Below is a modern poem on Darwin and his pigeons by kind permission of Anne Bryan
He watched men take a pigeon in the hand
examine feathers, beak, each feature traced
in their mind's eye, each new potential scanned,
the offspring judged, selected, each one placed
appropriately in pies or breeding schemes.
Men homing in to make their dreams come true
bewildering varieties of dreams -
white fantails, tumblers, pigeons racing through
the dynasties of Egypt, Persia. Doves
to speed the news from bloody fields of war
to flutter strut and coo in courts of love
When Darwin's doves had fledged, like hopeful Noah
he launched them on the stormy sky to rove
and roost in places that he never saw
Beginnings - The Story of 'Pidge'©
© Kathleen Knight
It was a damp chilly day. The gray jumbled sky carried little reminder of summer. The road curved through the old reservoirs, winding toward the town. I had had a lovely swim and was driving slowly home.
As I rounded the bend, I saw (or more likely sensed) a bird on the ground, rustling anxiously, just inside the railing that divided the street from the woods around the lakes. I considered leaving well enough alone, but it did not seem well at all. The rustling seemed like struggle, and I wanted to see if help was needed. There began the great pigeon adventure.
I have history with pigeons or perhaps I would not have noticed this creature. Most people with whom I have discussed pigeons hold them in low esteem. The great gentleness I have found seems to have escaped notice by most. Of course, I did not recognize their true worth at all until I got to know one well. I picked her up when she fell out of her nest near the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. When I reached out to her on the pavement she made no effort to escape; in fact, she came toward me. Taking that as a favorable sign, I took her to a vet for evaluation and then home to my house. I knew nothing much about birds and had never met a pigeon before. However, as she and I were together for several years I came to treasure her and missed her greatly when she died suddenly, apparently of a respiratory infection the doc at the emergency center said. It was to be three years before I met another pigeon.
This dark misty afternoon as I got closer to the rustling on the ground near the lakes I saw the familiar pearl gray of the ordinary pigeon. When I bent to pick him up, he did his best to escape, flapping and dragging himself across the ground. A wild thing determined to get away, but not really able to get far. After following him for a bit I scooped him up and took him home, wrapped in a towel I keep in the trunk of the car. He was not pleased, but was really too weak to argue much. One of his legs was broken and he was very thin under the feather. I feared he might be close to death.
We got home. I taped up the leg, got an old cage from the basement, and did my best to make a comfortable resting spot on the back porch with old towels for a bed. At least it is not so damp and cold as being on the ground, I thought. I dissolved a bit of antibiotic in water (easily obtainable for birds – no prescription needed) and gave it to him. I gathered bird seed from the supply for the other birds in the house and sat back to watch. He was a bit tentative at first, but he was very hungry and the hunger overcame caution. He ate quite a bit, had a good deep drink of water and seemed better. His eyes no longer had a frightened startled look. I sat with him for a long time, just watching the wild creature begin to revive; he seemed more alert and was settling into the towels. I didn't think he was giving up; it just didn't look like that: he was calm, looking around and breathing easily. It was getting dark; I covered the cage for the night, wished the bird well and hummed a bit as I went in.
Next day, first thing, we took a trip to the vet with whom I have long experience. He is a person of high competence and great heart, but, he is practical. He said, "this bird should be euthanized. Any rehabber would know that."
"Well," I said," I don't know that. He managed to get the attention of one of the few people who would even possibly notice him and now he has gotten to you. Seems like a rather large series of accomplishments to me. So, we are not going to ignore all that and kill him. We are going to do what we can to help him live, and if he chooses not to, then fine. But he will have had a chance. "
I left the bird at the vet's and went off mumbling and harrumphing –" kill him indeed," I muttered to myself. Now we would wait to see if the bird was staying in this life or going on to the next. I found myself very excited by the possibilities: it would be fun to have a pigeon again. My experience with my first pigeon had been fascinating. Because she was so young when I found her, she decided I was her family and so she was very affectionate, following me everywhere and loving to sit and view the world from my shoulder. I was charmed by the trust she offered. We became close friends. I was now interested to see what the experience of an adult bird would be, one who had had a life as a free wild creature, now in a different circumstance.
