Back in 1977 a dear friend called me and instructed me quickly to turn on PBS, as they were about to air a short film in mock-Swedish, à la Bergman. It was called “De Düva,” or “The Dove” and promised to be hilarious. It was, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Think ‘The Swedish Chef’ on The Muppet Show.)
I had been thinking about that short film recently, and there by the grace of god and Youtube, I found it on line. After my paroxysms of laughter subsided from seeing it again after all these years, I got to thinking about my own “Düva” experience.
Our small terrace overlooked the grounds of The Morgan Library, a well kept green space with lots of trees that gave shelter and homes to a passel of small birds. Among those were house finches, whose morning songs were a delight in the otherwise cacophony that is Midtown Manhattan.
The terrace wall, before (and after) “Dove Madness”
Fall was approaching and the thought of all those small, frail creatures having to fend for themselves through the coming winter made me decide to invest in a couple of bird feeders to hang from the roof of the terrace.
We were between cats then. I wouldn’t have hung bird feeders with a cat in the house.
Bought and paid for, the pair of bird feeders held promise of many hours of bird watching and listening. I hung the feeders, filled them, and then waited for the finches to discover them.
And waited. Days. A couple of weeks. More. Now it’s nearly full-on winter.
One morning I looked out to see if there were any finches and spied instead one lonely mourning dove crouched on the floor of the terrace. I was elated, as I had heard the doves calling just about every morning, but hadn’t seen them. The very first time I heard the call of a mourning dove was while on an idyllic vacation on the island of St. John in the Caribbean. Now, years later, their melancholy sounds always reminded me of that visit. I wasn’t sure what drew this dove to our terrace, but I watched it carefully, so as not to scare it away, and listened with nostalgia as it called out.
Still no finches, though. It dawned on me they might not be coming around because we humans were still actively using the terrace despite it being fall, so I took the feeders down from their hooks and strapped them onto the outer ledge of the terrace floor, outside the railing, hoping to make the feeders easier for the birds to see and giving them some privacy by shielding us somewhat from their view.
One cold morning days later, while waiting for my green tea with honey and ginseng to cool enough so I could drink it, I looked out at the terrace and noticed that the finches had finally found the feeders. There were close to a half-dozen of them, males with their bright red bellies and drab, brown females. Wondering idly as I watched, I tried to see if I could pick out obvious pairs, couples, as if married or at least betrothed. They were a joy to watch and listen to, and through all their flitting here and there from feeder to feeder, to the terrace railing and back, there was no hint of aggression in their behavior. They were good little finches all getting along so nicely! Within a few days, sparrows joined them from time to time — man, they were skittish in comparison to the finches! — and even a black-capped chickadee showed up on occasion.
This visual and aural treat recurred many a morning, with me delighting in my decision to provide food for these guys.
One day, though, a dove had returned: I barely missed it on a corner of the outer ledge pecking away at seeds that had spilled from the feeders. “Oh, how great,” I thought. So I’m feeding two birds with one seed (so to speak): the finches and the dove!
Two days later there were two doves out there, quietly and quite happily feeding on seeds that had spilled. I wasn’t able to discern much of a difference in the appearance of these two, but I imagined one was a female and the other her mate, and I figured them for a couple. In the back of my mind I held that doves mate for life (I don’t know if it’s true; I think I just wanted it to be: the concept of them maybe after a fateful event in their lives “mourning” the loss of a mate, remaining widowed forever, and calling out plaintively evermore.) Anyway, they were birds too, God’s little creatures who will procreate and bring hungry young ones into the world, just as the finches, so they needed to be cared for.
The next day, however, I wondered at the wisdom of my rationale. (And sadly, I realized I was forgetting about Matthew 6:26: “Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”) Although I still think they’re lovely and I like their call, when I looked out there were no fewer than six doves, all squawking and flapping and chasing and pecking at one another, generally making a ruckus. They weren’t acting very bird-like at all, not in my estimation. And I soon realized the finches were staying away now, probably because of all the avian aggression that these bullies were engaging in.
Worse, I had this feeling that if they kept this up, it wouldn’t be long before the pigeons caught wind of the noise and commotion and realized there was food to be had here. Pigeons I don’t want! Even though, yes, they’re God’s little creatures just as much as the finches and the doves, blah blah blah, they POOP much larger and they generally seem dirtier, and they carry diseases. There’s a reason they’re called flying rats, and in this city it’s even illegal to feed them!
It had become too easy for these ruffian doves to feed from what were essentially silos spilling endless seed onto the ledge, and thinking that doves were ground feeders, I decided to reposition the feeders once again, bringing them back in and hanging them from the ceiling. I swept up all the loose seed from the ledge, to discourage the doves from returning. (By the way, their poop was no joy to behold or clean up, either.)
Soon the finches returned and at least the littl’uns were eating again now. I was pretty sure I had solved the problem.
There were lots of doves flying around outside, but they weren’t stopping, so I guessed they had finally given up on feasting there. I felt bad about that, but I couldn’t take the chance on pigeons coming: I could get arrested! (–“What are you in for?” –“Feeding pigeons.” –“You gotta be kidding me? Are you crazy? Feeding pigeons? You are a madman!“) A small dilemma and I decided I should just make peace with myself, and accept the fact that the finches would be fat and happy, and the doves would have to fend for themselves.
