Song of the Knuckleheads

What species will raise the keen for us?


Somewhere in the throat of a mourning dove resides unfathomable emotion, gathering all that other species can’t express, in a voice rich enough to get even a human to feel it. This makes the mourning dove something like those professional mourners at an Irish wake, the ones who “raise a keen” for the dead, moaning a primitive lament. They channel unrestrained grief, helping everyone find within themselves sorrow’s universal bell tone. The vibrations of audible grief strike a sympathetic resonance in the chest cavity where the heart is supposed to reside and feel things. Not every heart will feel the impending loss of birds. But the left half of the brain might register the metrics of loss: one in three bird species are facing an unsustainable life in the United States. And this is sad, whether or not you happen to resonate with avian spirit, flight or song.

Avid birders will feel it. Audubon membership in Sonoma is 1,800; in Marin, 1,500; in Napa-Solano, 1,000. And many more than these 4,300 registered North Bay bird lovers get all happy to spot a rare one or a favorite. Myself, I stroll daily to meet my favorites early in the day when I am the only person walking in the neighborhood. I go two blocks east and stop at the brown-shingled craftsman house, with the gargantuan privets-turned-trees, to hear the mourning doves.

My grandfather used to lure mourning doves by scattering seed on the ground outside the back porch, enduring the presence of lesser species that landed for the feast, including the ubiquitous pigeon. He merely ignored the interlopers and focused eyes and ears on the mourning doves, waiting for them in silence. In my grandfather’s presence, I learned to listen and to wait and to love above all birdsong the sound of these elegant, soft gray and pale brown beings.

“They mate for life, you know,” a friend said one day as we watched a few land on the old magnolia on Palmer Street. I pretended not to hear that fact recited once again. Even those who know little about birds in general always seem to name which species accomplish naturally that for which some humans may lack the necessary genes.

Early today, I stopped to listen to the doves. I lately listen more closely to these birds than perhaps to any other sound. So even when I got home and read about bird species in danger, the song of the mourning dove was still resonating in me. They are not on the list of birds now disappearing quietly in the aftermath of habitat loss, oil spills and climate change. I don’t have the heart yet to study the recent federal report on our 800 bird species to check the status of other birds I love. But this brings to mind a book I once read about extinction, called The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. The book explains, through intellectually and literally exploring island biogeography, why it is so that the more we dice up habitats, the more extinction we cause.


Birds are disappearing up in Alaska’s oil messes and down here in the build-more-Wal-Marts mess. The swallows don’t return to Capistrano any more. But mourning doves are not in any trouble yet. They are out there in big numbers, cooing plaintively in every continental biome and a few islands beyond. I know they made it to Hawaii in the past, but I’m not sure about Mauritius. That’s where Portuguese sailors docked in 1598 to discover flightless birds easy to catch and kill. “These birds must be stupid,” reasoned the sailors, dubbing them dodos—stupids. Dodos were extinct by 1681, and we have no recording of their song.

Now even far from the sea, we are making islands of loss whenever human development replaces habitat. If galactic sailors were to moor on this planet and look at our impacts, they’d have to dub us knuckleheads, too. I hope when we’ve finally made ourselves extinct there will be at least one pair of mourning doves left that might, in Gaelic tradition and genuine grief, be left to “raise the keen” for us.

Sonoma County Library