domestication Archive

An Animal Diary, Animals

The Pigeon

pigeonMy running partner saw the pigeon first. It was flapping a broken wing to try and right itself, stuck inside an open front gate of a house on the road we were running along to the Saturday morning’s Park Run. We stopped to see what we could do. There was a large gash in the pigeon’s back. It’s feathers were an anaemic blue, the blue of a watercoloured sky, the blue of the shirt I am wearing now, a birthday present from a friend.

It was obviously a fledgling, having leapt and not flown. Unable to return to its nest. Injured somehow, it didn’t occur to me how. I bent down to pick it up, but it tried to get away. I didn’t want to damage it any more. It limped away, flapping one wing and dragging the other. I finally managed to get a grip of it, both hands around its body, thinking momentarily of the image of pigeons as ridden with germs, rats with wings as some people call them, and moved it to the back of the shrub that took up most of that house’s small front garden. I wanted to leave it in a place where it could die quietly. What else could we do?

Once I put it down it flapped and limped away again, thinking itself in danger from us. It moved into a corner, flapping into the wall, unable to get further away. Then it stopped. And we had to continue to where we were going.

I don’t know of many species of creature that are more vilified and treated with such contempt. Children chase and kick at them, and their parents laugh. But the rock dove was brought into human captivity around nine thousand years ago for food and sport, and the reason we have pigeons today was because some escaped from our captivity. They have adapted to our overcoming of the world. When we pigeon hole people we are referring to the holes made in rock caves, not where the doves originally lived but where they were kept for food. It is not a flattering comparison. We look at them as if they are vermin; dirty; scavengers; ruiners of the pristine; wanters of nothing more than the waste we produce for them. There is mass, collective projection going on here, as I look at the parents looking at their children chasing and kicking the pigeons. There is one that feeds halfway down Northumberland Street, and it has a club foot. Its talons are missing; instead there is a thick, gelatinous lump on the end of its leg. An infection? A defect? It is clearly painful to walk on that foot; the pigeon feels this pain. The children run after it and try to kick it.

Later, I went back to the injured bird. I couldn’t think of that pigeon there on its own suffering. The right thing to do was go back and help. I had a hire car for a few hours, so drove there. It was a quiet road, with only one entrance and exit, so no through traffic. When I returned, the pigeon was in the middle of the road. And behind it were two cats. Sitting and waiting. They had been chasing and playing. They were the source of the deep gash in the pigeon’s back. So I got out, took my sports towel I’d carried with me in my rucksack, and chased the cats away, and finally managed to capture the pigeon in the towel, wrapped it up tight, and got back in the car. Holding the pigeon tied up with one hand, I drove home—to the veterinarian’s at the end of my street. There was nothing the vet could do, said the nurse, other than probably euthanize the bird. I left the pigeon with them. For those last moments it was calm in my grasp. I held it, and stroked its beak. Let it know that it was okay. It was better than being eaten by cats.

Now I wished I had brought it home and nursed it back to health in my garage. But I did not know how to do something like this. My knowledge of caring for pigeons or injured animals is non-existent. Not everyone dislikes pigeons. Some people fancy after them, train and fly them in competitions. Recognise their abilities. Homing pigeons use sound to image their route, to find their way back. They have superb low-frequency hearing, and make acoustic maps from the sounds emanated from the earth and oceans; they get lost if there is interference in these sounds (such as when the Concord jet flew over during a pigeon race).

A question was asked of me: How far do we go to interfere with ‘nature’—that is, cats hunt birds. Pigeons are populous, wild animals; should we concern ourselves with saving one suffering individual? This last point an argument that pattrice jones unpicks and rejects in her book The Oxen at the Intersection; that if we think only of a species then we forget that animals are individuals, and each is worthy of not suffering, and has a desire and want to live. The first point—are we interfering with nature to save a pigeon from cats?—is something I am unclear upon, in regards to a fully worked out argument. But how can my instinct to save an animal from suffering not be a part of that ‘nature’? As natural as domesticated cats, anyway. Thinking of Jean-Christophe Bailly’s small book The Animal Side, I know which side of the question I fall upon, and it is the animal side. It is the side that feels to me like the low-humming sound of home.

Image (cc) Heather aka Molly