Sometimes a self-solving dilemma isn’t a good thing. It wasn’t long before the doves figured out how to hang from the feeders, sometimes upside down, even, and have a good meal. Plus, being so sloppy, they caused so many seeds to fall on the terrace floor that other doves came along and chowed down leisurely on those that dropped.
I was disgusted by all the damn dove doodoo and the feathers and the mess of seeds and hulls they left everywhere. Apparently there were these dove gangs and they fought one another for the territory. I saw them land in fours or so and terrorize the one or two that might already be hanging out contemplating a meal. Too, the feeders were emptying out every other day, which would normally occur only once a week or so with just little peepers feeding from them.
I had taken to chasing the doves away whenever I saw them and I was just afraid that I might have done irreparable damage to the sense of security that the tiny little finches had finally acquired. Why, before this madness, I could even, on occasion, be sitting out on the terrace and the finches would approach, land, eyeball me, see that I wasn’t about to move or chase them, and then set about eating happily. The few that were showing up lately had become quite skittish.
In an effort to discourage the doves I had progressed from clapping my hands loudly (worked at first, before redness and pain set in), to yelling (worked after that for a while), to yelling and waving my arms simultaneously while bursting forth onto the terrace (think: raving lunatic.)
I looked for the squirt gun (yes, we had one somewhere) but couldn’t find it, and decided that having two hardcover books or blocks of wood ever at the ready to clap together to make a really scary sound wasn’t practical, so I thought about applying for a shotgun license. I was just afraid that I’d forget to open the window or the door, and blast half the wall out. And I didn’t really want to hurt them, I just wanted to discourage them from coming back here.
Not having found the squirt gun, I dug out my plant mister bottle and turned the nozzle to a ‘jet’ setting, so I could give them a good, discouraging squirt the next time they appeared. Of course, there was always the possibility they’d love this, as by now a precocious spring had turned the weather warm and dry. I thought of filling the bottle with something nasty and someone suggested bleach, but again, I don’t want to harm them, and about the only thing I could come up with that would be repulsive enough without hurting them would be pee, and, no, I just can’t bring myself to do that. (Not even thinking, was I, about having to deal with cleaning up the pee?) (Drat.)
An ingenious (or do I mean “ungenious”?) idea came to me! I had a bail of picture wire somewhere. Using that, I would construct an elaborate maze of baffles on each feeder! They would be constructed in such a way as to bar a large bird from getting at the seed, while the smaller ones could simply pass through them! An hour or two wrapping, bending and winding this wire showed great promise. Over the next few days adjustments were needed, of course, but at last I felt I had accomplished the goal.
I hadn’t. The baffles I spent hours constructing seemed to be doing the job reasonably well, but the finches still managed to drop a fair number of seeds too, these then being sought after by the doves, in their element, on the floor.
Then the doves even learned to hang quite comfortably from relatively small parts of the feeders, even using the wire baffles themselves! An ultimate insult in this battle of bird brain vs. human brain. I even saw one of them pulling seeds very aggressively from the feeder holes as if to scatter more seeds on the floor, making it easier for the rest of his gang to eat in comfort.
I was spending an inordinate amount of time cleaning off (read: sweeping up, washing down with pine-scented disinfectant and mopping up) the terrace and the railing, which the doves also bepooped and damn it, I didn’t want to have to go through that every three or four days.
* * *
I’m afraid you’re going to read about me in the local paper one of these days, or you’ll hear about me on the evening news. It seems the neighbors have seen and heard me too often as I explode from the doorway, screaming at the top of my lungs, wildly waving my arms while at the same time trying to aim the two squirt bottles at those big ugly brown soilers of everything I hold sacred on the terrace. The courtyard out back isn’t all that small, so the nearest adjoining terraces are pretty far away (Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” gives a fair idea of the setup) but apparently my activities were noticeable enough that even the lady on the 15th-floor terrace across Madison Avenue shrinks in fright whenever I appear.
My blood pressure was rising from all this; I wasn’t sleeping at night, both from imagining that the dove calls I heard were coming from the terrace and from trying to think of ways to perfect the wire baffles (electrify them?) or somehow devise a motion-sensor-driven sprinkler that would activate when a being larger than a finch appeared, but would otherwise remain inactive (but then how would I be able to enjoy the terrace…) and the roiling of my mind kept me awake for days.
Finally the solution came to me: take down the feeders, do one last super-clean of the terrace floor, railing and ledge, and leave the Big Guy upstairs in charge.
Trying to forget about all the madness wasn’t easy, as the cheery little finches still came by, having been trained to show up there for food but ending up only disappointed. There was this one male who I recognized through all this (they really do have distinct personalities and looks) who would come to the railing and sing for ten minutes before looking for something to eat.
And the solution to that turned out to be getting another cat. Eventually the birds stopped coming by, and my daily terrace-cleaning routine was at last reduced to just scooping out the litter box once a day.
For lovers of mock-Swedish: “De Düva” (14 minutes. It’s subtitled but doesn’t really need to be!)