfconsciously patient beyond even thinking.
I know she is covering the whole world, although I'm not sure if she knows it. It's something we all could use.
The mourning dove and other desert birds keep the featureless landscape alive all year 'round. They give breath to our human hearts by performing their impossible, miraculous acts of flight day after day. They give us a standard to set our devotion by, and shield things that need to be cherished.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.