A Cape Cod Notebook 5/13/08

Listen 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 little variation.

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 by me.

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?