Thoughts on a Mourning Dove's Nest
By Robert Finch
The other day I watched a mourning dove building a nest in a small pitch
pine. Like every other dove nest I have seen, it was a ridiculously
flimsy affair, built in an exposed, vulnerable spot near the ground,
with an open weave of twigs so loose that you can see the large pink
eggs showing through the bottom. A heavy rain or high wind often knocks
down these nests, but doves are both persistent and prolific, and will
re-nest several times during a single season.
What struck me this time was the way she chose, or seemed to choose, the
materials for her nest. She flew down from the pine on whistling wings
to our garden. There, on the disturbed earth, she would peck and peck
until she found a suitable rootlet or twig or piece of mulch. Then she
leapt up, revealing her white scalloped tail border, and, like some
miniature helicopter in petticoats, whirlied her way back up to the
nest. For over an hour she repeated this process, seeming to pick and
choose between several pieces before making a decision.
I wondered, how does this bird decide which twig will fit properly next,
if that in fact is what she is doing? The process seems more impressive
in a mourning dove because it is commonly regarded as a remarkably
stupid bird. But we are always taken aback by any manifestation of
conscious decision-making in animals, because this is a quality that we
seem to regard as peculiarly human.
In my opinion, there doesn't seem to be much basis for this
distinction. All forms of life, including our own species, appear to
have designs imprinted within them that they seek to repeat
unconsciously and almost endlessly: nests, tunnels, bridges, dams, DNA
helices, courtship rituals, wallpaper patterns, Rubik's cubes, TV
sitcoms, political campaigns, and Internet jokes - all with very
Most of the time, I would argue, our decisions are not careful,
conscious ones. Rather, it's a rather messy and poorly understood
process, involving a lot of unconscious and intuitive factors -
including body language, voice timbre, even the color of one's tie.
This is equally true for public bodies as well as individuals, as you
know if you've ever sat in on a local zoning board meeting. Most
cultures and individuals, like the mourning dove, seem to follow
established patterns, making only minor adjustments to fit specific
situations. We do not consciously create the major structures of our
lives, but rather, like the dove, act on instinct, making only minor
adjustments designed to keep us in the middle of the stream.
Actually, I think we enjoy the feeling of being swept on by the deep
unconscious currents of our own history and lives. Most of the important
people, events, and opportunities in my own life, for instance, seem to
have floated down the river at me, rather than being deliberately chosen
It is true that, when given a free rein, we humans tend to revise,
hesitate, change courses in mid-stream, take offhand hints, improvise on
our mistakes - and often end up creating something different than what
we originally intended. By contrast, the mourning dove I watched is not
likely to change her mind and turn her nest into a birdbath on impulse.
Still, doesn't the dove's method, combining as it does serendipity
and instant preference with instinct, represent a combination that most
of us still largely depend on to get through our days?