When people ask me how I became interested in the World War II pigeons I tell them I happened to watch The War of the Birds on youtube. Everybody’s busy and it seems better to give a short answer. The complete answer is that I had feral pigeons nesting on my porch for two years. Then I was beaten and stabbed multiple times at a park several miles away. Being very scared, I moved out of the city. I lost the pigeons. I got over the attack in about three months. My heart stopped racing at every little sound. But I haven’t gotten over losing the pigeons. So this is some of what happened during those two years. This is the story of the bird.
It had been at least 117 every day for more than a week that July in 2011. After filling up a Tree Top Apple Sauce container with water at the fountain outside of the camp house at one of the desert parks 16 miles out of the city, I heard a fluttery, whispery sound. I turned my head to the right. A red-headed finch had landed on the water spout, about three inches from my right hand. He was so beautiful and so close. Was this really happening? Then he started looking up into my eyes and then down at the opening in the spout for the water. Up into my eyes, then down at the water spout, over and over again. Being in shock that he whole thing was even happening, it took at least two minutes for me to figure out that he wanted me to start the water for him. I inched my hand closer, slowly, telling him I was going to start the water. I let go the tiniest burble of water. He drank and drank and drank. He looked me in the eye again and flew off. When I went back to the city I put a ceramic bowl full of water out on the west stucco wall of the porch. Within ten minutes, all kinds of small birds had gathered around the bowl, chirping and singing and taking turns perching on the edge and drinking.
This perimeter of this porch included a 4 foot high stucco wall on the west end. A two foot stretch of four foot high stucco wall on the south side which met up with the wall holding the closet for the water heater on the east end. The stucco wall on the west end had a short extension on the south side, so it formed a corner on the porch in which anything could hide.. The two foot stretch of stucco wall on the south side met the wall with the closet, forming another corner, in which anything could hide. A horizontal metal railing with vertical metal bars joined the two stucco stretches. This porch was about 5 feet wide and nine feet long. A multi-colored gold, tan, and dark brown indoor-outdoor carpet covered its wooden floor. The north side had a small kitchen window and a sliding glass door. In a few days, two pigeons started to drink regularly from the water bowl. After a couple of weeks of me telling them it was ok for them to stay on the porch if I went out there when they were drinking, they did start staying, perching or dozing at various times of the day. At some point, they began to spend the night on the porch.
This apartment had two ways in. From my parking space I could walk straight east, turn left, walk through the corridor between the two little buildings each of which had two apartments and were joined by a landing, and then turn right to go up the stairs. Or I could walk south through the parking lot and go into a grassy area with huge trees between my building and the much bigger three floor building to the west, turn right on the pavement path, and turn right again to go up the stairs. I always went by the trees.
One day in late January I stepped onto the pavement path and saw the pigeons standing next to each other at the turn in the path where I always turned right. They stood next to each other like they were in a receiving line, not eating, just standing perfectly still. Walking up to them I asked, “What are you guys doing back here? You’re never back here. What’s going on?” All they could do was look at me. Even though I knew they couldn’t answer, I repeated the question. We looked at each other. I went in and then out onto the porch after putting my stuff down, like I always did. By that time they were standing on the porch next to their nest! A nest! They had built it in the west corner, a great hiding spot and probably warmer than the east corner because of the water heater in the closet. “You have a nest! Wow!”
For the first time I looked up pigeons on the internet and made a note on the calendar as to when the eggs might hatch. By now it had become warm enough for me to put blankets out on the porch and lie on them to read for about forty minutes. In a few days the father bird was doing his job of sitting on the eggs. For eighteen days I would lie about eight inches away from him, reading, while he kept his eggs warm.
One egg hatched. The other didn’t. The pigeons rolled it away from the nest and I took it to the park. It didn’t seem right to put it in the dumpster. After about ten days I came home and the father pigeon was standing next to the bird. He looked at me for a few seconds and then flew off. He had left me alone with his bird. I was overwhelmed. Would I make the bird nervous if I put out the blankets without his father present? The bird was fine with it and we spent the next week reading. Sometimes I would doze off. The first time that happened I woke up and he was looking at me with concern, his head cocked to one side. That was the only time he had that look. Sometimes I would wake up and he would be dozing. We were a couple of sleepyheads.
