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Wednesday, 14 January 2009 14:38

An interested observer

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omething banged against the office window above my desk. I assumed it was a bird of some sort. And since my office is upstairs over Main Street just off the town square in Bryson City — where the bird population is not varied — I was thinking house sparrow or starling.

Standing and looking out onto the window ledge, I saw an immature mourning dove. Obviously stunned by the collision, it remained hunkered-down on its belly, looking straight up through the windowpane at me. Since it didn’t appear to have a neck or wing injury, I didn’t attempt to open the window and help out.

Sure enough, after several moments, the bird got to its feet, shook its head to clear out the cobwebs, walked over to the edge of the ledge and peered down to check out the street below. It then came back to the window for another look at me.

I suppose from a bird’s point-of-view the species “Homo sapiens” is something of a curiosity. From my viewpoint any chance to observe an animal up close for an extended period — especially a bird— is welcomed.

Mourning doves have been, it seems to me, becoming more numerous each year here in Western North Carolina. Even walking up on them in downtown parking lots — where they come to find grit to help in the digestion of food — is a common experience. Often they wait until almost tread upon before suddenly flying straight up on reverberating wings to a nearby telephone line or tree.

When a plant or animal is encountered almost daily, it’s all too easy to sort of stop seeing them. Something registers in our brain identifying it as a dove or a daisy or a squirrel or a daylily or our neighbor, but in such instances we have to make an effort to really see anew with fresh eyes.

“Study the familiar,” one of the old Chinese sages admonished. Chinese sages were always admonishing other people to do this or that; yet, paying attention is easier said than done.

That sudden early-morning thump on the windowpane had in this instance truly gotten my attention so that I was able to look more closely than is usually the case. We — the bird and I — studied one another for the next 15 or so minutes.

Other than being slightly smaller and lacking the purple iridescence on the nape and sides of the neck of mature doves (especially males), this bird also had not assumed the sleek, streamlined plumage it would acquire before long. It had the fluffy sort of baffled appearance characteristic of young birds of any species.

It did have the distinctive black spotting on the brownish-gray upper body that serves as camouflage for the species in open fields and nest sites. And its head was noticeably small in contrast with overall body size — a feature that’s easy to note when spotting mourning doves on telephone wires along roadsides.

In our area, mourning doves like to build their nests in white pines where the spoke-like whorl of limbs joins the main trunk. It wasn’t possible to determine exactly how old my visitor might be, but it’s probable that he or she wasn’t more than a couple of weeks out of the shell. Mourning doves have protracted breeding seasons, during which they produce up to six broods during a given year. Once a baby dove is about twelve days old, it’s shooed out of the nest.

While in the nest, they are fed an extremely nutritious milk-like substance called “pigeon’s milk” or “crop milk” generated from seeds in the lining of the adult’s crops. This fluid is then “pumped up” so that the babies access it by inserting their bills into the base of the parent’s bill just above a red marking that serves as a feeding-target. After dining in this manner for about 10 days, the immature birds are weaned onto a diet of seeds ... then they’re on their own.

When not eyeballing me, my newfound acquaintance on the ledge waddled back and forth inspecting and occasionally digesting bits of sand and debris. After awhile, the bird moved over to the window and pecked on the glass, as if wanting in.

I started to unlatch the window and open it a few inches to see if the bird did indeed want to join me. But the commotion was too much for the inquisitive bird’s nerves. In the blink of an eye, it was across the street perched on the alarm tower atop the fire station.

The telephone on my desk rang. By the time I’d hung up and looked again, it was gone.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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