WILD THINGS: BACKYARD DOVE DRAMA

The mourning dove named Tony Soprano on the feeder. MARK HEDDEN/Keys Weekly

You couldn’t tell Tony Soprano just by looking at him. You had to wait until he started acting like a jerk. Usually this involved him running headfirst at one of the other mourning doves. Sometimes he would throw his wings up in a threatening manner. Sometimes he would stab at them with his bill. But the message was always clear: Get the hell off my feeder.

I’d never had much luck with feeders. My wife and I put up hummingbird feeders a few times, then got sad when no hummingbirds showed up to drink the free sugar water. (Hummingbirds in the Keys seem to prefer actual nectar.) I’d never gotten too excited about seed feeders, because in the Keys it seemed likely that they would just attract a bunch of mourning doves, and those are some boring-assed birds.

But then my friend Geoff started getting painted buntings at his feeders, and someone gave me a free 20-pound bag of birdseed, so I figured, why not? 

At first I used a couple tube feeders I ordered off Amazon, but when they didn’t get any action, I began leaving small piles of seed on top of an old mahogany stump in the yard. 

Mourning doves were the only things that showed up, but I figured that was a start. 

I took a tray from a long-dead toaster oven, drilled a couple holes in the corners, strung it up with twine, and poured a cup of seed onto it. For a while it swung there unnoticed, but then the seed pile started to go down. We started to see the occasional mourning dove, then whole groups of them.

I mean, it doesn’t get more basic than a mourning dove. There are somewhere between 350 million and 475 million of them in the world, most found in the lower 48 states, with some population incursions across the borders into northern Mexico and southern Canada. It seems, at times, harder to not see them than to see them. I see a dozen of them sitting on the wires every time I leave my house, and I wish them well, but it is difficult to feel much excitement about them. 

Still, no matter how humdrum a bird may be, when they show up in your backyard every day, you start to get invested in their lives — sort of. It is hard to build narratives and gain understanding of a social scene when you can’t tell the characters apart. And mourning doves pretty much all look the same. You can tell the young birds, because there’s some scalloping in their feathers, but looking it up in my old Sibley’s, there weren’t any field marks to differentiate between genders. 

It was my wife who named Tony Soprano. She noticed how he got aggressive with the other doves and warded them off the feeder until he’d stuffed his gullet with food. So even if we didn’t have a lot of discernible plot lines, we at least had a known antagonist. 

For the first couple months we watched all the drama through the glass of our air-conditioned living room. Occasionally I would forget we had mourning doves hanging out in the yard, and I would open the door to go into the yard, and the doves would all take off in an explosion of panic.

But then the weather broke and we started keeping our doors open.

Mourning doves squeak when they fly – Sibley refers to it as a “light, airy whistling” – and the squeaking began to take on nuance. You could tell when a dove was taking off and when it was landing, when it felt comfortable and secure, and when it felt nervous. You could tell when they were going to land on the feeder, saw Tony Soprano, and thought better of it in midair, as well as when they decided to challenge Tony Soprano and land on the feeder, and then fled when he went after them. You could tell when a hawk flew over and they all freaked out at the same time, the squeaking starting to sound more like clapping.

You could also tell, just by listening, when it was Tony Soprano on the feeder. Most of the doves, when they ate, would grab a seed in their bill, then lift their head and throw it back, gulping them down one at a time in a kind of slow-motion sewing machine rhythm. Tony Soprano ate kind of like the Cookie Monster, slamming his face hard into the piles of food, trying to gulp all of it at once, seed flying everywhere, most of it landing in a soft clatter down onto the deck.

If you are a person who looks for fairness in the natural world, it might seem as if this was a great injustice to all the other doves. But in reality it was a version of trickle-down economics that actually worked. The doves that Tony Soprano had scared off, and the doves that avoided all the drama from the get-go, just snarfed up all the spillage. There was more than enough to go around. 

While working on this column I did some reading about mourning dove social dynamics, and it turns out that the dominant bird in a flock is not determined by gender, which got me thinking that there is no reason Tony Soprano couldn’t be a Tonya Soprano. And then I looked up mourning doves in both the National Geographic guide and the new edition of the Sibley Field Guide to Birds, and it turns out you can differentiate mourning doves by gender – the males have a slight bit of iridescence in the nape of the neck and faintest of caps on the top of the head. 

All this means I know less about the Tony/Tonya Soprano situation now than I did when I started writing this. But I can accept that. I’ve got another 20-pound bag of seed and a pair of binoculars, and I’m going to keep paying attention until I make sense of it all.

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Mark Hedden is a photographer, writer, and semi-professional birdwatcher. He has lived in Key West for more than 25 years and may no longer be employable in the real world. He is also executive director of the Florida Keys Audubon Society.