The wounded bird had captured my full attention even in our short acquaintance. When I found him on the ground he showed courage. Even though he couldn't walk and no longer had the strength to fly, he was struggling to stay alive and to escape me, the suspected predator. Would I have been so valiant in the same circumstance? I'm not sure. It seemed a significant privilege to be participating in his life, or possibly death.
Days went by. The bird was at the vet, getting antibiotics, having the bottom part of his broken leg amputated and starting to recover. I got phone calls from the office reporting progress. It appeared he was not going to die just yet. Finally, after two weeks it was time for him to come home.
By now, it was downright cold outside, too cold for the cage on the screen porch. The best possibility was the dining room table. A number of birds live at my house – cockatiels with newly hatched babies and two different kinds of doves. My relationships with these creatures all started in the same way – some creature appeared to need help, a bigger cage, a safe refuge or some calling out that I seemed increasingly to hear. My first cockatiel came because the next door neighbor was moving to Florida and thought his bird would not survive the flight. I took him. The flock expanded over the next few years but except for the pigeons there were no wild birds.
I wondered what would become of the pigeon: would he be lonely, would he die after all because he had no flock and not much freedom? But, home he came and began to eat fiercely in his territory on the dining room table. Before his arrival the room had been a formal dining room with a chandelier, flowers and vines painted in the panels on the walls and silver in the buffet. As my tenure in a formal phase seemed to be passing, I gave it not a second thought and stabled the pigeon there. In that room are six diamond doves: lovely small gray brown creatures of great delicacy and considerable cooing. They are content in their five foot flight cage, swooping back and forth chattering to each other all day. They were the pigeon's near neighbors. I waited to see what would develop, but I was cheerful.
Animals have been my teachers for some time, and I have found myself enchanted to discover the gift that each has. The cockatiels are a small kind of parrot with a plume on the head, a brilliant orange spot on the cheek in many and a wing span of about eight inches. They are determined and pushy: they make noise when anyone comes in the house, chatter to each other and are not noticeably calm. Relative to the other birds, they are smart and regularly solve the problem of how to get out of the cages if I am not paying attention. They have quite a good sense of personal boundary, and if another creature invades, they push back at once. The more I watch this behavior the more I admire the clarity they have with each other. Some time back I stopped seeing other creatures as "pets": to me they feel like interesting beings who happen not to speak English or go to the office. Beings with real lives, personalities and destinies. I feel blessed by my relationships with them.
The other birds with whom I have experience are doves – the diamond doves, large white doves and the familiar pale brown ring neck doves. The different doves all share quiet peacefulness. They are quite still a good bit of the time – they walk quietly, usually slowly, and speak softly to each other from time to time. There is none of the excited chatter of the cockatiels. Even the little diamond doves who often coo cheerfully are not raucous – they produce melody that ripples through the house with great beauty. In all, doves seem by nature quite happy in their surroundings – they are not trying to escape their cages or from each other. In the Buddhist sense, they just are. If they sense a danger, they respond as a group with warning cries until the danger passes. Then they again return to their ordinary state of peacefulness. An achievement, I think. I have been meditating for years and seldom have long periods of the still state of being which comes so naturally to the doves.
The pigeon joined the household and since he would not be returning to his wild life, I named him Pidge. He seemed to gain strength and to be managing well on one leg. He would let me pick him up, but he was clearly not a pet. He was standoffish and wanted to avoid being handled. I was enthralled and continued to feel pleased to have a wild creature becoming part of the household. Adventure!
Over the months, Pidge grew healthy and became interested in the household: he would visit the other birds, and they appeared to be exchanging views. I liked the feeling of community that was developing. By the next June, when the birds and I were going to the country for the summer, Pidge turned some kind of inner corner. Suddenly two eggs appeared in her nest and I realized that he was actually she. Female birds do not need to have mates to lay eggs; the eggs laid are not fertilized, but are real eggs. I was amazed at the eggs and wondered what had happened. At about the same time, she became very affectionate with humans. One day when her cage door was open she flew out of the dining room to join me on the couch in the living room. I was surprised and delighted. I felt trusted and accepted by this unusual and exciting creature. After that, she liked nothing better than to sit in my lap and participate in whatever I was doing. She came to find me wherever I was in the house. Gone and gone suddenly was the standoffishness, the wildness, the distance. Perhaps she had decided I was her flock after all. She began to cheerfully and persistently investigate any other humans who appeared. Surprising for some of the folks, since birds are not easy for everyone. People who like predictability seemed to become nervous with an uncaged and thus unmanageable bird flying about. This didn't bother Pidge.