After the bird learned to fly he spent a week of days entirely off the porch, returning at night to sleep.
One afternoon when I had just started reading, the bird landed on the railing. He looked at the father pigeon to see if the father pigeon was going to do anything about it. The father pigeon looked as if he might be thinking, “Whatever you’re up to, just get it over with.” The bird dropped down to the porch and sat next to me. “Bird! I’m so happy to see you! Are you doing ok? It’s amazing to see you!” I was gushing. It was good to see him! The bird looked at me for a couple of seconds and then shifted his gaze to the magazine propped up on my stomach. He lifted his chin and nodded toward the magazine as if saying, “Let’s not chit-chat. Let’s read.”
I was stunned. Not only was the bird visiting the porch voluntarily, he was making it clear that he wanted me to read. My feelings were actually a little hurt because I had been asking him how he was doing and he literally cut me off and directed his attention to the magazine. You might think that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, that I am taking an accidental innocuous gesture and turning it into an act of communication too sophisticated for a pigeon. No. If you and someone else sit talking with the TV on in the background and then that person turns away to look at the TV and lifts their chin and nods toward the TV you know they want you to look at the TV too, right? It was like that. The bird wanted me to read. When I sat up to go in, the bird flew away.
This wonderful interlude in our day did not go uninterrupted. After about ten minutes of reading, the father pigeon got off his eggs and half-heartedly ran at the bird. The bird walked around the head end of the blankets and stood in the ten inches of space between the blankets and the sliding glass door. The father bird looked at the bird with his usual baleful look. The bird went back around and sat down. The father pigeon sort of ran at him. The bird went between the blankets and the sliding glass door. The father pigeon kind of shrugged and went back to his eggs.
Several peaceful afternoons of reading took place with the father pigeon making only a slight effort to put a stop to things. The bird looked so happy and content to be sitting and reading. I was happy to see him and since he only spent that reading time on the porch, I figured he was making strides in the pigeon world too.
It all came to an end when the mother bird landed on the porch and ran at the bird, fast. I’ll never forget how happy and trusting he looked as his mother ran towards him. She pecked hard hard hard. He scrunched down getting pecked all over his back. He obviously hadn’t expected this from his mother. It was awful. “What are you doing? That’s your bird! Why are you doing this to your bird? He just wants to read! He won’t stay around. He just wants to read. Please let him read. Please stop pecking! Please! Stop!” She ignored me, rightfully, because it really was none of my business. Finally he got out from underneath the pecking and ran around the head end of the blankets to between the blankets and the sliding glass door. Over and over again he tried to sit down next to me. She kept running at him. He didn’t get pecked again but he wasn’t getting to read. He flew off.
This had been brutal. Even so, the bird tried the next day to sit and read. The mother bird instantly appeared out of nowhere and ran at him. He knew he had no shot. He flew off.
During this time when the bird, except for his reading time, spent most of the day off the porch and returned at dark to sleep, I went into the water heater closet for something. Inadvertently, I didn’t close the door completely. In the late afternoon the wind blew it open and the bird took it up as his perch. I went outside and stabilized it with a milk crate and something else. For about a week he slept up there. One evening he took up his perch. Suddenly his two parents flew at him. They got in a few pecks before he flew off. But he didn’t go far. At a spot in mid-air about two feet away from the middle of the porch, he made a sharp turn to get back to the top of the door. They flew at him again, and as he circled again in front of the porch, they pecked him on his back before he flew back to his perch. Over and over again they flew at him and he circled back, getting pecked each time he turned. Then the bird changed his strategy. He flew straight to the spot where he had been turning so that he was facing them when they pecked. They couldn’t get close enough to peck and when they couldn’t hover in place anymore he turned and flew back to land on his perch. Again and again, these three pigeons hovered, legs taut in place, toes tucked in, facing off against each other in mid-air in front of this porch.
