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The bird is striking: creamy gray body, square-tipped tail feathers, and a black slash at the back of its neck. My 13-year-old son expands the feathered accordion of its wing. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he says, admiring the Eurasian collared dove he’s just killed with his BB gun.
He unzips the bird with a sharp knife, fingers out the viscera, and tugs off the feathered coat. I smell the particular, though not unpleasant, scent of internal organs: sharp and earthy. The head and innards go to our chickens, but the tiny, dark gumdrop heart is left under the ribcage, a delicacy for the hunter. We plunge the whole, undressed bird into a marinade glittered with diced garlic.
We’ve been hosting birds since buying our 1950s ranch-style house in Durango’s Tupperware Heights neighborhood 23 years ago. Formerly sagebrush dotted with piñon and juniper, the area is now more commonly inhabited by vinyl-sided rectangles and tidy lawns.
All summer, chickadees nab insects from our garden rows. By late August, evening grosbeaks and robins decorate our chokecherry trees, their beaks stained purple with effort. In fall, pine siskins and goldfinches grip spent sunflower heads, extracting oily kernels of protein.
In addition to our yard’s abundant natural forage, our five-foot-long tray feeder features an unlimited sunflower seed buffet. It is no wonder the Eurasian collared doves, invasive and dominant, have found us. It’s like throwing a really great block party and trying to keep those neighbors from finding out. The Eurasian collared doves come year-round in small, boisterous flocks, dispersing the smaller birds and overtaking our feeders. We’ve become the bouncers with our BB gun, trying to manage the unwelcome guests. Occasionally, a copper pellet, meant to deter, kills.
Native to Asia, Eurasian collared doves first entered the United States—arriving in Florida by way of the Bahamas, after humans brought them there—within my lifetime. When the seminal North American birding manual the Sibley Guide to Birds was published 23 years ago, these birds were found, only rarely, in one county in Colorado. (“Rarely” was designated by David Sibley as “may be a single record each year.”) Now they’ve flown into all corners of the nation, are designated common in every county in the Centennial State, and visit our backyard feeder regularly and voraciously.
It’s disturbingly easy to see these doves as noxious and unwanted and, thus, to categorically devalue their lives. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) condones this view: The Eurasian collared dove is designated “invasive” and can be legally hunted year-round; no license is required, and there’s no bag nor possession limit. CPW’s website explains that “because the birds breed easily, wildlife managers are worried that [Eurasian collared doves] may out-compete native species for food and habitat.” And, offered like the mic drop of scientific truth-telling, “about 42 percent of the species on the Federal Threatened or Endangered Species lists are at risk primarily because of invasive species.”
This raises a few questions. Namely, which came first: invasive species or the conditions that favor them, specifically climate-change-caused imbalances in the ecosystem? And is it ethical and effective to kill one species to protect another? Perhaps these are unanswerable questions, yet my curiosity led me to Brad Weinmeister, a wildlife biologist in CPW’s Durango office. Weinmeister, ironically, spent happy childhood years with a pet Eurasian collared dove in the 1970s, purchased at Frank’s Pet Store in Greeley.
“It’s ethical,” Weinmeister says, regarding CPW’s current dove hunting policy. He explained that Eurasian collared doves, like many invasive species, are generalists, meaning they exploit multiple food sources and habitats. When resources diminish and habitat shrinks, specialists suffer and generalists move in. Lynn Wickersham, lead biologist for research and monitoring projects for passerine birds (avians that like to perch on branches) at Durango’s conservation-minded Animas Biological Studies, agrees this invasive bird may have an impact on native avian communities. “There really isn’t a better strategy [than unrestricted hunting limits] to reduce their numbers,” she says.
The dove, reproductively speaking, is the winged version of the infamously lusty rabbit, typically taking only the two coldest months of winter off from their breeding schedule. A monogamous pair of collared doves may raise up to six broods of one to two chicks annually, and the female can lay a new clutch while young are still in a previous (or even the same) nest. This strategy is so untouchable that it makes a bird like the chickadee, with its one annual brood of up to three chicks, seem, comparatively, like it has been naturally selected for extinction.
Wickersham conducts bird banding operations to track population trends of landbirds for California’s Institute for Bird Populations. The scientific collection permit she gets from CPW plainly states that after capturing a Eurasian collared dove (or starlings or house sparrows) “release is discouraged.” This is a palatable way of saying bird banders should kill them.
I understand the science behind these dictates, and yet, are we applying a Band-Aid to a gaping environmental wound? Might it help to peel back the outer layers of the ecological onion, the ones which simply point to symptoms, like a rise in invasive species? Can we investigate the core causes for these imbalances and not just shoot the messengers? And, as specialists lose to generalists in the survival-of-the-fittest race, can we be curious about what impacts to our psyches the dwindling of these species brings? Maybe most important, I wonder what gets chipped away of our own humanity as we are left with a less biodiverse planet.
