An Interview by Cynthia Zhou
Since 2011, Jill McMurchy is one of Palomacy’s most active volunteers: from running her own foster aviary (Jillville) to transporting, rescuing and educating the public with hundreds of pigeons & doves, she’s done just about everything Palomacy needs help with. Jill is an animated, warm person who first struck me as a doting bird parent, then revealed a sense of humor that can be surprisingly cheeky. If you’re a pigeon, watch out – Jill is the biggest believer in snuggling (snorgling) birds, and even the grumpiest pigeons have felt her love!
Jill has just brought Bingo, a little pigeon from SJACC missing half his upper beak and several patches of feathers, to his new foster apartment. Bingo is wearing pants for the first time and curious about this new room – he’s walking around, occasionally stumbling, and exploring the new place. Miu (my bird) and Bingo are mostly ignoring each other but occasionally have small stare-downs. Jill and I are sitting right in the middle of all of this as we speak.
Hi Jill! Let’s start by learning a bit about you. Who are you, where are you from, what do you do?
Who am I? I’m Jill, I’m the wife of a farmer, I am the mother of three kids, and I’m a nanny when I’m not pidge-ing.
Tell me a bit about your animal background. Are you involved with other rescues, and what other animals are dear to you?
I’ve been involved with greyhound rescue since the early 90s and coincidentally, I think the reason that I’m so involved with pigeons now is because the first pigeon I found was a racing pigeon, Elinor. I can equate how people use pigeons to race to the same way that people use greyhounds. There’s a definite overlap and a similarity to the two that really got to me. I don’t like the thought of animals being exploited by people for monetary gain in any way, and so that just led to more and more pigeons.
I never thought about that similarity between the two.
Did you ever read my SF Gate article? [Greyhound racing] is slowly becoming less prevalent and they’re closing down tracks around the United States because it’s not as popular anymore – but that’s basically why greyhounds exist now in the United States, because people race them.
The whole similarity is what drew me in.
Can you tell me the story about your first pigeon? What was the bird’s name and story?
I was taking my son home and I saw something on the white line on the side of the road. It wasn’t a freeway but it was a pretty fast road – on the 84 going from Sunol to Livermore. Out of the side of my eye I saw something and I saw a lot of blood – I looked over and said to my son “What was that?” He said “I think it was a pigeon”, so I did a U-turn and went and picked him up.
When I saw him, he was very badly injured. His wing was hanging off, his eyeball was inflamed, and there was blood all down the right side of him, so I took off my sweatshirt and I thought I was going to have to throw it over him to catch him. He walked towards me.
So I grabbed him and wrapped him up, and I think I made a post on Craigslist asking if they knew of anybody who could help. It was on a Sunday, so of course all the vets are closed, and somehow – an hour later I get a phone call from Elizabeth. Somebody in Palomacy noticed – this was in 2011, and I think she had been doing this since 2007, so she was 4 years into this. She said, take the bird to Montclair Vet Hospital. You know there’s not a whole lot of places that take pigeons. Most will euthanize, but they don’t. I dropped him off and I cried the whole way home because it’s just, we had a connection, I felt like we had a connection. And I didn’t think he’d be alive the next morning.
Elizabeth was in touch with them. I remember her calling me back and saying “If you’ll get the pigeon and take him to Oakley to Medical Center For Birds, we’ll take him into our foster care if you can foster him.”
I said okay in a heartbeat.
I took him, Dr. Fitzgerald had a consultation and we decided to have half his wing amputated because he would’ve been dragging it for the rest of his life, and I “fostered”, but I adopted him almost straightaway. Elizabeth somehow found an aviary for me, we picked it up, and I got my first foster bird. His name was Shorty! And then it grew from there. She would say, “Do you have any room for this and this and this and this?” She said I had a bulls-eye [for pigeon rescue] on my head.
How many pigeons have you worked with since then?
Oh my goodness, I have no idea… maybe a hundred? I don’t know, maybe more. Right now I just have 30 and I’ve had so many come through and then get adopted, so I would love to look into this. Probably over a hundred.
Tell me a little about the kind of work you do with your rescued birds, and the kind of interactions you share.
