Sunday, 30 September 2007

Pet Pigeon

September has brought a sadness for the loss of more than just the summer; I feel as though I have lost a pet. I should think in more positive terms as though it was taken to live on a farm where there’s more room for it to run around—or fly around—and live happily ever after, or so I hope. What pet? A pigeon. Not one of those fancy ones, the poodles of the pigeon world, nor a homing one. No, just Joe Pigeon. Joe and his bride and his wean.

I live in a London borough where the avian wildlife mainly comprises pigeons, seagulls, Hitchcock-like numbers of starlings, and the odd crow or magpie. I adore animals but have sufficient knowledge of hygiene matters to grimace when tourists in Trafalgar Square encouraged these major disease-carrying flying health hazards to perch upon them en masse. But that doesn’t mean I’m not heartbroken when I see one limping around with a deformed foot, or annoyed when I see a child run at them as they desperately try to scrounge a meal.

Said heart was stirred and surprised when I glanced out of my window in early July at the large Weeping Birch that my neighbour wants me to remove, thinking that it would be the wrong time of year to do so as a bird’s nest had revealed itself when the tree was bare in the winter, and I’d seen several adorable blue tit fledglings on the branches some weeks before. When I tried to make out the nest’s outline through the many draping branches in full leaf that usually hid it, I was shocked to find a bird sitting on it then, just level with my first floor kitchen window. It was a pigeon. I thought pigeons’ nests were never seen, that the birds nested on ledges in high-rise buildings, yet here was one in a tree.

Thus began a relationship of sorts that lasted about two months. Every morning when I raised my blind, I would check on my pigeon. When I came home from work, I’d go to see that the pigeon was there, and it always was. Whenever I went to make a cup of tea or wash up: pigeon. I’d often feel forced to photograph this glimpse of nature, and would be unnerved when the pigeon would seem to turn to look at me, as surely it couldn’t see past the branches and shadows, through the glass and into my kitchen to see me. But then I remembered that pigeons have excellent eyesight; they can, after all, recognise landmarks when they are flying high above them, which helps their homing skills, although that’s apparently based on some sort of magnetic pull (though these days perhaps they have a i-phone with GPS). Pigeons can see colours and even ultraviolet light. Their hearing is also superb, which is why a flock sometimes seems to fly away for no reason; perhaps they’ve been disturbed by a foreign volcano (as opposed to one in Kent).

I found that I spent a great deal of time worrying about my pigeon—or pigeons, as there were two taking shifts. The dad clocked in for the work day, and the mum sat on the nest overnight (I read this; I couldn’t tell their gender). One of them sometimes looked speckled brown from the underneath rear view as though a giant wren had taken its place. I suppose it was just that I'm not used to seeing pigeons from below with their tail raised, nearing their soft white underside. These pigeons—wood pigeons--also had a lovely white ring around their necks, like a pearl necklace, which made me think of them as upper class, and more closely related to delicate doves, symbols of peace and love, than your average urban disease deliverer. But most biologists would tell you there’s not much difference between pigeons and doves anyway, and pigeons are actually rock doves.

Pigeons are also monogamous, so this pair might have been together for years and might remain so for many years yet; they can live for around 16 years. I learned many such pigeon facts as my curiosity was peaked by my feathery new neighbours, and I have a new respect for them.

I came to look forward to checking on my pigeons—I'd see them one at a time, of course—and worried about them. They must have thought their watch was wrong as it couldn’t possibly be August, with absolutely fierce winds blowing them all around, loads of driving rain, and they’d chosen the worst place for a nest. Any other tree surely would be more stable; a Weeping Birch is top heavy, flimsy, and waves about madly in the slightest wind. Indeed, another one in our close was felled by the merest breeze. This precarious situation made me fear for them, which made me feel even fonder of them. The nest was composed of a mere few twigs barely connected, it seemed, and surely the only thing that kept it in place, though it did seem to drop slightly over time, was a rogue vine that was torturing the tree.

One time, their white egg was clearly visible from the side, and I worried that it must be dangerously chilled as certainly neither the nest nor the tree offered it much protection. I cringed when rowdy groups of young delinquents drank and shouted in the car park a few feet away from the tree, and wished I could shield my pigeons, and always prayed that none of said delinquents would ever catch a glimpse of the nest, as no doubt they’d compete to knock it out of the tree with rocks. I would stand and watch the pigeon who was sitting guard on the nest during the worst windy storms, praying it would make it, and the next morning I’d return to the check the tree, fearful of the worst. To my relief, one of the pigeons would still remain dutifully in place.

This sense of duty later seemed to fade slightly. There would be times when I eagerly rushed to the window to greet the sight of my pigeon, only to find a vacant nest. I would be terribly worried for hours. What had happened? Had the egg been blown out of the nest, so the pigeons abandoned it? Just when I began to feel deflated that the joyful experience was over, the next visit to my kitchen would reveal one of my feathered friends sitting there. Perhaps they’d needed a break; it was a tougher than expected job after all, with this wintry weather in summer. When the absences become slightly more frequent, I worried that one of the pair might have been killed. One time when the nest was empty, I saw a lovely wood pigeon on top of a nearby garden shed, forlornly looking out as though it was searching and waiting for its partner. I noticed then that this pigeon was actually a lovely bird when you see its grey back feathers separated by the breeze, so much prettier than those glossy lacquered-looking solid typical City pigeons with the iridescent opal-like sheens. This bird had character, and right now, it was looking lost and lonely. Or perhaps I was going a bit mad; I’m no Dr Doolittle.

