DOVES are birds for which I entertain the greatest respect. They remind me of certain urchins who were my companions at a dame's school to which I was sent for the sins of my early youth. Notwithstanding the fact that the aforesaid urchins were the originators of all mischief, the respectable ladies in authority were in the habit of holding them up as models to be copied by the rest of the school. Those boys were not hypocrites, they did not falsely pretend innocence; there was no need for them to do so. Fortune was always kind to them : she never allowed them to commit the fatal crime of being found out. Thus they passed their early schooldays chuckling at the sweet simplicity of the dames to whose care they had been confided. So it is with doves. Without conscious efforts, these birds have succeeded in persuading mankind that they are paragons of virtue. "The whole life and being of the dove," wrote Dr. Masius, "is pleasing idyl. They are chaste, gentle, 'unsuspecting, full of tender affection, and deserve above all others the epithet of ' the pious birds.' Without guile, like doves, it is said in the Bible. Without guile and free from anger, suffering all, even death, and not once uttering a cry of pain, what other animal may be compared to them?
" The dove alone, according to the ancients, is destitute of gall; and in a hundred popular rhymes and love-songs, as well as in the metaphors of the medieval wandering preachers, the praise of her innocence resounds."
This may be taken as a fair statement of popular opinion of the dove. Some people go further. Thus dear old Eliza Cook says: " Linnets teach us how to love, and ring-doves how to pray." Now I do not wish to poke fun at that estimable and well-meaning lady, but I am constrained to say that it is unfortunate that she did not study the ways of the dove a little before penning the above line. Had she but invested eighteenpence in one of the cooing community, she might have said of them: " They teach us how to swear." But then, of course, the question would arise, do men need to be taught that accomplishment ? I am inclined to think that swearers, like poets, are born, not made.
How delightful is the idea that doves are " free from anger!" I once knew a dove which was in a rage for a whole week because it had been transferred from one cage to another. It did not approve of the style of architecture of its new habitation, so sat, for the space of one week, with ruffled feathers looking like a barndoor fowl about to die. Not content with this, it swore at every one who went near it.
Those who really believe that doves are incapable of anger should make a point of seeing a couple of them mobbing a tree-pie that has just breakfasted off their eggs. Let me not be mistaken., I am not finding fault with the doves. I hold that their anger is perfectly justified under such circumstances.
The biblical doctrine of turning the unsmitten cheek to the smiter does not apply to them. Since, however, they act just as any other little bird would do under similar circumstances, it is obviously incorrect to speak of them alone as " free from anger." It gives one an altogether false idea of the character of the dove. That worthy bird is ever ready to take the law into its own hands. Then, again, I have never been able to discover any piety about the dove. Complacency it undoubtedly possesses, the complacency of the self-made man. But this surely is not piety!
" How," remarks Phil Robinson, who goes to the opposite extreme and is very severe on doves, " if the doves could read English poetry, would they put their tongues in their cheeks and wink at each other, and how the worse conditioned of them would explode with laughter!" He maintains that doves have acquired their spurious reputation for saintliness because they make such a fuss, such an amount of cooing over their love affairs. To this must, I think, be added the general butter-will-not-melt-in-my-mouth appearance of the bird. A dove looks so defenceless; but it cannot be so helpless as it appears, otherwise the species would long ago have become extinct.
When doves are not cooing they usually sit half asleep on a telegraph wire, exposed to the gaze of every bird of prey in the vicinity; yet I have never seen a dove carried off by any of the pirates of the air. How is this ? It is not that doves are inedible; dove pie is not at all a bad dish. I speak as one having authority, although I do so with bated breath, for fear of disturbing in their graves Byron, Prior, Shelley, Thomson, and all the other admirers of the dove. I repeat, I speak as one with authority, for I was once sent to an arid and inhospitable district in India where butchers and bakers were non-existent and shikar there was none.
I was therefore restricted to a diet of chapatti and dove, varied occasionally by a pea-chick, marked down and shot sleeping after the shades of night had fallen, so as not to offend the susceptibilities of the unsophisticated villager. In some parts of India the peacock is accounted sacred. Dove's flesh is a trifle insipid, but in every way preferable to dak bungalow fowl, while young pea-chick is equal to Christmas turkey, but an old peacock is the dickens!
