Finding a place to live in San Francisco is a tall order, and it’s not much easier for our avian neighbors.
For the past month, longtime Mission resident George Lipp has been tracking the trials and tribulations of the mourning dove families that came to nest outside his window. He’s built them a nesting station, rescued fallen chicks, and even serenaded the birds with Mozart.
Scroll down to follow along with their month in the Mission.
Balancing a nest on top of an exterior light fixture is no simple feat.
In late June, a mourning dove couple grappled with this complexity on my back porch. Shaded by a bay window, protected from predators, and out of the weather, it appeared to be the perfect location.
But the exact site, on top of a light, presented an impossible build.
Mourning doves are notoriously poor nest builders, haphazardly placing sticks with no apparent design in mind.
So, before the next nesting season, I decided to lend a helping hand by fixing a tray above the light.
I fashioned a secure platform with guardrails on top of the light. It wasn’t long until we had some new residents.
A mourning dove’s clutch normally consists of two eggs. Our new neighbors laid two, but kicked one egg out of the nest.
The error occurred at “shift change.” The male was leaving from sitting on the eggs all day. Both doves looked over the edge as if thinking, “Oops, oh well; we still have one left”.
The remaining egg presented a downy chick two weeks later, on July 8. The chick feeds on a “milk” produced in their parent’s throats.
The consistency goes from very liquid milk to a more grainy porridge as the chick grows.
More than half of doves die during infancy. Survivors will generally live a couple of years, although some make it to 30.
Life is tough for the average dove. They breed up to six times a year. At two eggs per clutch, there is a constant resupply, which seems to be necessary for clumsy parents.
We immediately began calling the new downy ball Rosco.
He was totally dependent upon his parents. But, like any Mission dweller, Rosco was feisty. He tried to fly long before he had enough adult plumage.
Splot, down six feet onto the deck.
I donned some gloves and returned Rosco to his nest. Mom and dad appeared immediately.
Finally, a little ahead of schedule, Rosco flew the perch. Fledging (leaving the nest) usually takes 10 to 15 days. Rosco will likely be tended by his father as a ground dweller for a couple of days (a cat’s delight).
With the first family gone, I cleaned the perch and wondered if the same pair would return next summer.
Almost immediately, another couple surveyed the vacated perch from a telephone line. Like any Mission District apartment seeker, they swooped down and took possession.
Then the nest-building began.
It was a process of complete madness. I asked myself, “What’s the rush? Take your time.”
The nest went together in less than half a day. And then, two eggs suddenly appeared, and I understood the rush. After the eggs’ arrival, the proud parents pecked at each others’ necks, a sign of affection. We then had the suspenseful 14-day wait for the hatch.
The eggs were seldom alone. Unlike their nest building, their egg management was incredibly careful. You can set your watch by their shift change, with dad arriving around 10:30 a.m. and mom coming for the night shift at 7:45 p.m. I wondered how I could enhance their experience.
I once met a rancher, Shuji Fujino, in Japan. His ranch, Kintaro Tamago, is renowned for their chicken eggs. They are quite tasty and equally expensive ($1.35 per egg).
As I toured his modest coops, I noticed two things: One, there was no strong smell, and two, the chickens were being treated to classical music.
I asked about both. Fujino said the smell was a result of a proper and varied diet, which makes sense. The music was Mozart.
“It calms them,” he said. “And they really don’t like Bach.”
The results are some of Japan’s best eggs.
Mindful of that encounter, I placed an outdoor speaker in the yard. Radio Garden took me to an all-Mozart station.
I know anthropomorphism is the biologist’s scourge. But that evening, it seemed, the telephone line and fence were lined with doves. They seemed to be enjoying Amadeus’ best. No other birds paused to enjoy the music.
My upstairs neighbor sent me a text, “Do you hear classical music all day long?” I admitted that I was the DJ, and volunteered to stop the music.
He replied, “No, no, it is lovely, and the doves’ calls in the morning and evening are relaxing. I thought it was some neighbors getting back at each other for playing music too loud.”
Amid the concert-goers, I discovered some good news.
I noticed four doves eating from a tray of “dove seed mix.” One was the female from the current nesting pair. I realized the others were Rosco with his parents.
He made it.
Soon, the empty remains of an egg appeared on the deck. One of our new parents’ eggs had hatched.
A day later, there was another ragged shell next to the first.
I harbored hope that both our new parents’ eggs had hatched healthy chicks. And before long, lo and behold, there they were.
A Wyandot legend says that, long ago, a maiden named Ayu’ra became sick and died. As her spirit ascended toward the afterworld, two doves tried to join her.
Sky Woman, the guardian of the afterworld, refused the doves entrance. She set a fire and the smoke blinded the doves while the maiden’s spirit drifted into paradise.
It is said that the smoke and fire stained the doves’ feathers. They have been mourning the maiden ever since.
You can hear their soft and mournful calls anywhere in the Mission to this day.
Are the doves grieving the departed maiden, or saddened by their flawed building skills?
Who could say?