Courtesy photo: Sharna Johnson Sleeping on the warm back of a horse on a cold winter night may seem like a great idea, except in the case of one dove who learned the hard way that tree limbs probably are the best roosts for cold birds.
It looked a little like a seasoned sailor, oblivious to the motion of the world beneath its feet.
Puffed up twice its natural size, with its head scrunched tight into its body, the dove didn’t seem to notice anything at all as it was moved from right to left, forward and backward.
Nor did it notice as the neighboring filly stretched her neck as far as she could so she could nip at its tail feathers right before it passed out of reach.
If I were a bird in on one of our bitter cold New Mexico nights, I might look for a similar perch.
What better place than the broad back of a horse to weather the cold — after all, it has to be the closest thing to radiant heat a bird can find in these parts, short of singeing feathers on a chimney pipe.
A logical as it seemed, it was odd enough that I was fascinated and grabbed a camera to document the slumbering hitchhiker.
If the host-horse had any clue there was a bird on his back, he didn’t care as he impatiently pranced around, anxious to have his feed bucket filled and not amused in the least that I was taking so long and flashing that thing in his eyes.
And sleeping bird, well, he kept sleeping, not willing to give up a good thing unless he was just flat forced to.
I was impressed that he didn’t startle at all the noise I made, discovering later as I went through the pictures that he did indeed open his eyes several times, he just apparently didn’t care enough to move.
Maybe he was just exceptionally brilliant as doves go, seizing a marvelous opportunity when he saw it. After all, where he could he possibly perch that would be safer? As if a cat or fox would dare try and snatch him from the back of a horse!
Or perhaps the little guy was in touch with his African relative, the Oxpeckers, who spend their lives on the backs of rhinos, zebras, buffalo, giraffes and even cattle, feasting on the parasites that nibble on large mammals.
Their coexistence is referred to as mutualism — another way of saying, “you eat my bugs and I’ll let you hang out,” although its said the hosts aren’t always friendly and try to knock them off – understandably, since they literally live on the backs of others, to include courting and… well… mating on the go.
Not to mention, in some cases the birds aren’t above picking at their host when bugs are in short supply.
A friend suggested perhaps the bird was ill, roosting on the horse in some state of delirium. While less inspiring, it was a plausible theory, given there are no Oxpeckers in our area and it wasn’t being a normal dove with the dozens of other doves that were roosting in the nearby trees as they do every night.
Regardless of how and why he got there, it turned out to be his last ride and I found him lying on the ground the next day partaking of a permanent nap.
Maybe my friend was right and he succumbed to some mystery ailment and just slipped away — and off the horse. Or, maybe after they finished eating, the other horses returned to nipping at his tail feathers and finally succeeded.
Could also be that the horse laid down with a full belly and rolled over to scratch that itch on his back.
I still prefer to think the dove had one of those dreams, you know, the one where you’re floating and defying gravity … blissful … until you roll to far and hit the floor beside the bed.
And in this case, the bed shifted and stepped.
Whatever happened and as genius as the bird’s idea may have seemed at the time, maybe the other birds are in fact the smarter ones, particularly notable every sunrise as they continue to fly like clockwork from their no-doubt cold, but remarkably safe tree limbs.