Friday, September 27, 2013

The Pigeon Wars

I was standing outside with one of my students, just before the start of a class. It was beautiful and warm, so we decided to stay outside to do our thing. We were talking and watching the pigeons line up and drop down like little parachuters to eat the rice I put out for them. Malarepa (aka Ralph, the white pigeon) fascinates everyone. There is something very unique about him. Partially it is his pure coloring, a part of it is his size and the presence of the orange bands on his legs (he fled his former occupation as a wedding celebrant to come live in the mills) and a part of it is it is so very obvious that he was raised by humans in the way he interacts with whoever is there.

I know I shouldn’t, but I play favorites. He knows this and makes a production out of walking right up to me, knowing I will flick a little rice down on the side for him and him alone. Ralph had a little issue when he moved in that the other pigeons didn’t quite know what to think of him, and he didn’t know quite what to think of himself. It was mating season and although he is a pigeon, he is a very different type of pigeon. I watched him awkwardly try the male mating behavior of the other rock pigeons, then switch for a week to the female behavior. While he didn’t succeed with mating this year, he has found companionship with a young female late in the season. It is sweet to watch.

My student and I were just talking about things that made had no sense or order other than watching the pigeons line up and watch us someone brought them up. A man came driving down the street in a rough looking white minivan and paused at the turn.

“I can get you a BB gun!” He points at the 60 or so pigeons lined up evenly on the roof.
“That’s OK, I feed them!”
“Goddamnit. You’re why there is pigeon shit everywhere!”
“No, there is pigeon shit everywhere because you have pigeons.”

He roars off, mouth set, snow-white Abraham Lincoln beard thrust out over his chest. I have not made a friend.

There is a saying that if you feed a bird, you go to heaven. That is a part of the reason I feed the birds. I also feed them because it is simple. I feed the pigeons rice; they play in the air in front of me. It is a fair trade. I have learned a lot about birds since I started all this. Many of the members are scientists and birders and they have shared what they know about their behavior and communities. Birds are amazing communal creatures who value individual life.

I once saw a group of turtle doves surround one of their own, who had been badly injured in a fight with a Cooper’s hawk, and walk the dove to the center of the food I had set out so it could eat while they guarded it. When the hawk returned, they all fought him. Two doves died, but not the injured one.

In the Dunnell location, we have a hawk too. It is a red tailed hawk, a much more benign predator than the Cooper’s hawk. That once used to swoop at me as I went up and down the street and landed so close once, I could see his pupils. The Dunnell hawk has no chance with these birds. There is a lone crow that acts as an early warning system, but otherwise never interacts with the birds. The crow has never even eaten anything that I put out. Although it has come over to eye me and learn my face.

Someone recently asked me how many pets I have and I said, “A cat, two fish, and a small flock of a hundred and fifty or so birds.” I had fretted at Main Street about the move, wondering who would feed the birds when I was gone. I had a strong flock there too that would show up at their set times, just like this flock, and want their food. The Main Street flock was even picky.

What I learned is that I don’t have a flock. They have me. When I am not there to feed them, they go elsewhere. It is a happy incidence when I come out and feed them regularly, but they do not depend on it. I, on the other hand, and quite dependent on them (and Ralph) to lift my day.

There is another reason I feed the birds. I am wondering if I should tell it to that man, or let him discover it himself. Feeding the birds is good business sense.

Many of our classes are outdoors. Right out front of Dunnell. Many of the people who come here drive nice cars.

There isn’t any pigeon poop anywhere to be seen and no one has ever had any on their cars.


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