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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
This made me smile and gave me goosebumps a couple of times :D

Baby Pigeons Sighted! Urban Mystery Solved!
Published: Sunday, July 23, 1995

Whenever a worthy subject receives a better or more complete presentation than has hitherto been accorded it, our civilized life is advanced a little. -- Opening line of "The Pigeon," a 667-page encyclopedia.

I didn't used to be the sort of person who goes around quoting from "The Pigeon." I used to have a perfectly normal attitude toward these birds. When I moved last fall to an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side and discovered that my new neighbors included a colony of pigeons, my first reaction was: Exterminate the brutes! I cringed at their mating calls each morning. I watched the squadron of dark flapping figures rising above the courtyard and thought of the sinister flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz," although I also agreed with my wife, Dana, when she cursed them as winged rodents. I attacked them with broom and water pistol.

One morning late last December, after scaring away a pigeon roosting on the sill of our bathroom window, I found a nest there with an egg in it. "Revenge is ours!" I shouted, summoning Dana and triumphantly holding the egg aloft. "Should we smash this right away or save it for an omelet?"

But Dana, instead of offering congratulations, was looking in horror at the windowsill behind me. The mother had swooped back to the empty nest and was in a hopping frenzy, beating her wings against the window frame while staring menacingly at the egg in my hand.

"You put that back this second!" Dana said, with the same menacing stare.

I returned the egg and started to whine about estrogen poisoning. "How can a rational human want to save a baby pigeon?" I said. And then I suddenly realized what an opportunity this was. A baby pigeon! The great urban unknown! The notoriously elusive species! Here was a chance to answer the question that had puzzled generations of city dwellers: Why doesn't anyone ever see a baby pigeon? As a perennial mystery, it was rivaled only by the question of where the world's odd socks go.

I had never been satisfied by the usual explanation -- the one elicited from ornithologists weary of the question. These experts claim that baby pigeons are never seen on the streets because they stay hidden in the nest the first month and grow so rapidly that they're nearly full size when they emerge. I preferred a bold countertheory developed years ago at a dinner party. After several bottles of wine, someone -- none of us remember exactly who -- hypothesized that the pigeons on the street are all baby pigeons. The reason we don't see any bigger pigeons is the extraordinarily high rate of infant mortality. Only a couple of baby pigeons reach maturity each year, and these adults -- which we theorized to be eight feet tall -- wisely stay hidden while they produce their numerous offspring.

That lovely theory, unfortunately, seemed to be contradicted by the size of the nesting female and her egg on our windowsill. But I was still elated at this bit of serendipity: the pigeon's sanctum sanctorum, discovered deep within the planet's most magnificently complex habitat for the species. Let others plumb Loch Ness for its monster or climb the Himalayas in search of the snow leopard. I would rather brave New York and be remembered as the first human to see a baby pigeon in the wild.

THE PIGEON ROOSTED OUTSIDE THE BATHROOM for a week, and then one morning the nest was empty -- no mother, no baby, no egg. Soon another nest appeared, this time with two eggs, but within several weeks it, too, was abandoned, again with no trace of eggs or baby pigeons.

Were these baby pigeons so secretive that they hatched in the middle of the night and matured by morning? Were they covering their tracks by carrying away their own eggshells?

I began keeping a field journal when construction began on a new nest, on Valentine's Day: It seems to be the same pair that built the previous nests -- yes, it's come to this: I now recognize individual pigeons. I even spotted one of them, the black-and-white-speckled bird, drinking from a pothole down on the street today. Seems to be the male. He comes back to the window ledge every couple of minutes with a twig or a red plastic coffee stirrer in his beak, which he adds to the pile the gray bird is arranging around herself.

Three days afterward, I spotted an egg in the nest. It vanished two weeks later, but this time I found a clue: shell fragments on the pavement below the window. What kind of mother lets her egg fall four stories out of the nest? I named the gray pigeon Medea and recorded her renewed courtship with her speckled partner, Don Guano, on March 12: He struts about, following her around living-room ledge in circles, occasionally pecking beak to beak with her. Finally Don Guano mounts Medea for a second or two, flapping his wings as he does -- for balance, I guess, unless he's just happy. Later in the afternoon, they're back at the bathroom windowsill with twigs in their beaks. A new nest?

Yes, and a new egg was in it two days later, followed shortly by a second egg. Don Guano and Medea settled into a domestic routine. From late morning until late afternoon he would sit on the egg while she went off on her own. The rest of the time she roosted while he brought twigs for his home-improvement projects and fought off any competitors from nearby perches daring to intrude on his turf. Then, after 10 days of roosting, Don Guano and Medea abruptly abandoned the nest and left the eggs exposed. The next day the eggs were gone without a trace.

I reported the parenting troubles to Margaret Barker of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, who had been training New York City schoolchildren to observe pigeons during the past three years. She had yet to see a baby pigeon here, but she was confident that they existed. Eggs normally hatch after 18 days, she said, but sometimes pigeons are frightened off the nest and sometimes eggs are doomed never to hatch because the parents aren't getting enough food and nutrients like calcium, an essential ingredient in sturdy eggshells.