In fact, Pidge became particularly fond of my business partner, a warmhearted man who grew up in New York City. He had the city person's dark view of pigeons. He tried quite hard to be polite, but it was tough. Whenever he came by, Pidge wanted to be with him, immediately landing on his shoulder for a visit. He was glumly tolerant but not happy. However, even he found her a captivating presence, commenting "Well, it certainly isn't dull here," with a grim chuckle.
Meantime, Pidge and I became closer and closer. She was gentle, generous and above all, peaceful. Also, she was happy sitting on my shoulder; she felt like a warm feathered heating pad. Hours went by as we sat on the porch in the long summer twilight and took in the lush landscape of the country. Occasionally the wild bird she had been reappeared – when the hawk was nearby or the coyote howled. Then she instantly became alert, watchful and waiting for the next event. The peacefulness was gone, replaced by vibrant readiness. I was and am completely fascinated by seeing someone so clearly live in the moment.
Her huge ability to be fully in the here and now was her great gift to me. She adjusted completely to her new life, so radically different from where she started: she lived indoors, had only one leg and took up with humans. Birds are not like mammals and certainly not like dogs: they choose to have a relationship with you or there is not one. This creature clearly chose to let her old life go and move fully to her current one. I admire that ability very much: I find even much smaller changes alarming in my own life.
Over my time with Pidge I too learned to be still for long times and to drop fully into the experience of the present: the eternal rustle of trees, the chat of wild birds, the bark of the coyote, and to realize that each of these was a world within itself. I had been moving too fast and bustling too much to be connected in the way I learned from Pidge. It was her nature to be an integral part of anywhere she was. I cannot think of a bigger thing to learn.
Pidge and I were together for perhaps seven years. During that time I got to know pigeons well and to realize that while she and I had a close relationship, I was just not a pigeon and she missed her own kind. I decided to help by introducing another pigeon but it did not go well. He was not interested in a handicapped, older bird and rejected her forcefully: he pecked at her , pushed her under a chair and then just walked away and flew up onto a chair, ruffling his feathers and sending forth a deep growl. I felt sad for her and for me - I had such hopes for the encounter. I had not yet learned that a wounded or injured bird is a danger to the whole flock and so is ostracized. That is likely what happened to her after her leg was broken. The other birds and I were a substitute flock for a good long time, and then not. She began to seem frail and then to have respiratory issues (common in birds) and in general to decline. She could no longer fly up stairs, though she would try. She grew weaker and finally quite peacefully died.
I was heartbroken and not only missed her but felt sad that she had not had a flock of her own or pigeon companions. After thinking it over for quite a bit I decided to honor her memory and the great gift of her trusting and deep friendship by taking in a few refugee pigeons. I had a country place and decided I could easily put up some housing. It seemed a fitting acknowledgement and celebration of a life changing experience.
Now, several years and many experiences later, I have a sanctuary on farm land in the country. My idea of helping out a few pigeons grew rather bigger than I expected and now there are over four hundred birds at Stonehouse Wood Sanctuary. Most are pigeons, but there are also doves, chickens, a few turkeys geese and pheasants. They are all housed in coops around the old farmhouse built in 1830, and they are doing a very important thing: they are living lives that are supported (in the sense of food and shelter) but not managed. For the most part, they are in charge of themselves. The pigeons come out to fly and those who want to leave can, and those who want to stay can. Their lives belong to them.
I have been repaid for my effort many times over by the sense of peace and liveliness that surrounds the old farmhouse. It is all a great and continuing surprise: when I first met Pidge I was in the market research business, managing a company which served Fortune 500 clients. Certainly an interesting time; then the business grew larger and more successful but not more intriguing. It was time to move on. My business partner said "Gee, you aren't going to be a crazy pigeon person, are you?"
"Maybe" I said. "Depends how you look at it."