It all began in mid-August of 2011. Annye and I were standing out on our back porch, enjoying a beautiful San Francisco day, when we saw neighbor Ana walking slowly up the backstairs toward us. The way she was walking…so careful, holding her hands in front of her…I thought she had been shot or stabbed. She turned to us and said, “Annye, help?” and held out her hands. We looked down and there was a squeaking baby pigeon. I stared dumbly at it for a moment, but Annye sprung into action and took the little pij from Ana. She looked over at me and said, “Rat cage!” We used to keep pet rats, you see, so we still had one of the old cages. It wasn’t ideal for a pigeon who was almost full grown, but it sufficed in an emergency.
We asked Ana what had happened and she told us this sad tale. She was just leaving our building when she looked up and saw three young boys across the street. A pigeon flew low and close to the boys when one of them snatched the pigeon out of the air and threw her on the ground. All the boys started kicking the baby pigeon, but Ana yelled at them and they ran away. She ran across the street to pick her up. We have a history of pet rescue with Ana, so that’s why she brought her to us.
Unfortunately, Annye needed to go out of town the next day, so it was just me and the baby pigeon. Unlike the cats Ana has brought us, I didn’t know the first thing about birds. Ana gave me some seed that she feeds her budgies and I put some grated carrot in there for her. I had, naturally, turned to the Interwebs for information and found some wonderful people there, who both love and know a lot about pigeons. She still wasn’t eating, though, and I was getting worried. I, also, had no idea what we were going to do with her.
Fortunately, I found MickaCoo and was able to contact Elizabeth. As usual, they were full, but still Elizabeth volunteered to take Jenny, as Annye had named her. Annye came home from her trip and met Elizabeth to hand Jenny over. Elizabeth hoped Jenny would be a good candidate to be healed and released back into the wild. We signed the release papers and thought it had all been just another interesting chapter in our lives.
We kept in touch with Elizabeth to see how Jenny was doing. Elizabeth noticed that she was behaving as though she were blind, even though there is nothing visibly wrong with her eyes. She could easily have sustained a brain injury when she was kicked. That explained why she wasn’t eating…she couldn’t see the food! Elizabeth was able to hand-feed her and she had a roommate for a while, rescued baby king pigeon Maya, who taught her to self-feed. We watched videos of her taking baths – Jenny loves baths – and exploring her surroundings. We looked at pictures of her as she grew, her broken wing healed. Then, suddenly, somewhat out of nowhere, I suggested that we go visit our little friend.
Elizabeth said it would be fine for us to visit Jenny and was very welcoming. She warned us that Jenny may not recognize us and she was a little nervous around new people. When Elizabeth handed Jenny to Annye, she ran up her arm to her shoulder and started preening her hair. We played with her and Elizabeth’s charming pet dove, Lily, for a while. Then, we left, and I couldn’t get Jenny out of my head. I thought about it for a while and talked to Annye about the possibility of adopting Jenny and a mate. Annye has always been an amazingly supportive partner, but even I was amazed at her openness to our becoming pigeon-keepers.
We talked to each other about it. We talked to Elizabeth about it…a lot! At this point, Maya had been moved to the outside aviary and Jenny had been paired with a beautiful Persian Highflyer named Ava. Ava had been attacked, possibly by a hawk, and then by seagulls and was rescued by a nice family who took her to a shelter where, since she was paralyzed, she was going to be euthanized. Fostered by MickaCoo and with time and supportive care though, Ava slowly began to recover and they made good roommates.
We went over to Elizabeth’s to visit Jenny again and Annye went and picked Ava out of her cage and sat with her for a long time, just gently stroking her neck feathers while Ava seemed to be very relaxed in Annye’s company. We fell in love with Ava that day and agreed to adopt her with Jenny. We knew she would need a friend anyway.
We spent the next month preparing for the pigeons’ arrival. We bought a double-flight cage and assembled it, which was an adventure in itself. We found appropriate avian lighting and an electrician friend installed it for us. We went shopping for baskets and towels and old t-shirts that would make good nesting materials. We got wood for shelves and ordered specially cut plastic to surround the bottom of the outside of the cage, so that little cat paws couldn’t molest any bird parts that might stick out of the cage. Turns out that also helps keep the seed inside.
We were ready for the pijes to move in, at least, as ready as we were ever going to be. There are things about birds, well, all animals really, that you can only learn from living with and being around the animals themselves. All our reading and talking to Elizabeth and other pigeon-keepers (the folks in the internet group “Pigeon and Pet Chat” were particularly helpful and welcoming) couldn’t teach us as much as Jenny and Ava would.
