For the birds

It kind of cracks me up. Before the construction of Route 37 (such as it is) the customary route to points south of Winchester, Va., was to use a short remnant of old Route 50 bypassed by the “new” 4-lane a short distance to Singhass Road. Singhass Road eventually intersects with Cedar Creek Grade at Opequon (Frog Eye). Cedar Creek Grade crosses Merriman’s Lane then Valley Avenue to become Weems Lane and so on.

Due to the construction of the new Walmart and the addition of a stoplight or 2, the traffic around the Route 50 and Route 37 intersection has become quite congested. This being the case, it often makes sense to use the old route instead. Well, I guess that’s progress.

The building dovecotes were a good way to concentrate pigeon droppings in one area.

The building dovecotes were a good way to concentrate pigeon droppings in one area.

Early last spring, I was called to a barn on Singhass Road to prepare a Farmall Cub to be moved to another location. It was the usual revival of a long idle machine — fix a tire, replace the battery, clean the ignition points and carburetor — no big deal. The reason that the tractor needed to be moved was rather obvious — the barn’s roof had blown away. Blue plastic tarps had been stretched over the opening and the eerie blue light inside the barn gave one the sensation of working in a smoked glass atrium.

The Cub is now snug in a shed (circa 1930) near Middleburg. However, the replacement of the barn roof was painfully slow due to the usual logistics involving insurance, contractors, inspectors and so forth. Passing the farm to avoid Winchester traffic, I would monitor the progress. While driving past last week, I noticed that the repair was completed. It looks good but is that a dovecote in the center of the peak? It’s probably just ornamental — like a cupola — but it got me to wondering; what practical advantage could there have been to building a dovecote such as we often see atop some very old barns?

I looked up the term “dovecote” to be sure that I understood what these structures are. The definition simply read “a roost for domesticated pigeons.” This only heightened the mystery because pigeons are messy.

The barn at Lonesome Dove Farm in Clarke County, Va., near Summit Point, W.Va., doesn’t have a dovecote — or rather the whole barn is a dovecote as the rafters are full of these birds. These birds’ dietary habits combined with the force of gravity encrusts the tops of the round hay bales stored there with droppings. These droppings decorate the cab and hood of the resident John Deere 4040 as well. Working in the barn on a windy day, an occasional gust of exceptional force (this is Summit Point, the Chicago of the east) causes the tin roof to resound with a loud boom. The startled pigeons then flee from the barn only to return to their positions on the rafters to await the next gust. They seem delighted with this sport and coo contentedly between flights.

I’ve been going to another farm outside Purcellville since 1990. During that time, it has changed hands three times. The first owners often complained of pigeons in the barn decorating their collection of antique buggies and carriages — no dovecote here, either.

These folks bought a larger acreage near Front Royal, and I continue to service their equipment there. Again, the complaints about having to tarp over rather than display this collection of buggies due to the pigeon population there. The old-timer who sold them the place said that they never had a problem with pigeons in the barn previously. Meanwhile, the new owners of the Purcellville property say that there are no pigeons in the barn and my own observation agrees. Maybe the pigeons followed the farm’s previous owners during their many trips between Purcellville and Front Royal — it couldn’t be — or could it?

The barn at the private farm museum near Middleburg, Va., is actually two barns connected to each other. The south barn was built circa 1880; the north barn was Amish built in 1952. The weathered wall of the older barn now divides them as an interior wall. The newer barn has no dovecote — and no pigeons. However, while working in the newer barn, pigeons can clearly be heard chortling and cooing in the dovecote above the old barn.

I may have answered my own question. First, these louvered rooftop sheds may not be dovecotes at all but rather ventilation structures. They may be called dovecotes because they attract pigeons and provide them a roosting place. But just maybe they were intended to consolidate the inevitable pigeon infestation to a smaller area so as not to ruin the stored hay. The accumulated droppings could then be more easily collected and disposed of, possibly as garden fertilizer.

Pigeons may only be a nuisance these days, but back when passenger pigeons darkened the sky, pigeons and pigeon dropping control may have been a more serious matter. Another possibility is that it may have spawned a phrase such as “under the dovecote” perhaps describing a difficult situation. An example: “Mr. Lincoln is under the dovecote over this secession business.” I’m a student of the 19th century humorists such as Artemus Ward, Josh Billings, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain and others. I can’t specifically recall this phrase being used in any of these authors’ works, but it surely rings a bell somewhere.

Do you know why there are dovecotes atop old barns? Are my own theories all wet or “under the dovecote?” Please drop us a note. Meanwhile, there’s a 1950s International R-160 flatbed truck parked under the dovecote in the older half of the barn in Middleburg. The truck has reposed there for about a decade. I haven’t checked lately but it should be about half full by now.


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