Mourning Doves and Chickadees

By Connie Schultz

December 3, 2020 6 min read

Weather forecasters had warned us that snow was coming, and it turns out they weren't kidding. We got about a foot in our Cleveland neighborhood on Tuesday. Twice that amount landed on a suburb just 15 miles east of us.

Every time we get a big snow, I think of how I used to egg on my daughter to call my father in snowbelt Ashtabula, Ohio. My son was grown, but she was still a little girl, and whenever we got a few inches in Shaker Heights, she'd call Grandpa to get his snow report.

"Snow up to the windowsills," he'd tell her with fake alarm. "Reindeer everywhere!"

My childhood memories are full of snowy winters. My father was a utility worker who was often called out for overtime during snowstorms, and he'd warn us to keep up with the shoveling while he was gone. He was worried about losing sight of Mom, who was just 4-foot-11.

"This stuff comes down fast," he'd say, jabbing his finger at the shovel just inside the front door. "We don't want to lose your mother!"

These memories.

Since late summer, more than a dozen mourning doves have lined up in single file along an edge of our neighbor's roof, cooing their impatience outside my bedroom window. I don't think they know I'm right there, but I'm the one who fills the two platform feeders in our backyard. They have their expectations.

They are the only birds that chirp from the trees as I trudge out with the birdseed. This is northeast Ohio, full of cardinals and blue jays and, in the warm months, robins. The largest party of diners is the chickadees, which show up by the dozens.

When a predator is approaching, chickadees chirp warning signals, not just to their own but to other birds as well. This is how I came to understand their view of our Walter, the curly Yorkie-poodle mix we adopted a year ago after a friend rescued him from the streets of Cleveland.

He's gained 2 pounds since he came to live with us, which doesn't sound like much — unless you're looking at him, and then you wonder how he survived. He can come across to humans as a nervous little fellow, but not to birds. They watch him dart across the back deck and see a plane on the runway. Off they go, dozens at a time, protesting as they swoop into the treetops behind our fence.

Walter, emboldened by this unearned reputation, now races to one of the two trees with platform feeders and barks in what one can only assume is a dog's version of threats and profanity. This lasts for about a minute, and then he deflates like a wasted balloon and starts tagging along behind 9-year-old Franklin, Tigger with his Eeyore.

You might be wondering why I'm going on about the birds, and I don't blame you. This week, another friend lost a loved one to this horrible virus. Her husband was so careful, but others around him weren't, and now she and her young daughters don't even know how they're going to get through the next day, let alone this pandemic, without him. They have been on my mind through every typed word of this column. As they should be.

All of these innocent people, losing their lives and mourning losses. We could spend every hour of every day thinking about only them, praying for them, pleading. At some point, though, you feel yourself sinking, and you have to remind yourself that the way to stay useful to anyone is to find ways to keep hope alive. We can't fake it, but once it's ours, we can share it. We have to find hope, and feed it, every day.

So, here I am, learning about the chickadees. I didn't even know what to call them until a few weeks ago. Mourning doves, cardinals and blue jays — I know them by sight and sound. But for months, these little birds were just that to me, nameless and bountiful creatures fueling Walter's illusions of grandeur.

I finally did a little research on chickadees because I owed them that. Every time I watch those birds eat the food in our feeders, I feel a stirring of the person I used to be in the days before I woke up worried. It feels like hope, and one of the things I've learned in this pandemic is that anything that reacquaints you with your previous self deserves to be thanked by name.

In the thick of that snowstorm, I was a woman in a robe and a floppy hat, a child of the snowbelt trudging in wellies with old coffee cups full of seed. I had to help somebody, please. Step by step, I made my way to the chickadees. Step by step, I prayed for my friend and her daughters, calling out their names.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University's school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. She is also the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, "The Daughters of Erietown." To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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