Elizabeth brought them over and showed us how to check their wings for parasites and to de-worm them, so we wouldn’t have to start out by giving them meds. They didn’t actually have worms, but, since they had been living with a larger community of pigeons, Elizabeth thought it a good precaution. She also brought us twenty pounds of starter food to give us a chance to figure out where we were going to start purchasing pigeon mix and grit. This turned out to be quite a challenge in a not very pigeon friendly city like San Francisco.
Then, we had everything we needed and our new friends. I think we spent the first evening mostly staring at them in amazement. Fortunately, they both seemed happy with the layout of the cage. Jenny started exploring immediately. Having a blind pigeon is fascinating. I wouldn’t wish blindness on a bird, but, other than not being able to fly properly (which, I understand is a huge thing for a pigeon), she gets along really well. She doesn’t appear to be frightened of a lot of things. If she gets stuck or lost, she calmly figures out where she was and where she is now and finds her way back. Her blindness is something she seems to take in stride and we have learned to as well. Of course, other than teaching her to understand a few words like “incoming” for when we are reaching for her, so she isn’t startled, “up, up” to get her to step up on a hand, “shoulder,” “rock” or “bath” to tell her where we are placing her, we don’t treat her differently than we do Ava.
Pigeons are, fortunately, very forgiving to the beginner. Ava tends to give us looks that let us know she doesn’t like something we are doing, but she has still been very patient with our initial bumblings. We don’t quite email Elizabeth every day anymore, but we did for the first month or so. Also, fortunately, Elizabeth is as patient as the pigeons she cares for. Finally, we realized that taking care of the pigeons just seemed like a huge job, because it was so foreign to us. They actually require very little on a day-to-day basis. Most important is making sure they get outside-the-cage time. Jenny may not be able to fly forward, but she enjoys doing a little helicoptering and playing a game Elizabeth invented with her, called “Ready? Go!” where we hold her on a hand and then drop it suddenly so that she flaps her wings and gets exercise. Once I got better at it, it’s now one of my favorite things to do with her. Having a pigeon dance on your hand as she keeps herself aloft with his wings is a magical experience.
Ava has also taught us a lot. To start with, her ability to heal is amazing. I tell people that, if she were human, she’d be dead or, at least, paralyzed. However, she is a pigeon, so she said, “Spinal injury? No big deal. Give me a few months.” Indeed, she was walking, albeit with a little limp, when we got her and almost immediately started making short flights in the living room. Then, about two weeks later she laid her first eggs since she had been rescued. Elizabeth had given us fake eggs, but we hadn’t thought we would need them so soon, but it was an excellent sign for the continuing improvement in her health, so we happily switched out the eggs and told her how wonderful she is. She took to her fake eggs and really enjoyed them (at this point, we suspected Jenny might actually be male, so we were being careful). It was neat to watch her build the nest. We put torn up old t-shirt material in for her and a small pile of dried grass off to the side as an option. She would sit in her nest and pick up one piece of grass at a time and carefully place it in her next. She is quite an artist, really.
Because Jenny has mostly been around nice people (other than her attackers and that was brief, if traumatic), she is very friendly. She loves to sit on our shoulders and preen our hair or the sides of our faces. We suspect that, in Ava’s case ,the family who rescued her and Elizabeth were the first nice people she had met. We don’t know how old she is, but she’s not as young as Jenny. She’s banded and her band would indicate that she’s sixteen years old, but we doubt that’s true. She is not afraid of people, but she is still not sure how she feels about us. She formerly lived in a hobbyist’s loft with about a thousand other Persian Highflyers. She is behaving like a generally happy and healthy pigeon, though. She loves making nests and being a good mama pij to her eggs. She has accepted every set of fake eggs as easily as the first and it has become a ritual for us all now.
If you had asked us a year ago whether we would consider adopting pigeons, I think we would have said no. However, we are still happy to have Jenny and Ava in our lives and as part of our peculiar little family. I still walk past their cage when I wake up in the morning and think, “Wow. We have pigeons,” as Jenny coos a good morning to me.
Postscript by Elizabeth: Jenny and Ava are extremely lucky to have been adopted into such a wonderful family. They are very happy and thriving and now volunteer at outreach events to help make new friends for all the other pigeons that need homes. MickaCoo currently has over 100 pigeons and doves in need of adopters. If you’d like to foster or adopt, please complete our online adoption application to get started.