When I was in elementary school, my teacher gave us an assignment for science class that lasted several months. We were to find an active bird nest, watch it every day, and record the activity of its inhabitants in a wide-lined journal book. That’s how I fell in love with birds.
First I watched a pair of goldfinches build a nest then abandon it and disappear. (I can only hope my eager surveillance of their work wasn’t the cause of their move.) Then I found a pair of nesting robins who ignored my presence and went about their business laying eggs, hatching them, feeding the babies and guiding their growth from fledging to independence. I was enraptured by the entire process.
The formative experience did not turn me into a birdwatcher in the sense of “have scope and life list, will travel.” I own a few bird books, but they aren’t particularly worn because it’s easier and more fun to call my birdwatching friends Lina or Jane and ask them to tell me what kind of bird I’ve just spotted.
My love of birds is a simple case of awe when an owl circles my head, a baby bluebird survives the perils of leaving the nest, a red-winged blackbird imitates the hum of the llamas in its field.
Sometimes there’s complexity in my relationships with birds. Like the gray gander known as Junior. Junior fell in love with a different llama each year, following her around the pastures, posturing adoringly while she casually ignored him. His adoration would compel him to charge at me if I tried to come between him and his love object, until we worked it out. If he started to charge, I bent down to face him and said, “Mind your manners.” To which he would respond with an apologetic bow and respectful back stepping.
Joining Junior a few years later were the four white domestic geese I agreed to adopt when their owner threatened to shoot them because they made too much noise, but who were delivered to me by a man who tied them up in burlap sacks, flung them onto his flatbed truck and drove drunk in freezing weather for six hours to bring them to me. Three of the geese stumbled into my barnyard, dazed and hypothermic, to spend the next dozen years on the llama ranch with Junior. The fourth adopted goose, the driver told me, had fallen off the truck en route.
But it was a pigeon who changed my life. It fluttered out of a nest in my horse barn and set about trying to survive the hazardous first days of a bird’s life on its own. But a drooping wing prevented flight. I try to maintain a “let it be” attitude when it comes to nature and wildlife, but when I found the fully feathered but still just peeping pigeon huddled behind a set of barn tools hiding from one of my rescued cats, I intervened. Which is how Widget became a key player in my life.
My hope was that rest and gradual rehabilitation would return Widget to the natural world. However, although the bird was immediately happy to eat up the high quality seed mixes I fed her, any effort at flight eluded her for months. All she was able to accomplish was frantic spinning in place with no liftoff. But determination and time were on her side, and within six months she was capable of flying around my home office, lighting on bookshelves, filing cabinets, chair backs, and then to my great delight, my head. Where she would sit for long periods carefully grooming my hair.
In spite of Widget’s achievement of controlled flight, her reaction time for becoming airborne remained slow and made it clear she couldn’t manage life in the wild. The two of us settled into her enjoying my large office during the day and being quietly content in the large cage where she nested at night.
It was when Widget started laying eggs that I knew she was a she. The evolution brought out what seemed like a warm, maternal side to the bird who offered what would become nearly ten years of devoted demonstrations of affection to me. Beyond the hair dressing routine, she cooed loudly as soon as she heard me stir in the morning, called me to her with a kind of purring sound when I was nearby, and buried her beak between my fingers in what I could only interpret as a pigeon hug.
The sweet friendship and contented life Widget and I shared was not, however, appreciated by my partner. The woman I lived with was unhappy about the addition of this feathered companion to our home. Then she was furious. Then she began a long campaign for “getting rid of” Widget, which included the tactic of letting me know that the vast majority of people in the world considered having a pigeon in the house a mark of insanity (which, even if the undocumented assertion was indeed true, and much to her frustration, did not bother me).
In the end, I was up against a choice: it was the pigeon or my partner of a dozen years. One of them had to go. Considering the level of appreciation, acceptance and affection offered by Widget, I was relieved to finally have a clear vision of what path I should head down next.
Following our joint flirtation with homelessness and a year in temporary shelter provided by friends, Widget came to the mountains of North Park with me and all the other assorted critters I was responsible for. For two more years, she cooed me awake, took care of my hair, claimed the spare room for flight time. She fretted over my chemo-rendered bald head, gave dozens of pigeon hugs a day, and never once made me regret choosing her over an unhappy home life. My broken heart when she died a year ago was as profound and surprising as the joy and courage she brought to my world.
Birds simultaneously embody both ends of the spectrum that stretches between vulnerability and strength, from their staggering power of flight to the tender fragility of their bodies. Their keen view of the world sharpens my own sight. It seems as if a call to transformation is carried on the breezes pushed down and out by their wings.
On New Year’s Day in 2011, a second pigeon came on the scene. It was a bitterly cold, snowy morning here at Coral Dawn Ranch. Sitting on a drifted snow bank outside the north end of the llama barn was a pigeon that at first glance was so identical to Widget, I spent a bewildered moment wondering how she’d gotten from the house to the barn. Between the stormy weather and the fact that there are no pigeons here at the base of the Zirkel mountains, I had a hard time absorbing the reality of this pigeon’s presence. I stooped over stiffly in my heavy winter clothes and reached for it. The pigeon made a half-hearted attempt to fly into the barn, then collapsed into my hands.
It would take a couple of days for this pigeon to recover from the cold, and much longer to recover from the trauma of its life as a racing pigeon blown off course. The band around its leg was the key to what little life history I would ever know about the bird before it dropped from the sky and into my barnyard. The leg band told me what racing association the bird was registered with, that it was little more than a year old, and that it had come from Louisiana. My friend Christine immediately dubbed this second pigeon Racing Gumbo.
Gumbo spent just a year with Widget and me, succumbing too soon to what I could only imagine was the result of a weakened constitution. In that year, Gumbo went from the cozy warmth of a pet carrier for recovery, on to a private cage, and finally into an enormous aviary cage shared with Widget at night after the two of them spent their days flying and perching around the designated flight room.
In the beginning, Widget did not approve of Gumbo. She pecked at the poor bird’s head if it got too close, otherwise ignoring its presence with an unloving cold shoulder. Then Gumbo laid an egg of her own, an act that melted Widget’s heart. They became very close after that, sharing nesting duties and cage cleanup, and snuggled closely together at night. When Gumbo died a dozen months later, Widget was quiet and slow for several weeks. There’s an unwritten essay in one of my files with the working title “Do Pigeons Grieve?”
Widget stayed with me until the fall of 2012. In early September, she began to stumble, gave her special brand of hugs less frequently, stopped eating, and finally fell silent. Nothing will ever replace the soft comfort of the cooing that woke me in the morning for a decade.
Pigeons are not beloved in the human world. My special connection to one in particular puts me in the company of a rare group of people considered less than well balanced — a group of which I’m proud to be a member. For some reason I have no need or desire to question, birds have served as guides for me throughout my life. Widget especially guided me during a long painful time when I was having trouble finding my way back to a self that was fading. My memory of her will also forever remind me that one can never know where, or in what form, the next source of salvation will be found.