Guest Post by Ellie Paterson
The first representative of the Columbidae family I ever helped was a downed feral pigeon sitting in the middle of a sidewalk in downtown San Rafael in 2001. A lady asked me to help take care of the bird since she was late to work. I’d be late to work as well, it turned out, because I put him in a box and carried him down the road to WildCare. I don’t know what was wrong with him or what happened to him, but I am grateful that there was an “expert” out there who I could call on to help the little thing.
Fast forward several years and I’m volunteering at a regional wildlife center. There, I had fallen in love with birds, particularly the baby birds – and most particularly the baby mourning doves (of course). One day, someone brought in a downed white dove, with a very strange bald spot on her head and pulled back eyelids. We all looked at her “bad plastic surgery,” perplexed: It looked almost symmetrical – could it be genetic? She was fully flighted and healthy otherwise. She was a very quiet and calm bird, occasionally giving strangely guttural coos. The center thus planned to release her back into the wild (their charter precludes helping domestic animals). I didn’t know much at the time, but I was concerned that a white dove would not fare very well in the wild (as, indeed, she already had the marks to prove). So I took her home!
Thus Pippin the white ringneck dove became my first bird. A vet visit confirmed she was a she, and quite healthy too. And the vet educated me about her stylish head – she had been hawk-struck, and the tissue had somehow healed well. But as it did, it pulled away from her eyes, and she also lost some feathers permanently. How she managed to heal and survive I don’t know. But now she has a wonderful hairdo and disconcerting eyes.
At first, Pippin lived in a small, borrowed cage in front of a window in our study. She was very quiet and calm as she watched my partner work at his desk all day. Occasionally she would make her odd guttural coo, and we would bring her out for a perch on a finger and a pet on the chest. She was very calm but not terribly interested in us or in exploring her new world. After about one month, I thought: she’s happy, but surely she’ll be much happier with a bird pal. But, where to find a pal? (It had to be domestic and I wasn’t going to buy a bird.)
Google search! Palomacy’s website immediately popped up: There were so many doves and pigeons! All with descriptions of their personalities, their individual stories, and who they were looking for in a home and a mate! When I contacted Elizabeth, she began her pHarmony right away as we talked about Pippin’s personality.
In the meantime, I had brought home a juvenile feral pigeon, named Pidgie, who lived with us for two months that summer. I loved Pidgie: Pidgie wanted to stand on my head, Pidgie didn’t want to be grabbed, Pidgie wanted to know what I was doing, Pidgie wanted to explore explore explore, and Pidgie wanted to fly! But, Pidgie wanted to mate with Pippin, Pidgie didn’t like his cage at all, and Pidgie drove us nuts. Pidgie needed to be FREE: to sow his oats, to find a mate who would love him back. So, knowing it was a risk, I let him outside (I didn’t know then that group releases are much safer. It didn’t even occur to me to take him to WildCare. Isn’t that odd? In retrospect I may have been too attached to think straight).
The story of Pidgie that summer won my heart to all pigeons and doves forever. Pidgie learned how to come and go from the house. First he perched on the porch railing, and then took off like a jolt. Two hours later he was back. Then he graduated to sitting on the roof before take off. Then, one day, there was a hawk in the nearby tree! I called for Pidgie! Here he came, fast as a bullet! But here came the hawk too! Pidgie made it to the porch railing, alighting beside me just in time. But the hawk came too! I batted her away with my arm while Pidgie took off again – this time into the house, down the hallway, into the bathroom, and behind the toilet, breathing hard. Poor Pidgie! He stayed home all the next day. But then, he was ready again. This time, he perched on me at the threshold, while for the first time he peered carefully at the skies above him. And off he went! Where was he going? Did he find food? Did he find other pigeons? Every day he came home just before sunset; but then, he started staying out overnight. The first night without Pidgie, I was bereft: “Pidgie has been eaten by the hawk.” But no – the next day he was home! So tired, he stayed home all day. Then off again! This continued for several weeks, with the nights spent away increasing in length. Finally, it had been five whole days and nights away. This time I was sure that Pidgie was gone for good. My boyfriend had been patient with Pidgie but was relieved he was gone: After all, Pidgie was only a pigeon. And Pippin was still here – gentle, patient Pippin. Then, literally out of the blue – in flew Pidgie!!! And landed in his favorite spot to go to bed. I beamed!!! My partner beamed!!! Pidgie was okay!
Pidgie stayed with us for a few more days. The last time I saw him was on a normal, sunny afternoon. He came from nowhere and landed near me. I said Hi! and calmly continued gardening. He looked at me for a minute or so, and then was gone again. I haven’t seen him since. Now, I always hope for the best: that he learned how to survive; that he found a flock, and a nice girl. Now, every feral pigeon I see is a Pidgie, and I dream of Pidgie flying free.
Pippin – who will always be with me – went on to get married to Lief from Palomacy. They share their own big aviary with Beethoven and Muriel, also from Palomacy; and Cassie, a disabled Eurasian-collared girl. Lief-y Boy, flirt that he is, also married Cassie about six months ago, after a year-long courtship; Cassie chases Pippin, but because Cassie can’t fly, Pippin gets around her just fine. Pippin sits on her nest all day, comes down for safflower seeds, and gets regular attentions from Lief. She is still not very interested in people, and still she hardly ever says a single coo. Silent, gentle and abiding is Pippin.
These two birds, Pippin and Pidgie – their yin and yang, their confidence in such small bodies – opened my eyes. They taught me that each has a big, big life to live, each in their own ways and with their own needs. For the first time, I appreciate that I, too, have a big, big life to live. As do we all.
Ellie Paterson is a long-time volunteer animal keeper around the Bay Area, and a frequent volunteer for Palomacy since 2014. She recently made her living in university management. She thinks that one day she would like to manage a sanctuary, where she can make pretty aviaries, garden with the birds, and clean poop. She lives in Berkeley, CA with Tim (her partner of 10 years), 2 cats, 5 doves, and 2 foster pigeons.