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How a Bird Found His Dove-liness

IF it hadn't been for Noah we probably wouldn't have been so disappointed in Sam. Maybe we expected more of Sam than we should but normal behavior didn't seem too much to ask. But no, he hadn't even the courtesy to pass the time of day with us; he just gobbled down his food each morning and took off. Sometimes he came back at night, sometimes he didn't. Sam's a dove, by the way, a white, fantailed, symbol-of-peace dove. Not a pigeon. Had he been a pigeon it might have been different, but whoever heard of an errant dove?

Right from the time of the flood the behavior of doves has put them in a class apart from run-of-the-mill birds. Look how Noah's dove behaved when it discovered the tree standing above the flood waters. An ordinary bird would have rested among its branches and returned empty beaked to the ark. But the dove plucked a twig instead, bringing Noah tangible evidence of the receding water. Sam, I fear, would never have left the ark in the first place.

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FOLLOWING on Noah's experience in Genesis, the dove is rarely out of the Biblical limelight. Its qualities of purity, innocence, and gentleness find it a place, either symbolically or actually, at almost every significant event recorded.

And it is not only in the Christian faith that the dove is revered. Muslims claim that the word of God was passed to Muhammad via a dove and in their eyes it is sacred. When, in 1921, two doves were killed by European boys in Bombay, a riot ensued, a strike was threatened, businesses shut down, and even the stock exchange was closed in protest.

At about the same time that Muhammad was receiving help with the Koran, Pope Gregory the Great was finding inspiration for his sermons through the good services of a dove which, as the story goes, was observed by one of the pope's retainers with its beak placed between the pontiff's lips.

The dove's unblemished reputation stretches through time, crosses the divides between religions, and impartially accepts all cultures. In Ancient Greece, doves hobnobbed with gods and goddesses. Aphrodite was said to have come from an egg hatched by a dove, and the most ancient of oracles, Zeus of Dodona, was installed on the instructions of a black dove from Thebes.

We weren't expecting anything so remarkable from Sam, but it would have been nice if he had inherited one or two of the dovelike qualities so common among his peers. The handbook promised us that we would find the demeanor of our doves beyond reproach. They were gentle and pacific. They were faithful to their partners. They shared parental chores, built their nests together, took it in turns to sit on their eggs and feed their young. They were even vegetarian.

So what had gone wrong with Sam? He held with none of these conventions. We built him a dovecote, thatched with reeds, warm and dry. He slept out. We found him a mate, the trimmest white dove in the south of Scotland; he saw her settled on a pair of white eggs and then cast his caring to the winds.

HE looked the part all right; clean and well turned out, and I'm sure the casual passerby took him for a first-class symbol-of-peace dove. But there has to be an underlying something behind a symbol. With Sam, there wasn't. He was a skin-deep dove. He reminded me of the stiff, plywood, cutout doves that appeared on huge billboards in the Eastern bloc countries during the cold war. They were big, they were white, they proclaimed peace blatantly. But at the final analysis, they stood for nothing and fooled nobody.

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It was both sad and depressing. The more so because Sam's mate, Ling, was everything he was not. She was the epitome of doveliness, sitting out her lonely vigil uncomplainingly while Sam cooed and cajoled from the roof.

Every day, she took a brief exercise flight and every day Sam lay in wait, tempting her to join him on undovely adventures; robbing the ducks of their food or foraging for forbidden fruits in the vegetable garden. But she returned unwaveringly to her nest, leaving him to find his own way home and retreat into grumpy silence on the roof.

THEN during the afternoon of the 13th day of Ling's incubation an important event took place. There was no hint of its impendence. In the morning Sam behaved in his normal cavalier fashion, tipping over the food bowl and scuffing among the spilled seed as usual. But after lunch a change became apparent.

He displayed an air of uncertainty quite foreign to him. He was perched on the roof shifting his weight from one leg to another and making odd clucking noises to himself. His attention was focused on the garden, in particular on a rose bush growing at the foot of the stone arch. He looked at it intently, with his head tilted first on one side and then the other. Then abruptly he came to a decision. Drawing himself up, he shook himself. His feathers lifted and, for a moment, he was Sam the rake again. But when they settled, something about him was different, a little of his arrogance had gone.

He launched himself from the roof and glided down to the rose. At its roots, remnants of straw from the winter mulch were strewn about. He selected a single length, lifted it in his beak, shuffled it round so that it protruded equally on either side and flew directly to the dovecote. He threw me a quick glance and disappeared through the door.

And that was it. I don't know what went on inside the dovecote but it was significant because when he came out Ling was with him. He didn't collect any more straw and as far as I know he has never done so again. That doesn't seem to matter, not to Ling anyway. Perhaps her innate perception recognized the magnitude of Sam's conversion ... or maybe she liked the symbolism.

The two of them stood together outside the dovecote for a few moments and then simultaneously launched themselves into the air. In a few seconds they were half a mile away, pristine white specks against the blue, flying with a new and beautiful intimacy. Then they banked steeply, turned in a perfect arc, and headed back. As they neared the garden they soared and hung for a second at the peak of their climb, with wings outstretched in the attitude that once must have filled Noah with exultant joy. Then they spiraled down and settled with a brief whirr of wings, side by side on the alighting board of the dovecote.

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