When we lived in the ancienne poste house in the centre of the village, built into the metre thick walls of the bastide, one of the delights was sitting on the terrace in the morning sun listening to the doves cooing. They are a flock of white doves that have lived in the various dovecotes dotted around the village since medieval times. Although they are vegetarian – they do eat Termites, the bane of much of southern France. This village is proud of its reputation for being termite free, and local folklore attributes this to our Doves. They are jealously guarded. It was old Alice who told me that they were descended from an albino pigeon in Mesopotamia which was worshipped for its fecundity and fidelity – I thought she was joking, but lo! she was right as usual…
Then we moved to the old Mill, just 100 yards away, and no more did we hear the sound of the doves; until last year. A couple of devotees of ‘Escape to the Country’ had decided that this year they would bring up their youngsters in the wild country outside the bastide – they took up residence in the Cotinus tree, in the shade of the vermillion leaves. I couldn’t do much physically last year, and dove watching made a pleasant alternative to ‘outrage’ watching on the Internet. Peace and War, interspersed.
From sunrise to sunset, Mr and Mrs Dove would fly in and out of that tree, 20, 30 times an hour; we assumed they were building an elaborate nest, but as the cerise flowers fell away we realised that not only had they built into the cruck of a near leafless and feeble branch, their hard work amounted to little more than a raft of twigs. In the summer storms, when I had to watch from indoors, Mrs Dove could clearly be seen swaying dangerously, her ample bulk overflowing the nest which seemed barely big enough to contain her feet.
She had laid an egg though; at sunset she could be heard anxiously calling for her mate – ‘get yourself back here you lazy blighter, I want to go out’. Half an hour of such pleading and he would roost in the Walnut tree and plead his case from 50 yards away to do whatever he did all day a mite longer. Eventually he would drag himself reluctantly home and they would perform gymnastics worthy of the cirque du soleil. Her foot out, his foot in, shuffle, shuffle, his other foot in, that feeble branch threatening to snap in two under their combined weight; finally she was free of her duty and could go out with the girls. We never did see her come home, it must have been after dark, but she was always there in the morning.
I set myself goals; ‘I was going to see the egg hatch’, then it was ‘I’m going to see the chick fly’. A progress report was always first on the agenda when I returned from hospital visits, long before I checked the computer.
In time, the egg did hatch, though we could see nothing – we knew by the fact that Mr Dove was pressed into duty – that chick could eat; hour after a hour both parents provided a conveyor belt of half digested food, and eventually we could see a tiny beak pecking greedily at their crop. Now the parents had to balance precariously on the branch, one at a time; another ample form was weighing it down – some chick! It overflowed the nest as Mrs Dove had once done.
The chick cautiously balanced first one foot, then the other, on the side of the nest. For several days it walked round the edge of the nest, always yelling for more food, but never venturing further. Until the day came when both parents resolutely remained in the walnut tree; the call changed – now it was ‘if you’re hungry, come and get it’. A minor tantrum ensued. ‘Shan’t’, ‘won’t’. Mr and Mrs Dove held their ground; we watched spell bound.
The chick flapped its wings, and plummeted rather than flew, to another branch three foot or so below. As it did so, there was a commotion in the Lime tree. A tiding of Magpies live there and they had spied a plump and tasty chick venturing out alone. The parents flew screeching angrily into the flock, trying to chase them away, but they were hopelessly out numbered. As they wheeled and turned in the sky, so, over the line of poplar trees, appeared 20 or so of the village Doves. They have never before appeared in our garden; they must have heard the calls of alarm, and in a concerted action they drove the Magpies back into the Lime trees. Baby Dove was safe!
He learnt to fly, he learnt to scavenge for fruits and seeds, he learnt that the telegraph pole was a handy staging post for the walnut tree; then came the day when all three of them vanished. We were bereft, the view from the kitchen window would never be the same. The leaves fell from the Cotinus tree, and I took to walking in the forest as I got stronger.
One day I ventured into a new part of the forest; a broken sign read ‘Attention’, but attention to what was long since missing. There was a clearing, and round the clearing were signs of humans, a cheese wrapper here, an empty packet of cigarettes there. Then wires leading up into the trees, some 30 foot above. More wires, a foot above the ground. As I looked up into the trees, there were nesting boxes at the end of the wires, again, 30 foot or so up the trees – however had someone managed to put them there? Then nets, carefully rolled up, and a tunnel of bracken with a rickety shed at the end of it. Was somebody living there, so deep in the forest?
Something about the scene was reminiscent of ‘Deliverance’ and I grew nervous; I called the dog back to me. Then another sign, this time intact. ‘Attention Palombiere‘. What on earth was Palombiere? Some variety of wild boar that was about to charge me? An itinerant version of escaped convict, armed with a heavy duty rifle? The dog and I retreated cautiously; homeward and dictionary bound. My dictionary had never heard of Palombiere, it has taken me some time to find out what it means.
This village is famous for a number of things; one in particular is that every year the Canadian geese migrating south use our church as the marker to turn south west, heading for North Africa. It is an amazing sight; sound rather, for you hear them long before they arrive. Each year houses empty and everyone is peering at the sky as the geese arrive from due north in military formation, and as they pass the church spire, so they wheel away to fly south west. It has happened for generations, and can continue for hours.
In medieval times, similar flocks of pigeons would darken the skies. The men of the village would trap one, tie its feet to something akin to a see-saw, and hoist it high in a tree by means of wires fastened to the top of the trees. As the flock appeared, they would tug at the wire from a ‘hide’ causing the pigeon to flap its wings to keep its balance – the approaching flock would think that the pigeon had spied food in the clearing below and was preparing to land – whereupon, the entire flock would land in the clearing, where corn had been placed for them. They needed to feed – for ahead of them was the Pyrenees, which required extra energy in order to gain sufficient height on their path south. As soon as the flock had landed more wires would be tugged from the hide to spring the nets – and enough pigeons would be captured to feed the village for a month. If you are interested – it was a Basque monk who worked out this method of trapping food in the 6th century. I wonder how long he had stared at his potential dinner flying overhead before he thought up the solution?
French culture, so closely aligned with the food and methods of producing it that their ancestors employed, still celebrates the Palombiere, and these days it is closely monitored to ensure that enthusiastic hunters don’t achieve the same result as they did in America, where the original population of 3 to 5 billion pigeons was hunted to extinction by European settlers. What is left of ‘Martha’, the last known specimen of what the Americans called the ‘Passenger Pigeon’ was stuffed and sent to the Smithsonian museum instead of stuffed and eaten…..
Last week, Mrs Dove reappeared. She roosted in the Cotinus tree and inspected her old nest – before pulling it to pieces. She has spent the last few days flying from branch to the ground, retrieving the pieces and building herself a new nest on a more secure branch further into the tree – I shall have to move the garden bench if I am to watch her this year. No sign of Mr Dove, this is obviously women’s work.
Reading of the Palombiere has posed a question to me that I cannot answer – why is it that we still enthusiastically eat pigeon, and it is delicious, yet the idea of eating a dove appals me. They are exactly the same thing. Technically both are Columbidae – so what is the difference? Could it be a relic of the ancient wisdom of our ancestors that believed the dove to have mystical and religious attributes?