11 June 2016

The pigeon post

The pigeons had been let out with trepidation. One was a homer, and we wondered whether, even after months of incarceration, it would embark on its own odyssey, taking the other one with it back to the place it had come from, the place that had been its home: the place, in other words, where the owner had threatened to shoot them if they returned.

I didn't know the full story. As usual, all I'd heard had been hints and snippets, enough to know the danger but little more. But I needn't have worried, because both pigeons decided the implement shed was a better bet than either their old shack, where they'd been cooped up with the barnevelder and the golden-laced wyandotte and the mad Silkie, or their even older and now potentially lethal former home. The implement shed had a lot going for it from a pigeon's perspective: freedom; ease of escape; proximity to the three pigeons still immured in a less-than-lofty cage of chicken wire, two-by-one laths, and plywood; and—maybe most important—my car to crap on.

I could put up with that, though. By the time their crap had corroded the paintwork — the paintwork, that is, that the sun hadn't yet blistered or faded, or that hadn't been abraded by the licking of heifers — the car would probably be nearing the end of its days. Maybe I'd even take to washing the pigeon poo off each day, which would mean some parts of the car would actually get washed. The last time that had happened had been so long ago I couldn't remember it.

Besides, if it came to a contest between pigeons and car cosmetics, the birds would always win. I've loved pigeons ever since my parents refused to allow me to keep them. I'd have been about eight, give or take a year, and the ostensible reason for the refusal was because of the diseases they were supposed to carry ('psittacosis' might have been the first really big word I ever learned). A more plausible explanation was that keeping them would have required buying pigeon food, with neither meat nor eggs as compensation.

It's not that my parents didn't like animals — they did, and I grew up with chooks, cattle, goats, geese, and plenty of wildlife — but that money wasn't abundant. The favoured animals were those that offered some kind of practical, as well as aesthetic or recreational, payback for the cost of being fed.

But some of my school friends kept pigeons. They claimed they'd climbed the crumbling volcanic cliffs where the big flocks of feral pigeons roosted and had stolen squabs. The idea seems utterly implausible now, even if they'd done it without their parents' permission, but the fact remains: they had pigeons, and they sometimes brought one to school to show off, and the bright eye and iridescence and sheer birdness of a pigeon held in the hand captivated me.

Many decades later the Christchurch earthquakes brought down and reshaped most of the pigeon cliffs, and I heard that for a long time the pigeons had gone. I don't blame them.

What never disappeared, though, was my fondness for pigeons. If anything, that fondness has grown, but the funny thing is that I've never owned pigeons of my own, in any sense of that objectionable word, 'owned'. The closest I've come has been looking after these five — the two now liberated and the three still caged — for three weeks while their nominal owners were overseas.

I think my pigeon-fondness increased markedly during my overseas travels. I've seen them, in one form or another, in most places I've travelled. I've seen them everywhere I've been in India, from the great and small cities of Gujarat and Rajasthan to the high, sere Himalaya; in the Karni Mata rat temple at Deshnoke; flying in scattered flocks around the great dome of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, where the height obliterated the sense of scale and they could have been angels, or maybe souls, trying to find the way to heaven. I've seen them at dusk as the bus drove into Jaipur and they gazed at us from their twilight roosts on either side of the small canyon. That memory is indistinct yet vivid: the kind of memory I no longer trust because it feels too much like imagination or a congeries of dreams and other memories and expectations, the only thing in common to all those workings of the mind being the slightly surprised yet somehow self-contained stare of countless pigeons.

I've seen them inhabiting the quake-fractured stone towers and cracked walls of buildings in Bhuj, in Gujarat, the buildings still standing as if waiting for the next quake when they can complete their transformation into ruins. Meanwhile the pigeons flutter and shuffle and rearrange themselves onto small ledges and stare down at people who no longer notice them. No one notices pigeons until they're a nuisance or, maybe, until they're no longer there. Then they say, 'Where have all the pigeons gone?' and their voices fill with uneasiness.

I've seen them in the Rumbak Valley in Ladakh's Hemis National Park. I watched a flock take flight with a roar of wings, and as I saw the flash of white on their tails a thrill ran through me because I realised these were hill pigeons, close cousins of the feral pigeons we no longer notice in our cities. That flock would surely at some time have been watched by a snow leopard, and it's not utterly beyond the bounds of possibility that I too, during my short time there, might have been watched by a snow leopard. Many things connect me to the snow leopard — bharal; the local people I met at Rumbak, some of whom have seen shan; Matthiessen's book, which I've read many times including during both visits to Nepal; and so on — and now, pigeons.

