I was about 13 years old and coming back to my house after riding my bike to Graul’s, the local grocery store, when I stopped to listen to the mourning doves coo. Oh how I love mourning doves. They were the first bird I really learned to identify by sight and sound, though there was I time I was convinced that the ones that would congregate in the backyard of our little rental townhouse were actually passenger pigeons (wishful thinking, of course, since I was and still am obsessed with recently extinct animals). I knew by this time that passenger pigeons were extinct and the birds I heard near Cape St. Claire elementary (a different school than what I went to as a kid) were the lovely, familiar doves that brought me some joy. It was not the happiest time in my life, with my parents splitting up and me moving a couple times in the previous few years, but none of that mattered that day. I was listening to mourning doves.
I wasn’t blessed with the ability to make really good impressions. Sure, I could do a Randy Savage (RIP) if I wanted to tear up my voice box for the next day, and I swear that I do a good Sean Connery (no one agrees with me), but for the most part I can’t do any impressions. Same with bird calls except for one: Mourning doves. Maybe because it isn’t something that really uses a voice, but is mostly a wide mouth pseudo-whistle like what you would do to play a glass bottle or a flute, though I usually keep some spit in my throat to give it a quavering sound. Getting the sound right also includes getting the right pitch, with the right notes and rises and falls just right, along with just a certain feel for what the sound should be. There were kids in my school who would say the calls were an owl, but if your call sounds like an owl you are doing it wrong (I should have asked those kids how many owls do they think must live around them?). It shouldn’t be sad sounding; I never bought the whole ‘mourning’ part. Plaintive? Lonely? Sure. Just not sad. Mourning doves don’t bring sorrow.
They certainly didn’t bring me any sadness the day I stopped to listen to them. I probably was quite a sight, standing on the sidewalk outside someone’s house (probably causing them great consternation) with my bike dropped down at my feet while I was making mourning dove calls. I loved listening to them, and I swear I got them to respond when I called. I guess it was one of them responding because it certainly seemed to echo mine, though maybe it was just happened to occur because, after all, it was calling already. At that moment I felt like it was responding and I was being part of nature, participating, interacting.
We moved again very soon after this. That was the story of my childhood, always moving because we were always just a step ahead of the eviction notice and scrambling to find a place to stay. We would move at least six more times over the rest of my childhood, plus a few stints of homeless shelters and abject poverty on the street. The last transition I had in my childhood was the summer before I went off to college and we weren’t actually a step in front of the eviction notice, but a couple steps behind. Afterwards I sat in the yard watching over all our stuff, all our life just strewn everywhere, and while I watched I didn’t hear much of anything, let alone mourning doves. I would have remembered them because I was looking for a sign, anything, to tell me that there was something good left and that there might be hope. The doves might have been there, and they might have been calling, but I have no memory of it. Nothing.
When it is nice outside here in Wallingford, I can hear them every day.