Friday 18 January 2019

Amazing what you learn from pigeons who won't leave home

It's amazing what you see when you decide to look
It's amazing what you see when you decide to look
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It started in the roof. Rustling, scratching and the dreaded fear that, after being told for years I had bats in the belfry, I now had mice in the attic.

I'd had a mouse in the house before and, to be honest, it didn't bother me a huge amount. I've actually always quite liked mice - when I worked in a restaurant, I got into trouble for feeding one - and after the quick application of some humane traps, the problem was sorted.

But that scraping noise - what the hell was it?

As it happened, we had to get the gutters cleaned and the guy who was doing it had the answer to the mystery - two tiny pigeons and their mother had set up home in the eaves.

The mother immediately flew away, which left us with one problem - what do you do with baby pigeons? They were too small to even barbecue.

The guy who had done the gutters was careful in how he removed them - thick gloves covered gentle hands as he carefully carried them down the ladder.

It's rare to get so up-close and personal with wild birds and, in truth, they're pretty ugly creatures.

In fact, when you look into their eyes, it's like looking into the eyes of a dinosaur. But there is something remarkably vulnerable about a chick that just compels you to feel protective towards them.

So, after checking out all the various websites about what to do with rescue pigeons, we got a nice cardboard box, filled it with paper and straw bedding and brought them in from the cold.

It has become rather fashionable, particularly in Dublin, to openly hate these birds, which are still known as flying rats to some people, but what are you meant to do when you have a couple of tiny ones that have set up home in your roof?

After all, they were nowhere near ready to fly so we put them in the box in the dining room and painstakingly tried to feed them weak porridge and dried mealworms, which are as disgusting as they sound. In fact, even the birds didn't want them.

Were they poorly? Were we doing everything wrong? They were certainly beginning to chirp quite a lot, which was a source of endless provocation to the dog, who couldn't understand why we had brought these lovely new chew-toys into the house yet wouldn't let him play with them.

And as the first few days drifted into a week, we became hopelessly, pathetically, enamoured with them.

By this stage, the mother would turn up every morning, waiting for us to put the box outside. She'd clean her brood, before flying up to the top of the roof to keep an eye on them. In the evenings, she would come back down and feed them again, and seemed perfectly happy to let us do the rest of the caring and so the routine began - the mother would wake us up, I'd put the box containing Jack and Vera (an obvious choice of names, I know) in the back garden, she'd do her thing and return to her perch.

I only had to walk past the box and the two pigeons would start to chirp madly and look up with open mouths. Had I just become a father figure for a couple of feral birds?

Vera was the braver of the two, and when I'd put them on the decking, would always walk further than the more timid Jack.

They had taken to waddling around and exploring the back garden, and had even grown used to the sight of our dog, a rescue terrier, sniffing around after them, even though he was more curious than aggressive - something which makes him a lovely dog, if not a great terrier.

It's amazing what a few weeks of pigeon-raising can do to you. Having initially joked about barbecuing them, I stopped barbecuing entirely.

After all, cooking a chicken in full view of two baby birds just seemed sick. I also started paying attention to the other birds in our area - and just how threatening crows and seagulls must seem when you're as small as Jack and Vera were.

Flocks of birds seemed to gather on our roof, and even the neighbours began to comment. But we didn't care. Jack and Vera were going to get at least a fighting chance.

They had, by now, begun to fly a little. By that I mean, they would fly out of their box as far as the back door where they'd make as much noise as possible until we let them in.

My God, were these millennial pigeons? Would Jack and Vera never leave? As the wife pointed out, they were on to a good thing and they knew it. Vera was the favourite. She had more moxy than her brother. She was more independent and adventurous, while he just went and hid behind the bins.

And then it happened.

I brought the dog out for a walk and when I returned, there was one terrified pigeon shaking under the bedding, surrounded by blood and feathers. Vera had met a grisly end, while Jack, the sensible little coward, had managed to hide and survive.

We never saw what took Vera, but it must have been a seagull. This was a surgical strike.

A few days later, Jack started to fly and followed his mother up to the top of the roof, where they perch as welcome guests to this day. Without them, I'd never have paid any attention to the diversity of wildlife in an urban housing estate, and I would never have realised the drama of nature, in all its tooth and claw, that occurs in front of us every day.

It's amazing what you see when you decide to look...

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