An instinct for beauty?

mourning doves mating
Photo by Joby Joseph (Creative Commons)

Do animals other than humans have the capacity to appreciate beauty? I’d be surprised if they didn’t. There are, after all, elephants who have learned to paint, which seems to be simply an extension of a natural impulse to draw: “Unprompted, an Asian elephant in captivity will often pick up a pebble or stick with the tip of her trunk and casually doodle on the floor of her enclosure.” It’s hard to imagine how improvisational singers such as mockingbirds or brown thrashers could produce compelling sequences without a strong instinct for what sounds good with what. But I’ve always considered mourning doves to be kind of brainless, for some reason, so I was a little surprised this morning to observe two pairs of them apparently watching the sunrise. One pair was already perched in the top of a tall locust tree at the edge of the woods when I came out onto the porch, and another flew up to a lower branch shortly afterwards. Neither pair stirred for the next twenty minutes, as the rising sun bathed the western ridge in red and orange light below the setting moon.

You have to understand that it was cold this morning — 10 degrees Fahrenheit, or -12C — and there were plenty of other places they could have perched which would’ve provided much more shelter. And they were facing into the wind.

Of course, that’s only four doves out of a flock of several dozen; most of the others were, I presume, already pigging out on cracked corn below the bird feeders up at the main house. Lord knows, they probably needed the calories. But maybe, as with humans, it’s only a small percentage of the flock who prioritize aesthetic experience over more basic urges.

Then again, the doves watching the sunrise were doing so as couples, so really, it might all be part of extended courtship or pair-bonding behavior. And who’s to say which urges are the most basic, really? Aesthetic response is, after all, pretty integral to the whole mate-selection process. If females didn’t use aesthetic cues when choosing a mate, sexual dimorphism wouldn’t be nearly as widespread as it is in the animal kingdom (though competition for mates apparently isn’t the whole reason why one sex — usually the male — is more colorful or larger than the other, and mourning doves themselves are not highly dimorphic). The hunger for beauty registers in the body as well as the mind, and is so much a part of the way we experience being in the world that it hardly seems possible to isolate an aesthetic impulse from among the whole range of animal instincts.

the morning porch

Incidentally, if you’ve been enjoying The Morning Porch, here are a few other blogs where brevity is key to the aesthetic effect:

  • a small stone, by British poet Fiona Robyn
  • Once around the park, Clare Grant’s 30-word descriptions of her daily walks in Tunbridge Wells, UK
  • Three Beautiful Things, by the same author
  • box elder Out with Mol, where Lucy Kempton has also recently begun writing 30-word posts [updated 2/3/08 to link to Lucy’s new blog, spun off from box elder]
  • Now’s the time, Joe Hyam’s daily “three things” blog
  • tinywords, “the world’s smallest magazine, publishing one new haiku nearly every weekday since late 2000”
  • The Natural History of Selborne — not the text of the first-ever synoptic nature book, but the raw material from which it was made: Gilbert White’s journals. The entries are rarely longer than thirty words.

Tom Montag’s “Lines” series of poems from The Middlewesterner are also almost always very brief. I’ve been collecting my favorite posts from other Twitter-users here. And finally, qarrtsiluni‘s Short Shorts issue from July-August 2006, which featured prose and poetry of 100 words or less, is fun to revisit now and then.

14 Comments


  1. I noticed a pair of Mourning Doves perched on an exposed wire here one morning when it was very cold recently — 12 degrees or so. I wondered why in the world they’d do that… maybe they were appreciating the fact that the pond has a little water in it now…?

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  2. Or maybe, as I initially thought, they are in fact a little dim. :)

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  3. I think they’re totally dim. But beautiful. (nice photo, by the way)

    I like looking at the photo of your house and porch — but imagined it being more wooded and less open than that close to the house.

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  4. Well, the “lawn” is about fifty feet wide (it might look larger becasue this was taken with a wide-angle). The only tree right next to the porch is a diseased ornamental cherry with you can just make out in front of the stone wall.

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  5. Exceptional photos and interesting prose with which I agree ……there is a fascinating book about sensitivity in humans which states that it is based on an important gene sequence which appears throughout the animal kingdom — roughly 15% of us are highly attuned to our senses, and this translates into the tentative deer at the edge of the grove, the rest charging in to feed, frolic, bungee jump; without the sensitive types, the watchers, the herd/tribe would be under threat……..me I’ve always got my eyes peeled for danger.

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  6. Thanks for these Dave – particularly like Clare’s blogs, and have signed up for the daily haikus – so much good stuff out there you can get lost, but I do love these concentrated dollops of words!

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  7. Jo – I hadn’t heard that. Fascinating if true — and in general, for most species, I think genetic variety among individuals would ensure the long-term survival of populations in many different ways. Though some personality types, such as the sociopath, may have the opposite effect.

    fiona – Glad the links were useful. Me, I’m an RSS addict, but I do appreciate those few online literary magazines that are savvy enough to provide both kinds of subscription options (and am continually baffled by those that offer neither).

    MacADNski РAha! And they are presumably able to appreciate sunsets without any baggage of clich̩ wihoutsoever.

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  8. Have always thought of Mourning Doves as being the sheep of the bird world – panicky and dumb, for the most part – but what voices they have, and how much grayer my auditory world would be without them. Love the photo, it’s gorgeous.

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  9. “When horses, cows, sheep, deer, &c. feed in the wind, & rain, they always keep their heads down the wind, & their tails to the weather; but birds always perch, & chuse to fly, with their heads to the weather to prevent the winds from ruffling their feathers, & the cold & wet from penetrating their skins.”

    http://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/1775/11/14/november-14-1775/

    Beautiful picture!

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  10. Theriomorph – And not just their voices. I really think they are attractive birds, especially against the snow.

    Sydney – Thanks for stopping by. I guess if I’d been reading White a little longer, I would’ve known this! It’s very cool that you’re blogging his journals. Much more interesting than Pepys to me.

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  11. Thanks for the link. Taking a short break, and, prompted partly by you, may continue the 30 words on another, more place-based, obsevational blog.
    The doves certainly look pretty. We had some goats for a while which sometimes took a break from hyperactivity to gaze meditatively into the sunrise.

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  12. Hi Clare – Thanks for stopping by.

    Lucy – Yes, but goats manage to look somewhat sagacious no matter what they’re doing, don’t they?

    I’ll be very interested ot see what new bloggishness you come up with. (Tumblr.com is worth checking out, if you don’t care about comments. It’s very easy to customize.) I enjoyed your longer meditations on box elder, too, and would be happy to see them return.

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