On January 17th, 2016, River came to us named Crippled God. She was a wild pigeon who had been rescued a year before from a Berkeley parking lot where it is thought she had been clipped by a car as she flew by. She had lost a foot and control of her legs. In the early days after being rescued, her legs would hang down straight rather than tuck up under her in the proper position when she tried to fly. She couldn’t stand, sit or walk properly and she was terrified. In her panics, she thrashed her feathers and eventually couldn’t fly anymore either.
Usually injured or disabled pigeons adjust incredibly well to their new circumstances but River did not. Though she was in a safe setting with happy rescued birds around her and all her physical needs met, she never relaxed. She huddled by herself in a corner, sometimes staying all day with her head hidden in her blanket. Because she was so terribly frightened, she was left alone.
I’ve cared for other stressed and scared birds before but never one like this. Even when she was perfectly safe, she was always on the verge of panic. She was more disabled by her anxiety than by her physical limitations. I thought of her as a PTSD patient.
I rarely change the names of the birds we take in but I needed a way to begin to connect with her and the name Crippled God felt more like a barrier than an entry way. I renamed her River and hoped it would help her find her resilience, her strength and flow.
Though River didn’t invite it, I knew she needed friendship. She had been alone in a crowd for a year, with no close connection or bond with anyone. Pigeons are incredibly emotional and loving birds. They hatch as twins and snuggle constantly with their sibling and then, when fledged and sexually mature a couple of months later, mate for life. (Please see Shimmy & Dallas- A Pigeon Love Story for more on the importance of love to pigeons.) I hated scaring her when I picked her up to be held and soothed but she desperately needed a social and emotional connection. She needed to know that she was safe and loved. (She’d already been left alone with other special needs birds for a year and that hadn’t worked.) Once in my hands, she’d gradually relax just a little. She’d flinch at any sound or movement but then relax a little again. If I set her down on the rug, she would scuttle wing walking as fast as she could towards any possible hiding place. She was afraid of open spaces- she had PTSD and agoraphobia too.
We made slow progress though and I was thrilled when she would eat safflower seeds out of my hand. She didn’t trust me and she ate them super fast and furtively, but it was a big step forward for us. I knew we were heading in the right direction.
I kept River’s life very routine and sheltered for the first couple of weeks. Seeing how everything terrified her, I held off going to the vet or to see our most expert pigeon whisperers, volunteers who are exceptionally good at connecting with birds. River spent her days in her cage in the special needs bird room. She was more comfortable and didn’t hide as long as she was in her space. Every evening, I’d hold her close, rub her ears, scritch her feathers and feed her safflower seed treats. It was very therapeutic for both of us.
On January 31st, I took River outside for a visit to my aviary. I wondered if she might feel better outdoors. If she did, it was negated by her agitation at not being able to stand, hop or walk. She was very awkward and that made her nervous. I put her in a nice, soft patch of grass and she felt better sitting there, mostly hidden, while I worked close by, protecting her from overcurious pigeons.
By mid-February, I moved River into a bigger cage that provided more choices for where she could spend her time. Her posture was better- more consistently normal, less tipped and awkward. I was always happy when I would check on her and find her using a different bumper to lean on or sitting in the sun looking out the window or self-sequestered in her nest box hideaway.
We kept up our routine and River was gradually becoming less fearful and more content. She still couldn’t stand or walk but sometimes she would hold my finger with her little foot while we sat together in the evening. And melt my heart.
On February 25th, I checked on River in the morning and was happy to see her sitting in a new spot in her cage. When I checked on her a couple hours later, I was stricken to discover that she was there because the poor dear had gotten her wing stuck between the horizontal bars. She had badly bruised and abraded her wing, both on top and underneath, trying unsuccessfully to untangle herself.
I got her out and soothed her and expected a big set back but for that day she seemed fine. The next morning though, I found her burrowed into the folds of her fleece. She hid in there the whole day.
On February 27th, I drove her to see our vets at Medical Center for Birds in Oakley. It was there that I could see, even after the terrible setback of getting stuck and hurting her wing, how much progress she had made, how much of her natural self-confidence was starting to come back. She did great! She was, as pigeon rescuer Dan says, “Getting her bird back”.
The doctors prescribed Meloxicam for her bruised and swollen wing. They could find nothing that would explain why River can’t stand on one leg as pigeons missing a foot typically do. The problem seems to be more in her head than in her body. Her asymmetry throws off her balance which upsets her, which escalates into panic. Now that she is less terrified, it seems that her functionality can improve. And the doctors think that she may be a candidate for a 3-D printed prosthetic foot! (This possibility is being explored.)
From Medical Center for Birds, we went to River’s new foster home with Palomacy volunteer Jill where I knew she could more fully recover. And River is a new bird. She’s already made huge progress since she arrived! Jill is truly gifted in her ability to soothe and comfort and connect with birds (maybe everybody). River fell in love with Jill within minutes of being taken into her loving hands.
Jill says about River, “She is strong and brave, she just needs to find that in herself once again.”
Jill has a special needs King pigeon hen named Tango whose tangled legs make make walking nearly impossible. She lives a queenly indoor life with lots of love and spoiling from Jill and our hope is that gentle Tango & River might become friends and further enrich each others’ lives.
And here’s River today, March 3rd, feeling so much peace and calm and love with Jill. River needs this emotional healing to facilitate her functional healing. Love is strong.
Extra special thanks to amazing miracle worker Jill! She has many gifts and we are so grateful that she shares them so generously with Palomacy.