On Saturday August 8th, I was contacted by a radio producer doing a story about the project to bring Passenger Pigeons back from extinction. She wanted to record sounds of pigeons and interview me and was on deadline to do it that day. I changed my plans and arranged to meet her in the lobby of San Francisco Animal Care & Control. When I arrived, I first checked on the birds and found that a King Pigeon baby had been brought in the day before. She was too immature and sad to self-feed. I brought her downstairs to handfeed while I did the interview.
I learned early in my pigeon rescue work that it’s pointless to talk to people about pigeons unless you have a pigeon for them to meet. Pigeons are so common that everybody thinks they know them and yet, most everything that people think they know about pigeons is wrong. (For example: Pigeons aren’t dirty though they may be trapped in a dirty environment. Pigeons don’t pose health risks to humans: Petting a dog or cat or eating a hamburger are riskier. Pigeons aren’t stupid, they are highly intelligent.) Radio producer Lucy Kang had never really met a pigeon before she met this one. She was very touched by this vulnerable pigeon child and how eager she was to be comforted. At the end of the interview, Lucy’s feelings about pigeons were different.
We spoke at length about pigeons like this baby (who I named Lucy in her honor) and how they wind up in shelters, about wild-living Rock Pigeons and about the Passenger Pigeon de-extinction project. Lucy was surprised that I’m not a supporter of it. I think that when we hunt a species to extinction, even if we could bring them back, we have forfeited the right. We shot Passenger Pigeons by the billions. We killed them all. And we are still killing their relatives at every opportunity. Cruelly. For no reason other than the joy of killing. Pigeon hunting is legal everywhere in the US and every day of the year (“no season, no limits, no rules”). Pigeon hunters set out decoys in fields to lure pigeons in and then blast as many pigeons to death as they can, bragging at the numbers killed and especially prizing killing banded racing pigeons.
More Mourning Doves are killed in the US by hunters than any other animal (estimates range from 20-70 million are killed annually). They’re so small that few bother with eating them. They are shot in the many millions just for the fun of killing. They’re considered “cheap skeet”.
You can hear the program Lucy produced here. And I’ll be writing more about pigeon hunters in a future post.
This story is about baby pigeon Lucy. After feeding her and comforting her as best I could, I left her there at the shelter. I of course didn’t want to but I’m full up. We’re all full up. I had nowhere for her to go.
But I couldn’t stop thinking of her and I woke up in the morning determined to somehow figure out a placement for her. My day was already booked solid but Lucy had become my new priority.
One of the challenges of bird rescue is fitting each bird, according to his and her needs, into the right situation. I call it Pigeon Tetris (doves are involved as well). We have 23 different foster homes caring for nearly 100 birds ranging from big, strong adults through to the old, frail and special-needs birds. A not-yet-self-feeding baby like Lucy can’t just be put in an aviary. Then I had an inspiration. I had a new foster family that was going to be taking in a single young adult pigeon, Swift, that had been waiting too long at the shelter but perhaps I could persuade them instead to foster two birds- blind youngster Henry and delicate baby Lucy. Both were lonesome. Both were young and frail and each needed a gentle, safe companion. It was a hell of a lot to ask of new foster volunteers- to take two birds instead of one, to take on a blind bird and especially, to take on a baby King Pigeon who might not survive after the ordeal she had been through. (These youngsters, bred to be butchered at only 4 weeks old, come in sick, traumatized and without the robust immune system an adult pigeon has. Many don’t make it, despite everything we do to save them.) Incredibly, Cris & Kelly said yes. And so, on Sunday, August 9th, I packed up Henry and headed back to the shelter to get baby Lucy and Swift, the young adult pigeon who had waited so long (and who I could fit into my aviary).
I cannot tell you how happy I was to take young Henry and baby Lucy to foster with Cris & Kelly!
As I had hoped, the two pigeon kids made instant friends. Henry, though a couple of weeks older, was still young enough to be gentle with a baby and, isolated by his blindness, grateful for a friend. And Lucy, not even quite old enough to be out of the nest and yet already a survivor of both the squab industry and an inhumane “release”/abandonment, was thrilled to have a new birdy buddy! (Pigeons grow up as twins and are all about having a special, significant other.)
The next morning, I awoke to one of the happiest sights I’ve ever seen since becoming a rescuer: A video text of Henry preening Lucy while she squeaked her pleasure. They were so happy together! I was truly overjoyed.
And the good news kept coming. Just as I had hoped, Henry was teaching baby Lucy how to self-feed!
It’s hard for me to overstate how happy this rescue made me. I was so thrilled for baby Lucy and for Henry and for their foster volunteers and everybody involved. This rescue made me feel like the past eight years were all worth it. (And of course they were.) It was a week of adorable, happy snapshots.
Except that on Friday, August 14th, baby Lucy didn’t feel well. I was able to get over to see her that night, start her on meds and a heating pad, and we started working on a transport plan to get her either to our vets or our volunteer bird health care coordinator for care. Baby pigeons are frail and when they are sick, things go wrong fast.
Tragically, despite the best efforts of many, Lucy died the next day. She went very quickly. She died peacefully. She’ll never be forgotten.
Henry and his foster family are soldiering on. Henry is, I’m sure, heartbroken. We all are. Cris and Kelly have surrounded Henry with love and comfort. We’re working to find the right new friend for Henry.
I’ll always be so grateful to Cris and Kelly for taking the chance and saying yes to two foster pigeons instead of one, for opening their hearts to a blind pigeon and an at-risk baby, for giving these two angels such a wonderful and happy week. I don’t know how we ever would have rescued Lucy without them and even though she didn’t make it, she was safe, loved, comfortable, happy. She was adored.