I fed Medea a bowl of Raisin Bran mixed with a powdered calcium supplement. I didn't think this assistance would endanger her status as a wild pigeon -- after all, human feeding is an integral part of the natural ecosystem for New York pigeons -- but I worried about what it was doing to me. My journal asked: Am I going to become one of those people on park benches feeding pigeons?

330 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 ·
The new calcium-enriched Medea laid two more eggs, and this time the roosting proceeded smoothly for the full 18 days. We were ready to make history on Friday, April 21, the day the first egg was due to hatch. Nicholas Kuskin, a photographer, rigged cameras, lights and reflective umbrellas both inside the bathroom and outside on the nearby ledge of the living room. I armed myself with a new set of binoculars and a copy of "The Pigeon," which I studied with the care that other expectant parents devote to Dr. Spock.

Nowhere in this richly illustrated encyclopedia could I find a picture of a baby pigeon in the wild, but it did offer photos and research data from pigeon farms. It also offered reassurance that my devotion to the birds was not necessarily a sign of mental illness. The five-pound book is a wonderfully detailed apologia by a dedicated pigeon fancier and commercial breeder, Wendell Mitchell Levi, who published the first edition himself in 1941. His work lifts the pigeon -- or, as devotees sometimes prefer to call it, the rock dove -- from gutter to pedestal.

"Wherever civilization has flourished, there the pigeon has thrived," Levi writes, "and the higher the civilization, usually the higher the regard for the pigeon." That traditional symbol of peace, the dove with the olive branch, is a white pigeon. Pigeons were worshiped as symbols of fertility in ancient Mesopotamia and sculpted on Egyptian tombs. Pigeons carried messages for King Solomon, helped Julius Caesar conquer Gaul and won dozens of medals for combat service during World War II.

Countless poets have praised pigeons' lifelong devotion to their mates, their serenity, their courage in protecting their young. Shakespeare alluded so often and expertly to pigeons that he may have been a breeder himself, according to Levi. (Hamlet casually reveals his knowledge that pigeons have no gallbladder by soliloquizing: "I am pigeon liver'd and lack gall.") Alfred Lord Tennyson linked their iridescent feathers with romance and rebirth in his famous couplet:

In the spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish'd dove;

In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

I quoted those lines to Don Guano and Medea as we waited that crucial Friday in April. But by evening neither egg had hatched. Saturday passed as well, and I went to bed fearing the worst: Don Guano is firing blanks; those eggs are dead. The next morning there was still no sign of action in the nest, and we discussed ending the vigil. Then, at noon, as Nick and I stood in the living room watching Don Guano settle in for his shift on the nest, we suddenly spotted a bit of golden fuzz moving underneath him. As Nick rushed up the ladder to his camera, I grabbed the binoculars and beheld the astounding sight: a shaggy little creature, lying in a heap along with the eggshell it had just escaped. Don Guano bent over solicitously and lifted up the mop-top hatchling by putting its thin beak inside his own. A few seconds later, Don Guano released the beak. The little guy collapsed and promptly disappeared underneath his father's wing. After a moment of stunned silence, Nick and I looked at each other and shook hands. "We did it," Nick said quietly. I nodded as reverently as I could and made an entry in my journal: Miracle of miracles! Yes, New York, there is a baby pigeon.

WE NAMED HIM SQUABBY AND watched him re-emerge several times that afternoon for more feedings of "pigeon milk," a grayish substance resembling cottage cheese that's produced in the crop of both parents -- the only instance of a male animal creating food for the young, as Levi proudly reports in "The Pigeon." I recorded Don Guano's paternal efforts as he took Squabby's beak inside his mouth:

4:15. Don Guano works his neck muscles mightily as he forces the milk into Squabby. When Don Guano releases Squabby's beak for a few seconds' rest, we see a white knob at the end of it -- the "egg tooth" that Squabby used to cut his way out of the shell. Then we hear Squabby's first "cheep" demanding more food. 5:15: Don Guano departs, leaving Squabby exposed for a moment. Poor little guy: pink skin not entirely covered by wisps of yellow down, little arms for wings hanging limply at side. Looks terrified and cold, nuzzling next to other egg. Medea finally comes back and takes over roosting and feeding duties.

The second day, Squabby was much bigger and more assertive, pecking at his parents for food and trying to flap his proto-wings. Don Guano and Medea seemed models of devotion until the third day, when I was chagrined to find Squabby helplessly exposed on the sill, 12 inches away from the nest, unable to move himself from where a parent had plopped him. Don Guano was roosting on the nest's remaining egg, displaying a trait that Levi tactfully calls a "weakness in the pigeon's intelligence" -- its obliviousness to anything beyond the nest edge. "The pigeon apparently fails to realize that an egg or squab is hers and requires her attention unless it is immediately under her (or him)." Levi notes that others have criticized the pigeon for having the "utter stupidity" to accidentally trample or throw their young from the nest.