Fearful that one pigeon was forced to leave the nest to feed because its partner had been killed, I once put some breadcrumbs on top of my bin near the tree so it wouldn’t have to travel far for food. The bread remained untouched. I later learned that wood pigeons don’t eat any old junk like their concrete city cousins, they prefer plant shoots and sometimes insects. Or maybe they just didn’t like my cooking; no one does.

I also wondered whether the egg had yet hatched, as I could no longer see through the sides of the nest to be certain. I felt the presence of a new life (or squab) had been confirmed when I saw one pigeon sitting on the nest when another flew in and stood on the edge, leaned over the nest as though regurgitating into a squab’s hungry mouth, which was also happy confirmation that both the cock and hen were still alive (unless they rope in step-parents pretty quickly).

There still remained some worrying interludes when no adult was on the nest, but I didn’t know the phone number for Pigeon Social Services. My fears were realised when, one morning, I opened the kitchen blind to look out at my warm and fuzzy “Springwatch” scene---only to be greeted by an Edgar Allen Poe horror. I saw a flurry of giant black wings flapping madly over the nest! A crow was attacking my precious pigeon, my nearly constant companion day in and day out for well over a month. I couldn’t think what to do so I just opened the kitchen window as loudly as possible, and the crow leapt off its prey so abruptly that a few black feathers fell to the ground, and it perched on the tree trunk beside the nest and gazed at me to size up the threat. After a few moments’ thought, it flew to a nearby branch and watched me as it pondered its next move, then shortly afterwards, it flew away. (I have no photo of the dramatic crow attack as I was too busy trying to save the pigeons; I guess I’d fail the David Attenborough School of Naturist Filmmaking as I interfered rather than just observing.) I later wondered what I might have done if the window noise had been insufficient, and I realised I had some brazil nuts that I might have thrown, but if I’d injured even this devil, I’d be devastated that I’d hurt an animal, so it’s good it hadn’t come to that.

I actually felt shaken by the attack and realised that no adult pigeon had been on the nest; it had been a one way fight. But surely the crow had just killed the baby pigeon. This, I thought, is why the adults shouldn’t leave! Think how terrifying that attack must have been for the baby, and what an awful death. As I expected, I didn’t see another pigeon all day; I figured the baby had been killed so they’d abandoned the nest.

Much to my surprised delight that evening, I not only found an adult pigeon on the nest, but I saw it feeding the littlun’! I couldn’t believe it had survived the crow attack, and I was thrilled. It was a treat to see all three pigeons that night with both adults fussing over the peeper, one adult sitting on the nest, the other flying in with food.

That fortunately was the last terrifying episode that I witnessed, although I saw no reason why the crow wouldn’t try again as the parents still occasionally left the nest. Shortly after that, the combination of the wind having blown the branches around so much and the rain having brought tremendous shoots of new growth on the tree meant that the nest was no longer visible to me unless wind blew the branches out of the way. I could still tell when an adult was seated on it as I might catch a glimpse of its tailfeathers, but I didn’t see the youngster again…..until my birthday.

My birthday at the end of August provided me with a gratifying treat when I opened the kitchen blind and found that the baby pigeon had fledged. It was perched on a branch near its nest, absolutely adorable, a mini-pigeon puffed out, more like a new species of sweet little bird. That sight cheered me up no end, but that night was terrible, with driving rain and dreadful winds that really shook the tree side to side. I couldn’t imagine that this new little fluffball, using its new feet and clinging to a branch for the first time, could survive it. I kept checking on it until I got the sense I was making it nervous; I guess the dear ingrate didn’t appreciate that it was me who had saved it from a crow. Soon, it was too dark for me to make it out in the branches, so I closed my blind and prayed, but worried all night.

I was jubilant in the morning when the fluffball was not only still clinging on, but it had moved to a branch right outside the window. Worryingly, this was in plain sight and I feared it might invite a crow back, and I hoped the adult pigeons were keeping a close eye on it, and it seemed to do fine. After a couple days, I saw no more of the baby pigeon, and of course the adults were never on the nest again.

So I feel a bit lonely now. Several times a day for two months, I would regularly look out my kitchen window and see ‘my’ pigeon sitting there, and I saw these two adults raise a youngster that eventually flew the nest, without Bill Oddie or Simon King obstructing the view or narrating. I remained worried for a while about the welfare of the baby bird but have to have faith that it’s out there living a grand life. A few days after it fledged, I found myself leaning against a fountain in Trafalgar Square as I enjoyed a Chai Tea Latte before catching a matinee of Elling starring John Simm, and naturally I was surrounded by pigeons, but the common variety rather than the prettier special wood pigeons. Indeed, I find when I walk around the city that I care more about all pigeons, but see wood pigeons as vastly superior to the others, with more character and class.

So if you spot a slightly daintier, seemingly more naïve wood pigeon trying to tackle some food stuff that is beyond its capability, or see some kid cruelly and needlessly running at it, please protect it, because it might just be my little pigeon.