THE NATURE REPORTER

by David S. Wilson
(September 1997 issue of BURROWING OWL)


Before I began birding (1947) my friend Bob and I raised homing pigeons and raced them (1944-46). Adults thought one pigeon was like another. We knew better. Ours had aristocratic carunculated wattles topping their bills and surrounding their eyes, while the "scrubs" in the city parks had no more flesh there than a mourning dove. Ours were smart; those, dumb and dirty. I never heard them called "feathered rats," as Herb Caen liked to do, but I would have laughed if I had for we equally disdained them.

In Minneapolis we never confused doves with pigeons in ordinary talk. "Dove" meant Mourning Dove. Only years later did I learn that pigeons had been called "Rock Doves" in my Peterson Guide (1947): "ROCK DOVE, or DOMESTIC PIGEON. Columba livia. This bird has become feral, and in places it is as firmly established as a wild species as the House Sparrow or the Starling. It needs no description"! Whether called "dove" or "pigeon," Columba livia did not count, not in the field, at least. They become invisible in Thomas Sadler Roberts great Birds of Minnesota (Minnesota UP, 1936), "Of this great family only a single species, the Mourning Dove, is now found in Minnesota since the total extinction of the Passenger Pigeon" (vol. I, p. 572). The only pigeon that counted was extinct.

Years later on my first Christmas Count for Davis Audubon I learned that we might count Rock Doves, but only out in the fields or canyons, not those in city parks or rail road yards. I don't know where they were seen that year (1979), but the newsletter reported "Rock Dove, 153," "Mourning Dove, 208."

Whatever we call the descendants of Columba livia in America -- "dove," "pigeon," "feathered rat" -- real feathery birds on the ground are meant. This summer I encountered a bird wholly word. I had subscribed to "a moderated internet discussion list sponsored by Nature in Legend and Story (NILAS)," a collection of story tellers, scholars, and naturalists. An exchange about pigeons and doves began with one person wondering about the association of doves and love: "I suspect part of the history of linking doves with the tender passion goes back to the fact that "dove" rhymes with "love." No feathers here; only English.

Recalling Thoreau's use of turtledove in Walden ("I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail"), another asked, "How might it condition the meaning of a dove, to term it a turtledove?... My initial presumption has been that conditioning the dove as a turtledove could only have been intended by him to condition it as a wild free thing of nature, which can never be possessed and thus never actually be lost, as opposed to the sort of tame dove which one may keep in a dovecote about which it might make a certain sort of sense for an owner to bewail a loss."

Whew! I don't know. I love Thoreau's turtle-dove but now cannot tell whether he meant our doves or ones embedded as words in European literature and the Bible. While "turtledove" may more commonly refer to a "slender European dove" (Am. Herit. Dict. of the Amer. Lang.), and only "loosely" to the American mourning dove, I suspect that any New Englander, including Thoreau, would feel at home with "turtledove" from Bible references: see "Turtledove": Gen 15:9, Lev 12:6, Ps 74:19; "Turtledoves": Lev 1:14, 5:7, 5:11, 14:22, 14:30, 15:14, and Lk 2:24; "Turtle" from Song 2:12 (as in "the voice of the turtle is heard in the land") and Jer 8:7; and "Turtles": Lev 12:8, 15:29, and Num 6:10 (King James)

So, what's in a name? What's in a story? I'm encouraged that story-tellers and birders and philologists have found common grounds to talk about animals in legend and story, in the field and in books, and to learn from each other.

Send queries about NILAS or reports of birds, real or literary, to The Nature Reporter, 648 Bryant Ave., Chico, CA 95916; email: dswilson@ucdavis.edu.

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