The desk in my third floor apartment looks out on a large tree. Funny that in three years spent wandering a wooded area, I did not learn my trees better, and I don’t know what sort of tree this is. Perhaps as spring comes on and the leaves come out, it will be easier to tell. There are only a few trees, like the shag bark hickory and the birch, that I can identify by their bark.
Still, sitting at my desk I have already seen three different kinds of birds in my one tree, and this morning it was the setting for a nearly perfect moment. I was drinking tea and pondering the text of the book I’m working on. In the background the classical radio station began to play Respighi’s The Birds. A pair of pearly gray pigeons alighted, as if on cue, on a large branch just before me. They went into what can only be described, quite literally, as billing and cooing. They snuggled, they ran their bills through one another’s feathers, they moved a few inches apart and spent a minute feigning indifference, and then went into another round of affectionate bonding. Then the male hopped on the female’s back. He was off quickly. I couldn’t tell if he achieved his aim. After a few more minutes spent ducking their small heads together and rubbing wings, he was on top of her again, a little longer this time. Once off, they both sat unmoving for a few minutes. Then she slowly began to wander off, as if distracted by something she had to do. Once she had stepped about a foot away from her partner, she took wing. He followed suit a moment later, though notably, flying in a different direction.
Ah, what is love! In poetry, in our own imaginations, even in cartoons, we see these simple behaviors of birds and other animals as mimicking our own emotions. Surely all the fond rubbing of heads and fluffing of feathers is expressive of affection, like we would hold hands and embrace, whether or not it is leading inevitably to mating. But with these birds, it was leading inevitably to mating. I know little about the mating patterns of pigeons. Will they become a nesting pair, the male helping the female to feed and tend to her little ones once they are hatched? Or does he just fly off, perhaps to find another likely mate on another tree on a sunny Saturday morning?
It is one of the great questions and debates of animal behaviorists, whether the animals experience emotions as we know them. I only know that I was so absorbed in watching the pigeons that everything else stood still around me. I didn’t even notice when the Respighi piece concluded. And I don’t know if I was so taken by the scene out of simple interest in the birds’ behavior, or because I was projecting my own feelings of loneliness onto them. I think there can be nothing more difficult than scientific objectivity, especially when it concerns animal behavior.