I do a lot of outreach with my birds, I go to summer camps and teach kids about pigeons and I go to compassion camp – these compassion outreach events – to teach kids that animals should have rights and they have feelings too. I’m always doing outreach and educating the public about what great pets these guys make.
Sometimes I think that a good 70-80% of what we do at Palomacy is just educating the public because pigeons have such a stigma attached to them, and a very undeserved one. They’ve been around us and we’ve had pigeons in our lives for thousands and thousands of years. We have a long history with these guys and they’ve helped us out a lot. Unfortunately they don’t have a great reputation among the general public, and I think that’s part of the beauty of what I see in Palomacy and all the volunteers. We see beauty in the ordinary. To me, it takes extraordinary people to see that.
You’ve helped rehabilitate a lot of special-case birds that arrived with extreme trauma, whether it’s emotional or physical or both. What’s your secret? What helps Jill the healer encourage these birds to recover?
I listen to them and I watch them and I see, based on observation, what they need. Like Poppy doesn’t like a lot of handling. I know it probably seemed like it with some of my posts and pictures and things, that she wanted to be handled, but she didn’t. I did it because I knew she needed it because she wasn’t going to get that from another pigeon. She was blind and she couldn’t see and she couldn’t communicate that way. So you just have to understand what their innate needs are, and then every one is different, every pigeon is different, all their needs are different.
When I first got Elinor and he came home with half a wing, he couldn’t fly, so I would watch to see how he could navigate. For some reason, he wanted to have the highest nest so I built him steps along the side of the aviary – shelves that resembled a ladder. I would just observe. Seeing him go from one to another, I started making more. I could see that he wanted to keep going. So just a lot of observation. Them telling me what they need.
Why pigeons? What makes them so lovable?
God, I mean, they’re just, they’re so smart and charming and social and loyal. They’re gentle for the most part and even when they’re not, they can’t take a chunk of skin off like a parrot. They’re just so full of personality. I’ve been able to see them raise babies and it’s amazing to see the dedication they give. And it’s not just a reproductive relationship they have with their mate, it’s very loving, and that can translate from pidge to person too. They’re as loyal as can be. And ohmygod their FEET! Look at Miu and her loaf. She’s a pigeon puddle!
I know you have many favorites, but is there one particular bird (or a few) who has especially touched you? What’s their story?
There’s a few. There was Chanel, he was an English trumpeter. He was so inbred and overbred, he had feathers coming out of his feet. The day I got him, I cut them all off so he could walk. And he had multiple feathers coming out of follicles – each follicle should have one feather and he would have five, and it would turn into a big cyst. It was just so painful for him and he just dealt with it – he was the most gentle bird in the world. So he was special.
Poppy was one. Just to see how she never gave up, she never sat in the back of her cage and gave up, she was always front and center and wanting to go forward.
Aurora – she was a little racing pigeon. I got a call from Elizabeth on July 4 one year and she said there’s this person that rescued these two pigeons. One was Indy and one was Aurora. She was a racer with two broken legs. When I went to get her, the people that had her had her on wire, and they had had her for a few weeks, so they didn’t take her to a vet. She had no care. I took her in, and we got her walking. Dr. Olsen and Dr. Speer did the surgery – she had fixeters on the outside and pins, and it was a long process. And she walked. Somewhere on my Facebook there’s a video of her walking for the first time.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen your pigeons do?
There was that time with Opal and Fergie [800g king pigeon] – I saw their eyes lock. Fergie was not my bird, she was being fostered by Frederike who lived in Sunnyvale. She couldn’t take her to MCFB so I said, okay, you can bring her to me and I’ll take her. She was in this tiny cage and I thought I’d put her in the aviary to stretch her wings. She [Fergie] just walked right over there. And she chose him [my pet pigeon Opal], she just said I’m coming in, and he said damn right! They started kissing right away, I’d never seen anything like it. She wasn’t even in there two minutes. I think I have a picture of the first time they looked.
Frederike volunteered for Palomacy as well as founded her own rescue [B2L House] and she usually adopted her foster birds… she’s more of a sanctuary. So I told Elizabeth and she goes, “She’s expecting Fergie back so you need to call her and tell her and see what she says”. She [Frederike] said “will you give Fergie a good home?” and I said “Yes, Opal’s mine and I’ll adopt her” and she said okay.
