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Fact-checking Prince: Can doves, in fact, cry?

Can this dove cry? The answer may surprise you.
Can this dove cry? The answer may surprise you.
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In the 30 years since Prince first released "When Doves Cry," the most basic question raised by the song has rarely been asked, let alone answered: Can doves, in fact, cry?

Given that random animal noises often get categorized as "cries" (a usage Merriam-Webster endorses), in one sense it's obvious that doves can cry. But the reference to dove crying in "When Doves Cry" is clearly meant to evoke a particular emotional state, and so the primary M-W definition — "to produce tears from your eyes often while making loud sounds because of pain, sorrow, or other strong emotions" — is the proper one to use.

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I decided to ask University of Utah biology professor Michael Shapiro, who runs a research program on pigeon genetics, if doves cry in that sense. Here's what he told me.

1) Doves can produce tears

"I am pleased to assure you that doves do indeed have tear ducts," Shapiro writes. "Like us, doves use tears to keep their eyes moist and prevent them from drying out. Whether they also use these tears and ducts to lament overly bold fathers or insatiable mothers is beyond my area of expertise."

2) And they can produce mournful-sounding calls

"Mourning doves have a call that sounds sorrowful to us," Shapiro says. Note that "mourning dove" is a specific type of dove rather than any given dove dealing with a personal loss. However…

3) But their calls aren't triggered by distress

"But this call is not reserved for moments of distress or loss, and it almost certainly doesn’t sound sorrowful to them," Shapiro clarifies. "In other words, they’re not crying. Pigeons also sometimes make a sound that could be interpreted by us as mournful, but they’re actually trying to get the attention of a mate." [Emphasis Vox's.] Shapiro says he's unaware of any connection between dove/pigeon sounds and negative emotional states: "I’m not aware of any research that has identified particular pigeon or dove sounds that are associated with sadness, but that might just be a limitation of my knowledge."

Intriguingly, Shapiro also notes that some pigeons can quasi-laugh in the same way that pigeons and doves quasi-cry. "There is a breed of domestic pigeon called the Laugher that makes a sound vaguely similar to giggling," he says. "However, it’s probably not any happier or more amused than any other pigeon — the sound is probably involuntary and results from a genetic mutation. So Prince could have called the song 'When Doves Laugh' and had some actual biology to back it up, but I don’t think this would have gotten his message across in quite the same way."

So there you have it. Doves cannot cry. Recall Merriam-Webster's definition: "to produce tears from your eyes often while making loud sounds because of pain, sorrow, or other strong emotions." There is no evidence that doves produce tears while making loud sounds because of pain, sorrow, or other strong emotions. Even if you want to count their non-sadness-related noises as "cries," they sound nothing like this:

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