A pigeon crashed into my window a few days ago with a teaching.
When I moved outside of Santa Fe in 2011, I soon got in touch with the effect of drought on the wildlife in this desert setting. With that came uncertainty about whether it would be wise to let the wildlife adapt naturally to the food available or whether I should try to help the creatures survive the moment.
After going back and forth on the issue, I finally decided to go ahead and hang a bird feeder in a juniper tree. It has been fun to watch the house finches, sparrows, robins, and the occasional blue bird and mountain jay. However, city pigeons find me as well.
I have heard them called “flying rats,” and their needs seem less urgent than those of the other birds. Maybe this is due in part to the fact that they enjoy the companionship of the flock. I have two bird baths, one low to the ground and another high; and the pigeons seem to have created a spa setting in my garden, playing in the water and then settling onto the ground as though to nap within the safety of my coyote fence.
However, there have been a number of pigeon tragedies lately. Two have been killed just outside the fence, the predator leaving only piles of feathers. Then just in the last few days, about five have crashed into my windows, mistaking reflection for sky. All of them but one seemed to recover and fly away.
I was standing nearby when the latter hit, and it thrashed around on my portal, seemingly unable to walk. I didn’t know what to do, but after watching it struggle for a few minutes, I went outside and picked it up. I folded its wings and held it to my heart as I walked to a little clump of grass and set it down in the sun.
It’s probably odd to think that a pigeon would be comforted by my embrace. As its red eye met that of a human for the first time, the experience probably only added to the trauma. As soon as I set it down, it struggled frantically until it become airborne and disappeared over the fence. I decided not to check on it until the next morning, and there was no trace of it. I like to think that it recovered.
I often see the pink feet of pigeons on my skylights, and I like knowing that they watch for the moment in the morning when I retrieve the newspapers before filling the feeder. I have had many homes, but this is the first with pigeons. They have a long history associated with home, due in part to their famous ability to find it no matter what.
Interestingly enough, Christopher Columbus’s actual name was “Colombo,” which is Italian for pigeon. He certainly found a new home for our ancestors; and very early on and through the history of a pigeon, I got in touch with the shadow side of our immigration here.
My family had a collection of prints by John James Audubon that I studied as a child, and I was fascinated by the story of the Passenger Pigeon. The text on the back of the print said that the bird, now extinct, had been one of the most numerous on the planet.
Early settlers here saw them darken the sky and break the branches of trees as they settled to roost. It was assumed that that they would survive in perpetuity; and they were slaughtered wholesale, salted and packed in barrels for food, and used also for animal fodder and fertilizer. And then there was the matter of killing them for sport. The last Passenger Pigeon died in a zoo in 1914.
I was saddened by the story as a child and never forgot it. Of course I had no idea that so many other species would be at risk by the time I was an adult. I think about that as I make my way around town, always noting the places along my routes where pigeons gather on the telephone wires. I think I see in them an early warning system of some kind.
I feel badly that my well-intentioned feeding has caused some of them to be injured. At the same time, I am also very aware that two Cooper’s Hawks are monitoring my feeding station and may be responsible for the two piles of feathers. They are very handsome, and they are struggling as well.
As I feed and watch the birds, I am reminded of the need addressed in an earlier post to cultivate the qualities that make us human in this digital world. Unfortunately these qualities also make us vulnerable. For example, there is the challenge of expressing love in a wise way and sometimes suffering regret about harm unwittingly done.
In brief, being human often combines the desire to do the right thing coupled with painful uncertainty about exactly what that is. It is a very uncomfortable place, one that I will soon try to mitigate in one respect by hanging some warning chilies on my portal.
So what was the teaching of the injured bird?
The red eye of the pigeon reminded me that it reflects as well as sees. There I saw that, against my will, there is much in me to be feared.