Guest Post by Christine Housel
One lovely fall day in 2012, a coworker and I took a stroll on the trail behind our office. We’re lucky to work with the Florida Park Service, in a building nestled in one of our state’s natural treasures: Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. We ambled along, admiring the magnificent array of birds and gators we see there all the time. But, oh my—what’s that up ahead?! Perched on the boardwalk railing, watching as we slowly approached, was a pretty white dove-like bird with colorful leg bands. It was like no other bird we’d seen before—a visitor, for sure, and perhaps injured or sick. JulieAnne snapped a photo and we calmly passed, trying not to frighten him. Sadly, the hikers behind us weren’t as polite: a girl tried to touch him and down he flew, bumbling toward the gator-filled water hole and then disappearing under the boardwalk. Mystery Bird was gone from view, but not from my mind. I couldn’t think of anything else. Where did he come from? What was his story?
“That’s probably a racing pigeon,” our biologist colleague said when he saw the photo. “A woman caught one just like it out on the prairie a few years ago. Called the owner, and he said he didn’t want it back.” Um, really? His little bird was rescued and he doesn’t care?! Naïve and troubled, I went home and read everything I could find about homing pigeons…and the “sport” that was responsible for Mystery Bird’s predicament. That little pigeon, I realized, wouldn’t survive long in a park filled with gators, owls, and hawks…and if a predator didn’t get it soon, it would likely suffer fear, hunger, and thirst for days. Paynes Prairie Preserve is a wild, wonderful place—great for the wildlife that lives there, but a death trap for a domesticated bird like a homer. I knew that lonely pigeon might not survive the night, but if he did—I couldn’t rest until I tried to catch him.
It wasn’t until mid-afternoon the next day that I could get back out on the trail. With a cardboard box in hand, I searched everywhere. No pigeon. I was too late, I lamented, and so bummed. I tried to console myself with practicality: “Christine, he was a good meal for a hungry hawk. And now, he won’t suffer.” I wandered down the trail, half searching and half mourning, almost ready to turn around, when I stumbled into a wildlife photographer setting up his tripod. “Hey, have you seen a white dove-like bird with colored leg bands?” His face lit up. “Oh yeah! Funny little bird! Saw him wandering under that big oak this morning, and a few hours ago a hawk swooped and just missed him.” Elated, I ran back to the oak and searched until dark. Still no pigeon—but now, at least, a little hope. This is a smart bird, I told myself. He’s hunkered down for the night, waiting for morning. I’ll find him then.
Morning came and I was on the prairie again, my heart racing with anticipation as I neared the spot where Mystery Bird had last been seen. Under the big oak, wild horses were grazing and lounging. Cattle egrets encircled them, busily preening and foraging, their white feathers glistening in the sunny morning mist. And there, in the midst of that elegant circle, desperately trying to find food and blend in, was the little white pigeon. “Hello again, Mr. Bird,” I quietly murmured, slowly creeping toward him with the cardboard box. He continued to forage, inching away as he eyed me nervously. I knew I had to act quickly—and that I only had one chance. One second too late, or one wrong move, and this guy could be gone forever. I lunged forward and whumped the box down. Startled horses lept to their feet, egrets flurried off, and hikers on the boardwalk gasped. Shaking, I knelt on the ground, overcome with both joy and disbelief. Mr. Bird was under the box.
“It’s OK,” I hollered to the bewildered spectators. “The bird is safe with me.” And safe with our family he continues to be, to this day. Mr. Bird—who lives up to his name, with his dramatic strutting and beautiful displays—is a treasured family member. He’ll soon have a female companion—another rescued pij—and a roomy aviary next to our porch. Sometimes, when he’s curiously perched on my leg or snuggled calmly in my arms, I find myself thinking about the parts of his story that I’ll never know: all the adversities he faced during his frantic flight home, and the beloved mate—and perhaps babies—that he’d never again see. I’m also reminded that his rescue—the happy part of his story—is the exception, not the rule. That for every lost, injured racing pigeon that is rescued and rehomed, many others are not so lucky. Until pigeon racing is a thing of the past, so many of these beautiful, smart, gentle homers will continue to suffer and die. It gets me down, until I remind myself that rescuing one little pigeon—who bravely let me capture him—is significant. The starfish story rings true: for this one bird, a caring hand made all the difference. And for me, the joy and honor of caring for this lovely creature has enriched my life in ways I’m only beginning to understand. A connection that, somehow, was meant to be. Thank you, Mr. Bird.
As a new pigeon mama, knowing very little about birds and absolutely nothing about pigeons, I was hungry for good information and advice. My many Internet searches turned up a mind-boggling number of sites filled with info, both good and bad. But only one site really stood out as a cream-of-the-crop source worth bookmarking and visiting many times: MickaCoo Pigeon & Dove Rescue. A wonderful, volunteer-run non-profit group, 2,800 miles away from me, with a website and Facebook page full of professional, detailed, clearly-presented information about pigeons and doves….as well as many inspirational stories, photos, and helpful links. What a treasure! And to MickaCoo, I realized, good care of these birds means so many things, on so many levels. Indeed, they provide a wealth of info. on optimal nutrition, housing, and physical health of pigeons and doves. But their caring goes far beyond that: to MickaCoo, the birds’ social and emotional well-being is just as important. Finding loving, forever homes is a priority, and potential adopters are thoroughly screened. On top of all that, MickaCoo is actively engaged with the public–in communities both near and far–to teach about what they do and get people involved in caring too. In doing so, they spread an important message the world needs to hear more often: that ALL creatures are worthy of kindness and respect. This is my kind of group, I remember thinking– Exactly the kind of support I need to give this little pigeon the best life possible. I e-mailed Elizabeth and immediately received the kindest, most encouraging, well-written, info-filled reply. Her advice made such a difference as I strived to make the best decisions for Mr. Bird and our family. Since then I’ve e-mailed Elizabeth many times with a wide variety of questions and musings….and despite being busy 24/7 with rescues, adoptions, bird care, and educational efforts, she has always made time for me. Many thanks to Elizabeth and the wonderful MickaCoo crew for all they do, every day, to help make the world a kinder, gentler place for our feathered friends (and their caretakers too). Christine Housel