Even though your life is basically full of pigeons now, what’s your favorite thing to do that doesn’t involve them?
Uh, I… uh, let me think! Because so much of it is pigeons.
I love nesting at home. I love just making my home comfy and cozy. I love decorating, I love painting, I love that whole making a home a home. I’m a bird, I think I am! And I’m a homebody. My home is my sanctuary and it’s my haven – a lot of people want to go do something, always go go go. On vacation I want to stay home (not that I can go anywhere with my pigeons).
And my kids, they’re all adults now, and when I do get to spend time with them, it’s special.
You rescue and foster animals that are often consumed as meat. Has that changed your opinion on eating meat, or have you always been vegetarian?
Yes. I was not always vegetarian and it was a process. Throughout my whole life I’ve had spurts of feeling like I don’t want to be contributing to all the pain and suffering out there, and eventually I slipped and tried to justify it by saying “this was a happy cow or this was a happy pig because it was raised differently” but I can’t justify that anymore. I can’t. I don’t care how good bacon tastes – and it doesn’t even taste good to me anymore – after seeing and knowing how that came to the plate.
What did you want to do when you were younger? Is pigeon rescue something you imagined doing?
No, but I wanted to do something with animals. I’ve always rescued them – I used to bring animals home all the time, twitchy squirrels on their last legs, and birds, and whatnot. I’ve always wanted to help animals my whole life. And the fact that I’m always finding – I just seem to find things to rescue, or they find me, I don’t know. I guess they know.
Describe having pigeons as pets in one sentence for me.
THE MOST BESTEST THING IN THE WHOLE WORLD – DUH!
What makes Palomacy so special?
I’d like to talk about Elizabeth and how she is so inclusive with her flock, with her people. I’ve been involved with different rescues, greyhound, shelters, whatever, and Elizabeth is different. She makes you feel like a colleague, and equal, she doesn’t make you feel any less than she is.
I do feel that too. When I first got Miu, I didn’t expect that she would reach out to me so much – and I’ve tried working at other rehab/rescue centers, and there’s very much this hierarchy – people at the top, people in the middle, and you’re at the bottom and you have to work your way up. Elizabeth is just like “Hey! We’re friends now! Let’s talk pigeons!”
Yes, from the get-go, you’re partners. Oh god, I’ve had bad experiences and I can name one big one-it was a greyhound rescue group in the Bay Area. There’s just this caliber, this quality of people that I’ve met that I feel are my family – you guys get it, you know? And I fit in. More than anything else, than any other group of people I’ve belonged to, how we feel about these guys, and it almost feels like we know a secret that so many people don’t. We’re privy to it. And that’s what’s special. The birds, of course, it’s a no-brainer – but I’m not sure I would’ve fallen in love so hard with them if it wasn’t for Elizabeth and how she is with them, and how she is with us. She’s a big part of it. Her inclusive, sort of…ness (inclusiveness) with having us all help together and we’re a part of it.
And these guys just need advocates, they need people. It’s just kind of amazing that every other animal has something and, you know… Ohmygod! (at Bingo)
In true Jill fashion, that’s how our interview ended. Bingo and Miu were preening near each other and Jill leaned over to take pictures of the two fluffy birds. She tried to get Bingo to look at her by baby-talking to him: “Hey Bingy! Dinky Bingo! BINGO! Hey!”
And that’s Jill: healer, mother, sometimes goofy animal advocate, and more – but at the core of all of that is someone full of love for each and every being in her care. She adores her animals and her people with warmth and enthusiasm. We love you Jill!!! We’re so incredibly lucky to have you in the Palomacy community.
Cynthia recently graduated from UC Berkeley, having studied Molecular Biology with a concentration in Animal Health. Her claim to fame is living with (and cleaning up after) several Tumblr-famous birds. Despite poor attendance, she managed to get good grades last semester and is still on track to graduate on time. She credits Miu with providing good company and encouragement during finals week, and hopes to dedicate her post-grad life to wildlife rehabilitation and rescue work.
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