Lessons two pigeons taught me

Until a few years ago, I had never paid much attention to common pigeons. I’d seen them around, of course, and I’d seen them hump each other in what looked like a fairly random manner. I used to shrug.

Pigeons – colored mostly grey in my mind – had become the sparrows of the first two decades of my life. We chased those away, out of many countries. Pigeons and gulls stepped in to fill their shoes at the tables of our outdoor cafes and eateries.

But unlike gulls and sparrows, pigeons were actually introduced all over the world, by us, humans. We took them from their sea cliffs in much warmer climates. They were rock doves.

Pigeons are much more tolerant than humans, it seems. They happily eat along other species of birds, they pay attention to each others’ alarm calls, particularly those of crows and other corvids (who often act as watchdogs against prowling cats).

Pigeons are smart. They understand, wordlessly. They also have the ability to distinguish between music by different composers and art by different painters. (Can all humans? Has anyone ever tested that?) And they usually mate for life. Racing pigeons are males who hurry home to their mate. Did you know that? I didn’t until one or two years ago.

Why did I start paying attention to pigeons? Well, one day, I was on my way downtown, crossing a very busy intersection, when I heard a woman say “that bird has a death wish” to her partner. I looked at the bird, hung around to observe, and concluded that she was right.

Pigeons know that cars and buses kill and when they know that they are fatally ill, unable to save themselves, and maybe also after their mate has died, they sometimes choose to end things swiftly rather than die a long and painful death, and perhaps even end up as fox food in a shorter but still pretty painful death.

The second pigeon who caught my attention also kept walking into very busy traffic, but kept trying to fly away and only got a few centimetres of lift. It clearly didn’t want to die but felt it had no choice. I stopped traffic, grabbed the bird, took it home and rehabilitated it.

It had very likely accidentally had gotten locked into an enclosure – I think I know where, too – and was mainly dehydrated and also malnourished, but other than that it was perfectly fine. It stayed with me long enough to be able to assess that and its ability to fly again. (It was getting increasingly impatient too!)

That was the occurrence that got me to look into pigeons and changed my mind about these creatures.

Next, in the course of 2016, two pigeons befriended me. I found one of them on my windowsill one day, indoors, studying me calmly as I was sanding a little table. I had been completely unaware of it, looked up at some point and my jaw dropped when I saw that pigeon resting on my windowsill.

Turned out that he had decided that my windowsill would be a perfect place for a nest. In principle, I agreed, but there was one problem. Kitchen windows aren’t always open. This one – dad as it turned out later – is highly inquisitive and likes looking at what I am doing. When I was hand-sewing sleeves for my penny whistles, he watched with great interest. (Whatchadoin’?)

The whole thing puzzled me for a while until it dawned on me, that, of course, birds are far from stupid – heck, they’ve survived on the planet much much much longer than humans – and they’d noticed that I no longer had pet birds in my place. “I wonder if we can nest there now.” I guess they decided that they wanted to become my pets, which several mammals have done before them.

I sort of compromised. I fed them breakfast off and on, or dinner. When they stopped appearing as a pair, I concluded they had a nest somewhere, I fed them more often and made the decision that I had to support them through their nesting period as I might inadvertently have encouraged their nesting (so I thought, but I later found out that it wasn’t the case as I saw many more young pigeons appear in the streets at around the same time).

I asked them whether they had one or two eggs or youngsters and told them I was very curious about their offspring. Eventually, I got the impression that they were merely getting fatter so they probably did not have a nest at all. Also, I didn’t want them to feel too comfy visiting as not everyone around me might like that, and the birds might start leaving droppings (which they had not done so far). So I cut back on my catering service and transitioned to adding some food to a location where all sorts of wildlife already forages and other people provide food too.

(The female pigeon broke my heart once when she showed up half covered in some really disgusting fast food that had been thrown away. Not all fast food is bad but the fast food that is, is also making wildlife less healthy.)

One Sunday evening, I saw the two walk around in an obvious panic and realized that my support for them had cut them off from the intelligence (information) of other pigeons, namely where to find the best stuff and at what time and on what days. They know that schools are closed in the weekend and supermarkets are closed on Sunday mornings here. (Of course they do!) Those are among the places where people often eat hence drop food. Though it isn’t the best kind of bird food, not by a long shot. I had to cue them in, so I did.

It dawned on me that I had introduced inequality among the local group of about ten pigeons and that this was not benefiting my pair.

Then one day, dad stopped by, first with youngster 1 who was still a bit sleepy and the next day, with youngster 2, the older one. (I felt so stupid! They’d had a nest after all. I’d been right.) The two youngsters are each other’s spitting image, except that one is older and bigger. It took me a while to figure it out.

I discovered that mom and dad are a lot like humans. Daddy pigeon thought it was okay to sit on people’s windowsills, but mommy pigeon was teaching her kids to avoid windowsills. Ha ha!

I saw many more young pigeons around at the time, also in other locations in town.

I have seen one who was still quite intimidated by other pigeons. Ha ha! I have seen him fly toward other birds and then off again, repeatedly, which is odd behavior for a pigeon. Then one morning, I saw him or her do it again. Approach, hover, fly off, approach and hover, fly off, repeat, then approach, land and literally jump in, to eat with the other birds. It was perfectly fine. No one shooed him or her off.

(Yes, they do occasionally fight. The males sometimes get into quarrels and the females sometimes have to shoo younger males off. I have seen the female of my friendly pair grab a much younger local male – quite a character, that one – by the bill to make sure he got lost when he was way too pushy.)

I have negotiated with dad and moved the birds back to where they came from. I found them surprisingly easy to work with (which explains why humane pigeon management works much better than the traditional pest control approach, as I wrote in my previous post).

Dad really likes me for some reason, though, and still stops by from time. We mostly just look at each other and enjoy the bond, the trust. He is highly inquisitive, likes watching what I do.

I guess he is a lot like me. I have no idea where these two roost or where their nest was, but I confess that I was quite curious about where they were hiding them when the little squabs were still highly vulnerable and very ugly.

If only humans could be a little more like pigeons…

Thankfully, where I live many people help out the local wildlife, often feeding them high-quality (proper) food too. I think that, in theory, if people see the plights of wildlife, it is easier for them to see the plights of other humans around them too.

On some days, I wish that Julian Savulescu’s solution – feeding all humans oxytocin in pill form – would work and we humans would stop killing other animals, destroying ours and their habitat and foster harmony among all humans and all species on the planet. But to think that this will work is scientifically naïve, although a very useful ethics exercise. (I used to know a woman with a Bachelor’s in psychology who once shocked me by saying that she wished mind control was possible for the entire human population, to make people behave the way she felt they should. I considered that notion highly unethical, though now, many years later, I can also see the other side of that ethical dilemma.)

The solution will probably have to come through a combination of education and voluntary activities – a version of show and tell, of setting good examples – and dogged persistence. We need more Thich Nhat Hahns in the world. But not even Buddhism is free from violence and sexism because Buddhists too are merely human. We humans are so fallible, so liable to make mistakes.

Thankfully, the greatest learning comes from mistakes. Learning is the purpose of life, not only in our own lifetimes, but also from one generation to the next and the next. Life’s lessons are repeated until learned.

Even the oxygen we humans depend on comes from other species.

Below are some photos of dad and the eldest squab, taken on the day dad surprised me when he stopped by to introduce the youngster. (At the time of writing, I haven’t seen any of them for quite some time as they’re way too busy getting on with their lives and enjoying the wonderful weather. Only dad stopped by to say hello a few days ago.)


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