Doves are in many ways beautiful birds, but their beauty is not appreciated in India. In the first place, they are to us common, everyday creatures, and human nature is so constituted that it is unable to admire any object which it sees daily. Then doves, as a rule, are not showy. To quote " Eha ": " They rarely carry any meretricious ornament, such as crests, or trains, or fancy plumes, but they are all beautiful, and some of them exquisitely lovely. Yet their loveliness is not that of golden orioles and kingfishers, but rather of clouds and distant hills and soft sunsets."
There is, however, one marked exception, and that is the bronze-winged dove (Chalcophaps indica). This is a perfect rainbow of colour, and a full description of it would occupy half a page. It must suffice that, as it flashes through a shady glade, it appears to be a thing, now of emerald-green, now of coppery bronze. It is found only in the well-wooded parts of the country. The commonest species of dove in India is the spotted dove (Turtur suratensis). Looked at from a distance, it appears a plain, dingy, reddish-brown bird. Closer inspection reveals a russet-brown head and neck, set off by a black tippet spotted with white. The tail and wings are brownish with rufous spots. Its black-and-white cape suffices to distinguish it from all other kinds of dove. The ringdove (Turtur risorius) is also a bird seen all over India. It is grey with a collar composed of a broad black band, bordered on each side by a narrow white one. It has a treble note co-co-coo.
Doves are strict vegetarians, and they subsist chiefly upon grain. They seem to breed all the year round, and considering the number of the birds existing in India, one comes across remarkably few nests. It is not that doves take extraordinary precautions to conceal their nurseries. They build by preference in a babul tree, which affords remarkably little cover. The nest escapes detection because it is not of strictly orthodox construction. Phil Robinson compares it to a heap of spillikins. According to him, if you would make an imitation dove's nest you have only to upset half a box of matches. " As a boy," he writes, " I have sometimes discovered the nest by seeing the eggs in it from below ! It is a mere skeleton, a network, and in its way a miracle. In fact, it is not a nest at all." This, of course, is not the poet's idea of the nest. The bard pictures it as a delightfully woven structure, beautifully lined with feathers and down. Saith Keats: -:
" Warm as a dove's nest among summer trees."
A draughtier abode than a dove's nest it would be difficult to imagine. To the naturalist, the ghost of a nest constructed by the dove is most interesting. It possibly throws some light on the origin of the wonderful nest-building instinct. How this instinct arose is to me one of the most difficult problems in natural history. The primitive bird undoubtedly laid its eggs on the ground -: on the sand, or among rocks and stones.
Then some bird learned to lay them in the grass. Next, perhaps, some species deposited them on a dense shrub. Eggs so laid would be apt to slip down and be lost, so any tendency to make a surface for the eggs by laying a few sticks upon the bush would be to preserve by the action of natural selection. By degrees the instinct must have developed until we eventually arrive at the wonderful nest of the weaver bird.
This is all pure conjecture, but it seems to me that the nest-building instinct must have originated in some such manner. Perhaps the dove has kept to the methods of its early ancestors, while most of the other birds have improved upon them. There is much to be said in favour of the dove's method, for, other things being equal, the more pronounced the structure of the nest, the more conspicuous is it likely to be. In this Spartan nursery the dove lays two white eggs. Seen from below, they may be mistaken for the sky, but from above, they are presumably somewhat conspicuous. The owners of the nest, however, keep a close watch over the nest, and doves, in spite of their reputed gentleness, are quite able to drive off most adversaries.
One reads much about the protective colouration of birds' eggs, and many are doubtless coloured so as to be inconspicuous in the nest or place where they are laid. But it seems to me that the theory of protective colouration is usually carried too far. This is a subject to which I shall have occasion to again and again refer. When there are eggs in the nest most birds keep near it, and show themselves ready to fight any would-be thieves. It is, I believe, upon this characteristic of the owners of the nest, rather than the colouring of the eggs, that the protection of these latter depends. Few birds will dare to rob the nest of even a smaller bird if the owner shows that he means fight. Under such circumstances a great kite will fly ignominiously from a pair of diminutive king-crows. An ounce of good solid pugnacity is a more useful weapon in the struggle for existence than many pounds of protective colouring.