I picked up Squabby by his soft pink belly and moved him back to the nest, and he was soon comfortably under Don Guano's wing. The next morning, as I watched 4-day-old Squabby feeding heartily from Don Guano, I couldn't help imagining our future together. I planned to decorate the window ledge with my favorite paperweight, a six-inch bronze bust of Marshal Tito, in preparation for the day that Squabby tried out his wings and looked down for a target: Squabby's first statue!

But an hour later, at 11:55 on Wednesday morning, April 26, I returned to the window and encountered a chilling sight. Squabby was gone. The only traces of him were some tiny droppings on the sill. The nest was empty except for the other egg. Don Guano had abandoned his roost and was flying aimless loops around the courtyard with a twig in his mouth. Was this his form of grief? Penance? Or just one more bit of neurotic behavior from a dysfunctional parent? I knew only that Squabby could never have left that nest on his own.

Don Guano and Medea seemed to get over the loss quickly enough, but it took me a while. No new squab arrived to ease the grief (the other egg never hatched), and I kept wondering if we had inadvertently contributed to Squabby's demise -- or if we could have prevented it. I sought counsel from Richard Johnston, an ornithologist and the co-author of a new book, "Feral Pigeons," who once studied 48 pairs of pigeons by building nest platforms on the ledges outside his office at the Museum of Natural History in Lawrence, Kan. -- an experiment that led, as he put it, to "some discussions with concerned members of the building maintenance crew."

Johnston listened sympathetically to Squabby's all-too-brief biography. "Look, these parents have a history of a certain indifference," he said. "Perhaps, when the adult was leaving the nest, the little one got a wing or a foot lodged in the adult's feathers and was dragged with it and fell to the ground. But it's just as likely that a crow or another predator came around and saw the action. Crows are really tough birds. If a crow scared the brooding bird off the chick, then it would just be a matter of three seconds. He would open his beak and do a chug-a-lug."

Bad parenting or natural predation -- there was no way to assign precise blame for our loss. But Johnston was sure of one thing after listening to me reminisce about Squabby.

"You sound like you've become a pigeon addict," he told me, and I feared he was right. I had crossed the mysterious line described in "The Pigeon" encyclopedia: "There seems to be no middle ground; one either loves pigeons or one does not. That man is fortunate who finds in his breast an inexplicable love for them."

THIS FEELING SURPRISED ME, BECAUSE I had never been an animal lover. I always assumed that people passionately devoted to animals are basically trying to get away from humans, or at least from their families. In covering stories about endangered species -- African rhinos, Antarctic whales, Galapagos tortoises -- I was never particularly fond of the naturalists or the animals they were trying to save. So why pigeons?

The answer didn't occur to me until a few weeks ago, when I visited New York's most glamorous bird, the peregrine falcon, 57 floors above midtown. I watched field workers from the city's Department of Environmental Protection reach into the wooden nest box on top of the former Pan Am Building -- just below the "M" in the MetLife sign on the south facade -- and inspect a 3 1/2-week-old falcon chick, another triumph in the campaign to reintroduce to Manhattan this endangered species. It was spectacular up there on the roof: the city spread out below us; the Empire State Building's spire looming above; the falcon parents at eye level soaring majestically toward their lookout perch on the antenna of the Chrysler Building, a block away in the sky.

There was no doubting these birds' power, particularly after seeing the pigeon feathers in the nest -- the remnants of victims captured in midair and fed to the chick. But as I looked at the falcons, all I could think was: You wimps! You wouldn't be here without us! We've spent millions of dollars; we've banned the DDT that was upsetting your delicate systems; we've built you nest boxes; we've coddled your chicks -- all to produce a dozen birds in New York. One pigeon colony achieved that in my courtyard by itself! These pigeons, a species that had originally evolved in the cliffs of the central Asian wilderness, adapted to the canyons of New York City without a penny of foundation money or government funding.

330 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 ·
The falcon may seem admirably graceful and powerful, and a lot of humans, especially New Yorkers, may aspire to identify with it: a ruthless, grandly isolated predator at the top of the food chain, rewarded with a penthouse view of its dominion. But it doesn't hold the great secret to evolutionary success, at least not for humans. Contrary to old anthropological stereotypes, our species did not prevail over other animals by being brave and cunning solitary hunters. We used our brains to become cooperative and shameless opportunists able to adapt to any available niche.

We migrated around the world, formed new settlements, collaborated with our neighbors, stuck by our partners, found safety in hidden crannies, scavenged leftovers from other animals -- just like Don Guano, Medea and their fellow colonists. We may envy the speed and rapacity of falcons, but we are a lot tougher, which is why you should pay no attention to environmentalists when they point to endangered species and warn that humans could be next. We aren't like those species. We may pollute and squabble and crowd together in grimy crannies without views, but at least we're survivors. We, fortunately, are pigeons.
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