Whether you prefer “variety is the spice of life” or “variety is the soul of pleasure,” this proverb apparently includes birds. Wickersham says an abundance of monoculture (i.e., loads of Eurasian collared doves) does not replace the beauty nor the necessity of ecological variety. She points to multiple published studies suggesting that much is lost as biodiversity declines.
The German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research found, through studying 26,000 people in 26 European countries, that exposure to bird diversity was directly connected to happiness. Additionally, when viewable birds increased by 10 percent, that raised the level of life satisfaction on par with a 10 percent increase in income. The irony is not lost on me that a standard rubric for determining happiness is via increases in income: My husband recently announced, “I just saw a goldfinch; that’s like an extra 50 bucks in my pocket.”
Humans who are willing to look can see that temperatures are increasing, forests are burning with higher intensity, and sea levels are rising. But it’s harder to quantify the impacts to our psyches of losing biodiversity. That 13 percent of Americans are currently taking antidepressants suggests that, collectively, we are not well. To me, it seems possible that much of this shared grief is hard to name because most of us don’t know what we’ve lost.
Leading theories suggest that spending time observing a variety of birds returns to us some of what’s missing, like locating pieces of our humanity at the lost-and-found of our own well-being. Viewing birds, some of the planet’s most accessible wildlife, may be a strategy for reassembling the building blocks of our happiness, which include, but are not limited to, reclaiming our attention, sense of awe, and place of belonging within wild communities.
In an entirely unscientific study of one participant, I have been taking what I call bird walks along Durango’s Animas River and finding my focus delightfully swept up into, well, birds. Is that a Townsend’s solitaire belting operatic warbles from the top of that spruce? Does every mallard have a breeding partner? And, for whom does the blue-winged teal flash the hidden gems of its turquoise feathers, only visible in flight?
Seeking out the streaky-breasted song sparrow flitting about the willows has been an antidote to the smartphone song of notifications pinging me out of the present moment. And, according to Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again, that’s a good thing, because American teenagers can focus on one task for a total of 65 seconds at a time. Adults fare only slightly better. In his widely read 2022 book, Hari cites studies that show that the ongoing degradation of our focus affects our ability to be in states of flow and actually shaves points off our IQs.
Call me nerdy, but the chance of sightings exists on par with the dopamine dispenser of social media “likes.” Wickersham concurs. “That’s what’s exciting about birds; they move so readily you never know who’s going to show up,” she says. In Dr. Dacher Keltner’s 2023 book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, he explains that awe relaxes our nervous system, triggers the release of feel-good hormones, and deactivates our preoccupation with ourselves.
I’m doubtful that watching a posse of foraging Eurasian collared doves will ever produce a rush of hormones and the same wonder as, say, the brief, biannual stopovers of white-crowned sparrows on their way to the high country, which always merit texts to my husband. “The white-crowned sparrow is here!” I gush, as if our own fledged child has returned home. But I also ponder if my children’s children’s children will, out of that inexplicable need to relate to wild species, actually be delighted by Eurasian collared doves, their propensity to withstand and adapt ensuring the doves a spot in the futuristic field guide Birds Who Can Hack the Heat, Drought, Superstorms, and the Unknown.
Perhaps the hardest thing to examine—unlike the way a 10 percent increase in income equates to an electric bill paid—is the sense of being less alone that occurs when we’re connected to our landscape and its inhabitants. For four months, my husband and I lived at the Denver Ronald McDonald House while our premature son was in the neonatal intensive care unit. Every morning, we took the shuttle to the hospital, then walked home through City Park. In our strange new world of beeping machines, touching in on the familiar and consistent configurations of grebes, mallards, and massive cormorants wrapped us in community.
The expansion of the Eurasian collared dove is likely attributable to several factors: humans’ desires to transport wildlife, the changing climate, and development’s encroachment on wild lands. This bird’s presence can wake us up to what we’ve already lost and what’s still at risk of disappearing. I don’t harbor particularly warm feelings for these opportunistic, gray-feathered friends, but I can’t help but think that there’s got to be a way to expand upon the singular strategy of unlimited killing of invasive doves. In an effort to move toward a revival of care toward native birds, we could let our lawns grow wilder to support insect populations. We could keep our cats indoors. We could reduce the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides. The list goes on. These habits, of course, would not hinder the doves, but we could do it for our benefit or for the benefit of all birds. Either way, everyone wins.
The dove, after steeping for a few hours in oil, vinegar, and tamari, is stewed with an accompaniment of potatoes, carrots, and onions. Water simmers against the ultra-fresh body, steaming the house with meaty fragrance while my husband and I sip wine and the kids play and bicker.
When the stew is ready, my husband fishes out the soft, tiny heart and offers it to our son. It is a one-gulp organ, dense and sweet. The dove tastes wild, like chicken that lived on its own terms, uncaged and rich and deeply flavorful. There is a bit of breast meat for everyone, which we quietly savor, each of us perhaps contemplating life and death and every complex station in between.