After a while I went out on the porch and tried to reason with them. “Please let him perch. It’s too late for him to find a new perch. He’ll find a new perch tomorrow. Please let him stay just for tonight. Please!” They ignored me. I knew I was interfering too much but I had to try. The sun went down. I was acutely aware of what time it was because I had to work the next day. The bird had come back at six. Now it was 7:15 and the pigeons were still battling. I got a sleeping bag and put it in front of the sliding glass door, laid down, and turned my head to watch what would happen.
&:30 came and went. The tiniest bit of sunlit blue sky lined the horizon. The rest of the sky had turned the darkest blue it turns before becoming black and star-studded. The lights clanked on in the parking lot. Even with the lights the pigeons’ markings were indistinguishable. The black silhouettes of these three pigeons hovered, flapped, pecked, turned on a dime and flew the small loop back and forth the between the top of the door and the spot in mid-air in front of the porch with the vibrant dark blue sky behind them. The adults were getting tired. Their attempts to peck the bird in mid-air and on his perch had less strength. They couldn’t hover for as long. The battle had become dangerous because if they became really tired the next day they might not be able to do a good job of getting away from a hawk, a car, or a cat. The adults had to rest. They traded off. One stood on the stucco wall while one flew and pecked.
I turned my head to look into the kitchen. 8:00. The pigeons had battled for two hours. Mercifully, one adult and then the other flew to their sleeping places on the porch. The bird took up his perch. It felt superfluous but I went out on the porch. “Thank you for letting him stay. He’ll find a new perch tomorrow.” The adult pigeons looked demoralized and exhausted. This was supposed to take two minutes and it had taken two hours. I turned and went over to the bird. I smiled at him. “You are an incredible bird.” He had displayed incredible stamina, athleticism, determination and heart, and through it all, he had never pecked at his parents.
The bird didn’t come back the next night. The porch was screamingly empty. At the risk of presuming too much about the pigeons’ thoughts, we were all humbled, still kind of in shock, and sad. We had found out who the bird was and now he was gone.
I constantly wondered how things were going for the bird. I took the trash out everyday after cleaning the porch and a couple of times I saw the bird perched on the building to the east. Both times I went over and asked him how he was doing. He had grown a lot but was still thin, almost emaciated. He never looked at me. Because it seemed as if he didn’t know where to find food I bought a small bag of seeds. As soon as I threw a teaspoonful of seeds down he would fly away, almost as if he was insulted. I was miserable. He looked lost. He was always alone.
About a week after that I saw him standing in the parking lot, exactly where people would turn left or right to go between two buildings. He was in a perfect spot to get hit! I put on my shoes and went out to him. “Bird, you can’t be here. There’s traffic. Someone’s going to hit you. Let’s go over to the grass. Come on.” We would walk very slowly the sixty yards to the grass behind my building. I had seen him walk fast on the porch so I knew he could move. At these times, he seemed to be deliberately walking slowly. I would walk a few steps and stop to look behind me. He would be slowly stepping along. I would wait for him and then the whole sequence would be repeated. Seeing him in the parking lot happened three times. By the third time I would just laugh at him. He so obviously enjoyed making me stand and wait for him. Once on the grass we visited for a while. “Bird, I love to see you but I want you to be with pigeons. I want you to have a life and your own baby pigeons. You’re a special bird. You can’t have a life with me. You need to have your own life.” I would throw down a teaspoonful of seeds. He never ate the seeds. He would look at them and then up at me, searchingly, as if saying, “What do these solve?” That first time when we had visited for a while, I said, “I want you to go with the other pigeons.” Immediately he flew away. The abruptness of his response startled me. The second time I saw him, I inadvertently said, “I want you to go with the other pigeons,” after only a minute of seeing him. He immediately flew off. I felt disappointed because although I did want him to have his own life, it was fun visiting with him. The third time I hadn’t quite bought into the idea that he might be responding to my sentence. I left it out for a while. Then, again, when I said “I want you to go with the other pigeons,” he flew off. This had to be a fluke, I thought. There’s no way to establish empirically that he understands. All in all, it was both good and bad to see him. He seemed miserable and alone.
