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Mystery of LA: The grieving turtledoves have stopped singing.  What happened to them?


The coo was like the voice of my LA childhood.

Hearing the mourning dove again was a revelation, but with it came a realization that I hadn’t listened to one in many years.

It’s the sound of summer afternoons doing nothing in the pre-internet part of my youth. Those were countless hours spent draped over the blue sofa in my parents’ bedroom, immobilized by the unconditioned air upstairs.

I looked through the Spanish tiles and into the trees, looking in vain for the bird. What looked like boredom back then was truly an indulgence.

Coo-OOH, ooh, ooh, ooh.

So many headlines on the effects of climate change focus on the Following of all that. Following scorching heat. Following invasive mosquitoes. Following devastating floods.

But I became concerned about the apparent absence of the grieving dove. This kind of lamentation is far from new in a post-“Silent Spring” world. But DDT was banned across the country 10 years before I was born. The call of the mourning dove is my loss. And it’s the one that unleashes in me a burning anger at what we’ve done to the planet, the kind that turns into a despair that can seem bottomless.

It is also a strange loss, all the more disturbing since it is not exactly provable. There is no reliable data on the grieving dove population in Los Angeles.

And mourning doves are far from endangered: They are one of the most abundant bird species in North America and are found throughout the United States year round. There are tens of millions of mourning doves, also called mourning doves, in the United States, and they are legal to hunt in most states, including California.

Yet data from a 2018 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report shows Mourning Dove populations are declining in many states, including California. The report says the state has experienced an almost 4% drop in its mourning dove population each year for the past 10 years.

“In any given local area, mourning doves may be less common and less heard than they were 10, 20 or 50 years ago,” said Kimball Garrett, head of birding collections. from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

I had called Garrett to ask him about the local mourning dove population. I told her that earlier during the pandemic, as I walked through my Central LA neighborhood, I was delighted to hear the melancholy call – a song used by men to attract women. But this has only happened once, and not yet.

It turns out that I’m not the only one noticing an absence.

“I’ve heard people say they’ve seen and heard less,” Garrett said.

I got the feeling Garrett is used to validating the concerns of confused callers treating one bird anxiety or another. But there was also more than comfort in his voice.

“I don’t at all underestimate your observation that you don’t hear them as often as before,” he said. “I am sure this is happening.”

Many species of birds are doing very well in LA – and some far worse than the mourning dove. Maybe I should have picked another to cry on. Consider the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which the U.S. government declared extinct on September 27. Despite much research over the years, the woodpecker had not been seen for decades.

But Garrett didn’t think my grief was out of place.

“There is no reason why you should not bemoan the fact that you do not hear [mourning doves] because it’s such an evocative song, ”he said. “The fact that the abundant birds decline in a certain area so that you can’t hear them is pretty important.”

Mourning dove populations are in decline in many states, including California.

(Ernie Cowan)

Garrett told me about an Angeleno who contacts him about every year to inquire about the local population of spotted doves, a species native to South Asia that was introduced to Los Angeles around 1915. Unlike the dove in mourning, she has long shown clear signs of decline. here. And when they speak, Garrett confirms what the caller probably already knows: there are fewer spotted doves than before.

The appellant’s name is William Jordan, and he is the author of books including 1991’s “Divorce Among the Gulls”, a collection of essays on the natural world. Jordan, 76, has lived in Culver City for 30 years. There was a time when spotted doves were common there. He would wake up in the morning to their sound calls. “It was a wonderful sound,” he said.

But about 15 years ago Jordan started hearing less.

“I haven’t seen one in ages,” he said. “When a species like this leaves, you feel so empty.”

Jordan worries about what he calls the “innate and rapacious greed” of man.

“To me,” he said, “civilization is just a tsunami of stucco that covers everything – and things disappear.”

Among the things that have disappeared: the trees in the streets that housed the mourning doves of my youth. The mighty, deciduous Arizona ash with craggy bark and jagged leaves was removed by the City of Beverly Hills following the passage of the Targeted Street Trees Master Plan in 1996. City staff noted that the ashes, then about 70 years old, suffered from “serious health problems” related to “the use of chemical injections for many years for insect control”.

Such a classic story of human intervention: chemicals were supposed to help. Instead, trees were cut down. Twenty-five years later, all kinds of damage is evident.

But in Culver City, Jordan is lucky: he heard mourning turtledoves barely a month ago. He enjoys their song, which he says “has no sharp edges.”

“It’s one of the great sounds of nature – of urban ecology,” he said.

I am okay. And I’m afraid my children will never hear the mourning dove. It won’t be part of their lazy summers, already made less by modern life.

There is little time to look out the window and into the trees, looking for something unseen.



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