life is a delicate thing, but the world is anything but a gentle place – survival of the fittest is the cold truth, for pigeons, people, or polar bears. this week, some local pigeons taught me this lesson first hand as i tried to disrupt the gentle balance of life and death in their world.
if you ever wondered where baby pigeons come from (or conversely, where pigeons lay their eggs), i think the appropriate response would be ‘anywhere they bloody well can.’ this would happen to include the empty flower pot that sits on a small ledge outside my back door. the door opens out onto a landing with rickety, half-enclosed stairs down to the weed-patch-cum-garden behind my building. this atrium of sorts provides a quiet, sheltered place for raising avian families, and since i’m on the top story, pigeons can easily just fly down from the roof to feed their young or do whatever else they do as parents (which isn’t much, from what i can tell).
several attempts have been made to lay eggs on that back landing (at least two in the empty pot, and one beneath the barbecue that sits out there collecting rust). none have been successful to this point; i think the crows often pick off the eggs before they mature and hatch. the latest attempt was successful, though, with two eggs reaching the proper ripeness and hatching to reveal their passengers.
i thought that pigeons, like many greek gods, might just appear in toto and mature, ready to fulfill their mission in life (fly, defecate, and destroy). actually, they come out as deformed little pigeonlets, which would have been a more reasonable expectation. pigeons are not attractive birds; it’s no suprise given what they start out looking like. wrinkled prunes covered with tennis-ball fuzz is the best description i could offer.
i am not, in general, a fan of pigeons, in case it wasn’t yet obvious. i can’t say i really know many people who are. ‘rats with wings’ is a moniker that is used freely, and i must admit to often thinking it’s not far from the truth. however, there’s something about babies of any species that can bring about a change of heart. babies are so helpless, so much at the mercy of their surroundings, and when i see them, i can’t help but feel some sort of kinship or protectiveness.
but i digress…
after the babies were born outside my back door, i watched them with fascination every day. i usually tried to be voyeuristic, looking through my bathroom window, but occasionally i had to take the trash down, and the back stairs are really the only way. they grew quickly, but they stayed in the helpless stage for much longer than i would have thought. on top of that, momma (or papa) pigeon was usually not in evidence. sometimes i’d see her/him up on the roof looking down, or heara chorus of little sheeps announcing the arrival of food.
two days ago, i walked out to dump the trash, looked in the nest to check on my friends, and found that the plurality of the nest had decreased by one. one pigeon was missing. the one that was left was clearly not ready to fly, not even close, so its sibling was probably the same. given that pigeons don’t really carry their young like cats, the options were few, and all seemed to boil down to falling out of or being jettisoned from the nest, which meant the little guy had to be nearby.
sure enough…two steps down the stairs and i saw him, shivering weakly on the staircase, cheeping madly at my approach. my immediate thought was ‘rescue mission’ – but how am i gonna get the little guy back in his nest?? i figured maybe i could cup him gently in my hands and deposit him back in his home, or something like this, so i started moving down the staircase slowly.
i tried not to be intimidating, but it’s pretty tough given that i probably looked like a 100ft-tall monster in search of pigeon dinner. so, he did what i would probably have done – kept his eyes on me and started backing up. well, unfortunately, there is a small gap between the enclosing wall of the staircase and the steps, just big enough, in fact, for our friend to fall right through it. two stories, straight down.
so far, my rescue mission was not looking good.
i ran down the stairs, and there he was, a little wobbly, but not too much the worse for wear. amazing – a human falling the equivalent distance would have broken quite a few bones. my mission still had a chance. the only thing i had to figure out was how the hell to get him without hurting him and without him or his brother pecking me with their sharp little beaks.
at this point, we descend into comedy as a grown man starts talking with a two-week-old pigeon, trying to say reassuring things, making cooing noises. sort of like what people do when they see babies. my first attempt was to try to shoo him into a box with a mopstick, carry the box up the stairs, and then drop him in the nest. this failed miserably; he just ran under the stairs and hid. then i decided that i would have to just pick him up. not wanting to get pecked, i went and got some leather gloves and went in for attempt number two…
it was much easier than i thought it would be. i scooped him up gently, made my way up the stairs, then set him in his nest next to his brother, who was protesting quite loudly and puffing up his little pigeon chest. despite his protest, my mission was apparently successful, as our little future divebomber cheeped in appreciation.
i went back inside and felt that i had done my good deed for the day. i had lunch, and kept checking on my friend throughout the afternoon, now that i was his guardian angel of sorts. maybe two hours after i put him back in the nest, i looked out and to my horror, there was only one pigeon in the nest. a little cheeping sound from below revealed our buddy two stories below again. so, i donned my trusty gloves, went downstairs, and performed rescue mission number two, hopefully the last…
the next morning, i woke up and went to check on my friend. he looked a little tired and weak, but was still in the nest sleeping, his little chest moving up and down. his brother seemed perfectly happy to have him there, and i heard them being fed earlier, so everything seemed ok. it appears that the grim reaper is fairly determined, however, and the next time i went to check, he had gone to the great poopfest in the sky. a brief service was performed in the backyard – the family were not in attendance.
i felt sad. it was just a pigeon, a dirty pigeon of which there are probably hundreds of thousands in san francisco alone, but it didn’t matter. i had tried to alter the balance of the world by involving myself in its welfare, and i couldn’t stop wondering whether i had helped or hurt or made any difference at all.
after all this, the one idea that sat in my head, ringing like the bell of the grim reaper, was that survival of the fittest is reality, not just some textbook idealization…how does anything make it through the teeth of predators, the burning stare of the sun, the chilling hand of rain and snow?
it’s a pigeon-eat-pigeon world out there, but somehow life thrives…
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