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NATURE HAPPENINGS - October 2007

To the Emperor of Nature
by Damian Fagan

Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857) was a nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. His father, Lucien, was Napoleon’s younger brother. Lucien Bonaparte was a strong supporter of the French republic and an opponent of the Empire – not a favorable position considering his brother’s desire to rule the world.

Lucien moved his family to Italy, seeking protection from the Pope. Son Charles spent his childhood in Rome, but when the family tried to emigrate to the United States, they were captured by the British and held as “celebrated captives” in England for four years. In England, Charles received an excellent education; his favorite subject was natural history.

He married his first cousin Princess Zénaïde Charlotte Julie Bonaparte, and in 1822 they joined Uncle Joseph Bonaparte in exile in New Jersey.

Charles was an ornithologist, not a “birder” since that label had yet to be invented. During his exile, the Frenchman studied the birds of the New World. He worked on updating a publication called American Ornithology that Alexander Wilson had written some years before. Bonaparte spent time with another Frenchman and ornithologist who was pretty much an unknown at that time, but whose name would become synonymous with bird conservation – John James Audubon.

During his stay in America, Bonaparte traveled to the Rocky Mountains and in the eastern states. One species that he described for science was the mourning dove or Zenaida macroura named after his wife. Macroura means “long-tailed” which defines the dove’s tail.

The plaintive-sounding ooAAH-cooo-coo-coo of the mourning dove is one of the classic canyon sounds. Early naturalists thought the song “mournful” with its deeply whistled notes rising then falling in pitch. We now know better that this anthropomorphic view is incorrect. These birds do not mourn for lost souls – their beautiful songs are for breeding and territorial displays.

Mourning doves are medium-sized passerines averaging one foot long and have an 18” wingspan. About a third of the bird is tail; the long pointed, grayish tail feathers sport a thin black border and a white edge. A dove’s upperside is more uniformly gray than the undersides, and the wings have black spots on their outer portion. On the upper breast and neck there is a pink iridescent tinge. The small head sports a pale bluish orbital ring; one Southwest folktale suggests that the birds paint their faces to attract a mate.

During lift-off, the wings produce a distinctive whistling sound and the birds flap vigorously to become airborne. Their rapid flight and long tail enables them to navigate in tight places or to elude predators. But for all their speed and agility, Mourning doves still fall prey to hawks, falcons and hunters in season.

Their range is across the continental United States, into portions of Canada and Mexico, and south to Panama. In Moab, birds are present throughout most of the year, but leave during winter. Seeing a mourning dove on the Christmas Bird Count is a rarity, even though the birds are often present year-round in Grand Junction.

Mourning doves hold a special place in mythology and folklore. Noah sent a dove in search of land and when it returned with an olive branch he knew the flood was subsiding. But to me, the dove represents something more personal. Charles Bonaparte exiled from his homeland, becomes the father of American ornithology and an expert on mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish. His biography, written by Patricia Tyson Stroud is entitled The Emperor of Nature, a sharp contrast to his Uncle Napoleon’s title. Charles Lucien Bonaparte is proof that one can thrive wherever they live, no matter how badly they miss their native soil.

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