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Posted by rdsayler | November 22, 2022

Watercolor photo of Mourning DoveStudy #23 in Mourning Doves & ‘Pigeons’

As an avian ecologist I’m always amazed whenever I have the opportunity to hold a live or even a dead bird in my hand. Of course we all know that a great many birds have colorful plumage, but birds and their feathers become magical works of art when you have the chance to see them up close.

I distinctly recall once holding a common male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) in my hands and being in awe at the rich textures of colors. It would be difficult for any pair of binoculars or sharp photograph to do justice to the glamorous blend of hues and patterns that adorn even so-called drab species.

I suspect even fewer people have had the chance to look at the irises of different species when living birds are held in hand. The eyes are so clear and the colors so deep, pure, and intense with the fire of life that they surely are brighter and more dazzling than anything you might see on a computer screen.

Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura), looking much like miniature Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius), the now extinct bird perhaps once the most numerous on the planet, are one of the most common birds gracing my feeder every day. While doves may look the same year around to most people, they are not.

I’ve noticed during the spring and summer mating and nesting season of the Mourning Dove, that the colors and light shining and reflecting on the feathers of the head, neck, and breast take on slightly more intense color and sheen. I immediately think about the rich colors of the now extinct Passenger Pigeon in which males had a bright pink/bronze iridescence on their neck and chest.

Not taking anything away from the beautiful Mourning Dove, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to see those two species near each other. The closest I can hope to come to that now is when a pair of introduced Eurasian Collared-Doves (Streptopelia decaocto), about the same size as Passenger Pigeons, visit my feeders at the same time as Mourning Doves.

Though not closely related, might some of the colors of the Mourning Dove, the iridescent side of the neck, the pinks, the blue flank revealed when wings are lifted, resemble the Passenger Pigeon? Might the deep crimson eyes of Eurasian Collared-Doves mimic those of this extinct architect and engineer of eastern North American hardwood forests?

Whenever I see either of these species of doves I think of the lost memories of the past, the ghosts of billions of birds flying overhead with flashing and whistling wings, but then am reminded by my Mourning Doves of the beauty of the present. But thoughts of Passenger Pigeons by ecologist/philosopher Aldo Leopold still echo in my mind.

“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons;
trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind.
But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember,
and at long last only the hills will know.”

—Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947


R. Sayler
WSU School of the Environment

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