I've seen pigeons in Almaty, in Kazakhstan, too. There, they were the only common birds and even they weren't as abundant as I'd expected. They were darker than usual, with a greasy sheen as if they'd flown through a fine spray of sump oil, and they looked a little wrong. Almaty had its charms, but it felt too much under human control and even the pigeons had a hard time treating us as if we didn't matter.

And that's one of the things I love about pigeons: they way they use us and offer nothing in return except the opportunity for us to appreciate their independence. They use our buildings and monuments and bridges — those things we think of as major accomplishments of architecture and art and engineering: as symbols of our greatness and superiority, in other words — and they pay us neither rent nor homage. They put us in our place by pooing on our greatness and —here's the wonderful thing — they don't even bother doing it with contempt or malice. We're beneath them, literally and figuratively, except when we feed them either deliberately or inadvertently, and in either case, guess who's the superior being?

But, most of all, I find comfort in knowing pigeons are there. You can rely on pigeons: they're there in most places in one form or another to remind you that no matter how difficult the circumstances, survival is possible. Pigeons thrive in places where the horror of the human condition could easily overwhelm you. If you want inspiration, if you want to know success is achievable no matter what — just look for the pigeons.

1. Yes, I know some people eat pigeons, and others are obsessed with fancy breeds or racing pigeons, but I've chosen to ignore those inconvenient truths. It's even OK for you not to share my pigeon-enthusiasms.
2. Shan is the name of the snow leopard in Ladakh.

These are the two pigeons now free to make the implement shed their home (and my car their toilet).

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Three years watching Boston pigeons, tough ragged things they are. And fast, canny, annoyed by the human infestation.

Funny how humans are most bothered by the creatures most like ourselves. Ubiquitous, persistent, sharp and stupid together, damaging to everything around us, survivors. Pigeons, roaches, rats, dandelions, humans.

Pigeons are beautiful.

Liz said...

They're very devoted parents too, even though they make their nests from ice-block sticks and cable ties, glued together with their own crap, and their chicks are supremely ugly.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, that's a good insight, and, from a personal viewpoint, I'd add chimpanzees to that list. I know I should be objective, but I struggle to like them. roaches and rats, looked at in the right way, can be beautiful too.

Liz, that's so true about pigeon chicks. Mind you, more than a few altricial chicks are less than cute and fluffy.

butuki said...

Just yesterday, during a long afternoon walk in the rain, I happened upon a group of pigeons feeding on grass seeds that had been freed by the work of a gardener hacking away at the riverside grasses. I noted how much cleaner and healthier and colorful they were compared to downtown pigeons just 20 minutes away, that always look oily and desperate and malnourished and often walking on stubby feet.

You've made me look at pigeons in a new way, though I, too, have loved them since I was a boy. They really do remind us of the beauty within the darkest hollows of our dystopian creations. And their shit truly is the mark of aristocrats! ;-P

I'm trying to work out the utility of their bobbing heads... wondering if the quick back and forth acts as a kind of stereoscopic zoetrope, so that they see the world in animated 3D. The frame rates seem a bit slow though...So does everyone look like Buster Keaton to them?

robin andrea said...

What a wonderful insightful post. Pigeons are a delight to watch, especially during mating season. We've spent time watching the males puff up their chests and strut strut strut around, impressing (or at least hoping to) their female companions. I love what you say about their superior stature. They use us, shit on us, and eat wherever and whenever they please. They are truly remarkable birds. And of course, I love their iridescence.

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, I'm not surprised you share my love of pigeons, and I'm so glad you found some new things about them in the post. I do know what you mean about so many city pigeons, but it's not universal, because I've seen very healthy-looking pigeons in what would seem to be terrible places in cities. I suspect diet has a lot to do with that, and the common practice of feeding bread (typically very high in salt) to them (and other birds) plays a large part in their ill health.

That's an interesting idea about the bobbing heads. I'm sure we could come up with any number of outrageous hypotheses about that :-)

Robin, thank you :-) It's a delight to know other people, like you, also appreciate these things about pigeons. Now I'll have to work on encouraging an appreciation of cockroaches, some at least of which are delightful and the others, ... well, are at least worthy of great respect :-)