My husband and I are out walking. Mourning doves fly up into the air, startled. I exclaim with delight at their beauty and soft alarm calls. He lifts a pretend shotgun and starts shooting them. I envision them canoodling in love and peace, the perfect example of monogamous bird love. He imagines them stewing in a sauce of garlic and herbs.
Doves symbolize peace, love, dinner, and lots of other things, depending on the person or the society. Doves figure heavily in religious symbolism around the world. Goddesses in ancient societies, such as Aphrodite, were symbolized by the dove. The dove gained an important meaning in Judaic lore when Noah released a dove to guide the ark to land after the flood. Christianity applied the dove as symbol to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, among other things. Perhaps because of its status in religion, the dove became a symbol of peace in European culture. It is symbolic of fidelity and fecundity in Chinese arts and holds spiritual meanings in Indian culture. And expressions such as “lovey-dovey” in English show that somewhere along the way doves became symbols of romantic love as well. How can doves mean so many different things to different people and cultures? Are there any aspects of the actual lives of doves that may have leant themselves to these meanings?
Perhaps it is their look. Most doves around the world are smooth and round, with muted colors: a wonderful gray-brown with shades of rose, or pure white, or light pink or orange. Maybe these colors make them seem peaceful and mild. However, tufted titmice, juncos, and house finches come in varying shades of gray and pinky-grey and white, yet I have never heard them mentioned as symbols of peace.
Perhaps it is their soft cooing, which seems gentle or even mournful. But a similar low hooting on the part of the great horned owl is cast as creepy or ominous or even wise, not sweet or gentle or mournful.
Perhaps it is the close companionship of mated pairs. Males and females are always together, and they mate in much of the world for the entire year (rather than in a limited breeding season, like most birds). Maybe we simply see them displaying mating behavior more often than other birds, which makes them seem more loving. Their young accompany them for a while after fledging, meaning that they are often in small groups. But of how many birds can we say the same?
Even their “prey” meaning to hunters doesn’t make a great deal of sense. They’re larger than many birds, but not as large as many others, so they don’t provide a significant amount of meat. They can fly fast, which I suppose makes them an interesting challenge for hunters, but can’t many other birds fly fast as well? In fact, one of the concerns of those opposed to dove hunting is that hunters may in fact be shooting other birds with much the same general size and shape, which suggests doves aren’t terribly unique as sport.
In thinking about all of this, I would like to suggest a simple explanation: it is their ubiquity, both in time and in space, that makes doves so meaningful. Doves are one of the oldest bird species, older than the songbirds. They are a family of birds (Columbidae) that is spread over almost every part of the world, thrives in just about every type of ecosystem, and includes over 300 species. In other words, there are lots of them around, and there always have been. Human societies have had plenty of time and opportunity to attach meanings to doves. And since doves are familiar to humans all over the globe (unlike most bird families), it makes sense that some of those meanings would come to be shared. Perhaps one religious group had the idea to represent a deity through the symbol of a dove, and that same representation spread to another through syncretism. Migration and shared cuisines could have brought the idea that doves are good to eat from one continent to another.
At the end of the day, doves are birds, doing bird things: breeding, searching for food, calling to each other, flying through the air. That they are the carriers of symbolic meaning says much more about us humans than it does about them.