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Hawks and Doves

By April 4, 2013 2 Comments

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.                                                                                                                                                                         –Isaiah 65:17-25


I’ve been observing over the last several weeks a pair of mourning doves, Zenaida macroura, as they assemble their nest upon one of the window ledges of an upstairs guestroom. The industrious couple has been gathering vegetative detritus and debris from the churchyard and reapportioning it to hold their eventual brood. What I first took notice of was how incredibly useful old dry Hosta leaves and stems were to them. Passing daily past a couple of old gnarly yew trees in the courtyard surrounded by a generally verdant blanket of green Vinca, the brown leftovers of last summer’s Hosta plants stood out. “You need to clean that up” I’d tell myself, but never seemed to get to it. So I was happily surprised to see them being taken up with such gusto by my windowsill neighbors, pleasantly hearing the whistling sound of the dove’s takeoff each time they gathered their building supplies. It gave me a kind of The Lion King/Hakuna Matata/Circle of Life feeling to see how last year’s yard wastes would become this year’s bird nest.

The Mourning Dove is a beautiful songbird and its commonality should not take away from that grandeur. So common, it is spread throughout much of North America and with full-season habitation in all of the lower 48 states, the dove is one of the most widespread species of songbirds. It shares its haunting call of cooOOoo-woo-woo-woooo and cooOOoo that it is one of the most recognized birds by sound, a sound that contributes to its name of mourning, which I personally don’t find a mournful sound, but rather, very comforting. So abundant, the dove is also a common game bird. Which is sad to me. Hunting for food and wildlife management makes sense. But mourning dove populations don’t really require management by hunting—they are an abundant species which have an already high mortality rate. Although they can be eaten, it is generally just the breast that is consumed—which seems a rather wasteful kill for just a couple puny pieces of meat. More often than not, the birds serve as live targets and many are wounded.

So about that high mortality rate…

Early last week—Monday morning of Holy Week actually—I was greeted in the church courtyard by the striking presence of a hawk having just made a kill and enjoying her breakfast. At first I was like, “Cool!” It’s a pretty cool thing to experience wildlife in New York City, beyond say rats or cockroaches. With a pretty constant din of traffic, various sirens, and the rumble of the elevated train along with concrete and bricks consuming most of the view in any general direction, the connection to nature and wildlife is grounding and sustaining. It is beautiful. It is also harsh. As I approached the hawk more closely awareness dawned on me and recognition of what and who her meal was: a mourning dove.

It was one thing to feel all The Lion King/Hakuna Matata/Circle of Life about the Hosta plant, quite another about the mourning dove that I’d been watching build a nest these last few weeks. Sure enough, the nest construction has stopped. The dove who became the hawk’s breakfast had a partner although I’ve not seen him or her around lately. (Doves are usually monogamous.)

During those early weeks of nest construction I was thinking a lot about how I like things neat and tidy: a neat and tidy house, a neat and tidy yard, a neat and tidy life. Even my theology often, likes to be neat and tidy. We could insert a joke about how we Reformed-types especially like things to be done decently and in order—neat and tidy, but that’s not just our tradition or personality, that’s a very human reaction I believe. And neat and tidy has its place, to be sure. But in the construction of the nest I was reminded of how “our” version of neat and tidy may not serve in the bigger picture sort of way. Had I cleaned up that yard waste, my birds would have not so readily had nesting materials available to them.

These thoughts were not consuming me, merely background conversation in my head.

But then the hawk came.

With my biological training I have great appreciation for both the dove and the hawk. As I said above, it was really cool when I first saw the hawk. But then the loss of the dove set in. Sure, there is a neat and tidy ecological explanation—or probably, more dynamic than tidy. Again, these have not been a consuming thoughts, rather, background conversation in my head.

But for the timing, at the beginning of Holy Week. This backyard drama of life and rebirth, death and loss has played out just beyond my office window. And I can’t help but see it connected, somehow, to God’s Easter vision in Isaiah…

Would be too trite to say keep building nests? Would it be too bromidic to long for a time when the hawk and the dove feed together?

So four days after Easter does the vision still stand even if its not so neat and tidy?

I am especially thinking today of those who have kept the vision in a world not so neat and tidy. I think of Rev. Dr. King’s words in Memphis on April 3, 1968:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Lovely glimpse, dear Thomas.

  • Eric Johnson says:

    In regard for your preference for tidiness, I'm glad it doesn't extend to yard waste. I think your reflection is a good illustration of the risk of neat and tidy life (which would have prevented you from enjoying the dove and maybe even the hawk) and of neat and tidy theology. Too much management prevents discovery, I think, and in my assessment it is much more inspiring to see a sharp shinned hawk hunting in Queens than a mourning dove nesting, though I love those birds too.

    Thinking ahead to this Sunday's reading, I love that your namesake's (Thomas's) incredulity is spotlighted right after the resurrection, as though the Spirit of God understands that for many of us the destabilization of our constructed worldview is necessary for us to have breakthrough, to respond, "My Lord and my God!" Hooray for untidiness!

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