Guest Post by Aileen Paterson
On September 7, 2017, Palomacy received a request to help a large flock of pigeons whose aging person could no longer care for them. My experience over the course of the next three months gave me some new skills, and raised some challenging questions.
Janet, a Berkeley resident, was no longer able to care for her backyard flock of pet pigeons. Her friend Jim asked if we could take the pigeons away and put them up for adoption, or disperse them in a humane way. Because I live in Berkeley, Elizabeth asked me to make a home visit. I was happy to because I love the rewarding feeling of direct rescue. The choice for me at this point was simple and uncomplicated: an hour of my time, some coaching from Elizabeth, and an inquisitive mind.
FAITH AND COMMITMENT
We were told there were 25 birds and that they were not allowed to breed. What I found were 34 birds and 9 eggs! Janet turned out to be a lovely woman with mild cognitive impairment, who clearly loved her birds but was not tending to them adequately. The story of how Janet came to have the birds remains a little unclear – either they were abandoned by a previous homeowner, or they were offered to her when the homeowner (raising birds for food and sport) moved, or a combination of these stories. Different details emerged as I made return visits. As I got to know Janet, I was able to transfer some of my passion back to her, the person who – whatever the circumstances – had rescued pigeons years before I had even known they existed.
Janet’s house was pretty with a lovely back yard full of fruit trees and vines. At the very back sat the pigeon coop – a rundown ramshackle affair of plywood and redwood. It had originally been solidly constructed, and slowly fallen apart and been cobbled back together in places with (unsafe) chicken wire. As I approached the coop, a strong musty smell wafted up from the muddy ground in front of it. There were 6 inches of combined seeds and guano on the floor of the coop, which was incredibly small for the number of pigeons.
For all its faults though, the coop was cozy. Janet would feed and water them in the morning and let them out to free fly, and at night, when they had returned to roost inside, would close them up with a solid but jerry rigged system. (Editor’s note: Domestic pigeons are not well equipped to survive wild skies and should not be free flown.) The birds were all bright eyed, sleek, and active. (There were no weak or frail birds in this “survival of the fittest” flock. They were culled by the local predators.) The flock appeared to be a mix of domestics and ferals with years of breeding – speckled, barred, red, white – all kinds of colors. Most of the birds were married and had their own billets, each with a brick!!!
While checking the coop, I saw some movement in a dark corner. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t an ill bird down there. I put my hand in to the dark space, felt around in the dirty mounds of seeds and felt something round…warm…and… furry! A quick squeeze and resultant “squeak” and I withdrew my hand quickly. A more thorough look with my camera phone showed me three roof rats, thankfully looking at me very timidly! Further inspection of the coop revealed the few gnawed openings large enough for rats. With the copious amounts of old seeds in the coop, the rats were in paradise! (Editor’s note: Rats are fierce little predators who can and do kill healthy adult pigeons. An aviary needs to be predator and rodent-proof to be safe!)
Janet and Jim were very nice and clearly hoping I would take the birds away right then and there. I explained that Palomacy is not a removal service, but rather a volunteer-powered rescue with too many birds to save. I was able to remove the eggs and transfer three juveniles to WildCare for release when adult and we talked about the options, including sanctuaries, a soft release or euthanasia. I asked Janet whether she was selling the house and while she said no, Jim later said that it was likely within a year. This gave us some breathing room. At the end of the initial visit, I promised to speak with Elizabeth to see what ideas we could come up with.
I also committed to come back to clean out the coop. The initial cleanout took three hard-labor hours and filled up a large compost bin. Janet called me a “tough bird.”
LIMITED OPTIONS FOR PET PIGEONS
Elizabeth and I had many discussions about the limited options for this flock of lovely birds who simply wanted to hang out in their suboptimal home, raise their young, and take an occasional wing around the neighborhood. Although Janet had raised the possibility of euthanasia, Elizabeth and I both were against the idea – but options were few. We began to discuss whether a “soft release” – stopping feeding and removing the coop – could work by dispersing the flock into the wild. The birds, although free flying, were domestic and dependent on regular feeding. They didn’t forage. It seemed likely the birds would just hang out begging and scrounging the food Janet put out for cats rather than assimilate into a feral flock. Janet would also have to put away her wild bird feeders. A soft release was not shaping up well. And if we transported them away from the area to be released elsewhere, they’d just do their best to try and fly back.