A few days later when I came home twenty pigeons were perched on the building diagonally behind mine. The bird was among them! Finally he was in a pigeon group! How had he brought them here? Were they expecting seeds? I brought out a pint of seeds. The pigeons hoovered them up. The bird came and stood in front of me. “Thank you for showing me you’re in a pigeon group. Thank you, bird.” Every afternoon until someone complained, they showed up. The bird never ate any seeds. He either perched on the roof or walked among the pigeons like the host at a party making sure everyone’s drink is freshened up. After getting the complaint, I told them I couldn’t feed them anymore. In two days they stopped showing up.
After that I didn’t see the bird for weeks. I figured I would never see him again. One day at the radio station, the National Weather Service issued tons of watches and warnings for Arizona. Winds were forecasted to gust to 50 mph. At around four I went onto the porch to look at the storm and to bring in the water bowl. Branches were dropping from trees, palm tree fronds were sailing for yards, cans were blowing off the corrugated roofs of the parking structures. No birds were singing or flying, nobody walked their dog in the parking lot. Hardly any traffic passed on the two roads nearby. Just as I was about to get the bowl, guess who landed on the stucco wall? The bird! With one continuous, elegant motion he landed, looked at me, drank a sip of water, looked at me again, and flew off. I smiled and from then on, never worried about him again. The bird was showing off! That small sip of water wasn’t worth a stop at the bowl. For the first time I felt sure he would be ok.
Pigeons continued to be born on the porch. Since July, I had been referring incorrectly to the darker pigeon as the female, and the brighter check pigeon, as the male. How did I find out I was wrong? One afternoon the pigeon I believed to be the father pigeon was standing on the east end of the porch. Three days ago the two pigeons had stood next to the turn in the pavement path as they always did when they had a new nest. It was unusual to see either one of them on the porch in the afternoon until they had eggs. I went out. We visited for a few minutes. Then, an egg dropped out! I started laughing. “You’re the mother bird! I am such an idiot.” But what to do with the egg? Seven feet of gold, tan, and dark brown carpet lay between it and the nest. “Should I put your egg in your nest?” The mother pigeon stepped away from the egg. I put it in her nest and she walked over and sat on it. For eight months I had been wrong and the mother pigeon set me straight.
In the summer the sun landed on the grass behind my building instead of on the porch so I went back there to read. While reading one afternoon in August I had a feeling I should turn my head to the left. I did. A giant dark grey pigeon stood with his face about five inches away from mine. “Are you the bird?” I asked. I told him I was going to sit up so as not to startle him. “You’re the bird!” He looked at me for a few seconds. Then he walked around the head end of the blankets and stood in the foot of space between the blankets and the building, just like he had done when his parents wanted him off the porch. I laughed. “You are an incredible bird!” He walked back around to where he had been standing. We visited for a while but then sadly, I had to go in to get ready for work the next day. I picked up the blankets. The bird walked over to the stairs and hopped up each stair in front of me. When he got to the landing, he flew up to the railing which ran between the two sides of the building. Then I saw them! Two dazzling pigeons perched on the lamp on the landing. Not only did their purple and green feathers shimmer, every other feather did too, as if they were made up of thousands of tiny sparkling jewels. They both had round happy eyes and markings which made them look like they were smiling, just like the bird’s mother did. “Your pigeons are so beautiful! Thank you for bringing them.” After five months the bird had cared enough to come back and show me he was doing well. I hated to go in.
They stayed for two weeks. Every afternoon the bird would perch on the roof above me while I read. From time to time he flew down and walked around the blankets, stopping between the blankets and the wall. We would both laugh. I know I just wrote, “We would both laugh.” A pigeon doesn’t laugh. But I stand by it. We would both laugh. Every day he walked me to the stairs and hopped up each stair. His pigeons perched on the lamp. In the morning when I left for work at 1:45, they perched there, even more sparkly and bejeweled in the light from the lamp. They were like Faberge pigeons.
Every day I knew it could be the last day. Then one morning, it was. The pigeons weren’t on the lamp and I didn’t see the bird in the afternoon. I couldn’t feel sad. It had been a miracle to see him and his pigeons.
Even now, seven years on, tears still come when I remember the bird. He came back and he chose to re-create one of the most special and mysterious things about himself, his efforts to elude his parents so that he could sit and read.
Thank you to the two open-minded pigeons who built their nests on the porch.