So, we were convinced that – if we were to truly help – we needed to cast a wide net to find a solution. I was willing to maintain the coop, and Janet’s situation was stable enough, for now. I volunteered – as a good neighbor and not as a Palomacy representative – to clean the coop. I visited Janet every week for about 3.5 months, taking 1.5 hours each Sunday to do a thorough clean, feed and wellness check. Given the cramped quarters and buildup of debris, I used a ventilated mold mask. Janet was always very appreciative, glad to see me, and interested in how I was doing.
Distressingly, the chance of finding adopters for 31 unsocialized pigeons looked low, not to mention that Palomacy already had more than 100 birds in need of adoption. And I couldn’t continue to take care of them indefinitely. We repeatedly publicized the flock, reached out to sanctuaries across the country and wracked our brains for how to save these pigeons. Finally, though, we were really fortunate – and relieved – when pigeon rescuer Carie of Phoenix said she could welcome the whole flock into her huge aviary. (Carie helped with another huge rescue in 2016 as well. Thank you, Carie!)
ON A WING AND A PRAYER
Now we just had to figure out how to get the birds to their new home! Either someone could drive them or we could ship the birds. At first we tried to find volunteers who could drive them but without success. My availability was limited because of work and my own animals. Elizabeth’s was limited because of all her work and all the birds in her care. I even registered Palomacy on a website that connects private airplane pilots with non-profits that need animal transport (no takers). Finally, we decided to ship them.
I had never heard of shipping birds, but apparently it’s a real thing. The US Postal Service ships live birds often. Boxes are manufactured specifically for this purpose. The boxes are a bit like a banker’s box, but larger and with more folds and air vents, creating a very sturdy, vented structure. The large box holds 8 pigeons, each in a little space just large enough for a pigeon and some straw. The winter is a good time to ship to Phoenix since it is not too hot then; but we had to avoid any stormy weather too. Monday or Tuesday are the only days to ship because, although the USPS guarantees overnight delivery, often the birds get delayed, so shipping early in the week ensures they’ll arrive before the weekend. The week before transport, Elizabeth ordered the boxes and navigated the airport USPS system to get authorization to ship four large boxes containing 31 pigeons SFO to PHX.
As we loaded each bird into a space, most of them were docile, but some of them were very feisty, so much so that Elizabeth had to put a brick on top of each compartment to stop them muscling their way out. Tough birds! Elizabeth made sure to include her business card in each box plus a big stash of fake eggs (for hatch prevention) in the conveniently vacant 32nd space. Janet spent a few moments with the birds while we were loading them. She was truly touched to be losing them but happy they were going to such a good home.
Elizabeth and I took the birds to the USPS at the San Francisco airport. The carrier kindly wrapped each box in Express shipping tape, and off they went on a cart to the back sorting area- guaranteed to arrive by noon the next day.
We had four tracking numbers – but we would not know what flight they were on, nor the departure time. The next thing we did know, it was the next day and the birds had not arrived. Elizabeth tracked down that the birds had been scanned at 11:45pm the previous night – they had waited 12 hours just to be scanned! We assumed that meant they had been loaded on a plane but it was another 24 hours before adopter Carie finally received the call from her local post office that the birds had arrived. She rushed to pick them up and get them back to her house and released into the aviary. Thankfully, all were fine! Tough birds indeed!
At the end of this success story, I am happy to say that the birds are well. Janet can make plans for her own care without worrying about her pigeons. And she has a 2018 Palomacy calendar so that she will still have pigeons in her life. She knows that someone cares about her. Janet and Jim, and a few people at the USPS know that people care about pigeons. What is disappointing is the amount of hard labor, waiting, and poor options to choose from to truly help. We – and these birds – were lucky in the end. In the meantime, there are many more birds in Palomacy’s network that need homes now. How do we continue to do all that is necessary?
Where and how do we – as individuals and as an organization – draw the line? Can we afford (in effort, time, money, emotions – you name it) to rescue every bird and sustain our work for years to come? Should the moral question “What happens if we don’t/can’t help” ever truly be answered for rescuers?
How do we as pet owners make plans to take care of our animals when we are no longer able to? This question is especially troubling for pigeon lovers, for whom trustworthy options are very limited. Can we do more to prepare for the inevitable?
How do we retain our passion to help others when the information we are given is suspicious or downright incorrect? Do most people mean well?
Palomacy operates locally and globally, and has good neighbors far and wide. But Palomacy struggles every day behind the scenes. It is hard to find enough people willing to help all the pigeons at risk. We need your help. Palomacy depends on the hard work of individuals who make a conscious choice to help every day.
Aileen ‘Ellie’ Paterson is a long-time volunteer animal keeper around the Bay Area, and a frequent volunteer for Palomacy since 2014. She works in university management and 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 11 years), 2 cats, 5 doves, and 2 pigeons.