The Charm Of A Pigeon
by Raymond P. Buchholz

    It's time I begin this.  I cannot say enough on his behalf.  Far and away, he is more than the average person would begin to suspect.  A unique individual with feelings, priorities, agendas and a wealth of street smarts -- Bernie has style!

    I met Bernie on January 18th, 1995.  It was around 5:00 pm.  Clearly, he was in trouble, the victim of a traffic accident.  Nobody would stop.  Not one person, it seemed, would even give him the courtesy of a wide berth.  Where is a cop when you need one?  But I saw him.  I recognized his dilemma and I helped.

    His body language was unmistakable.  He was panicked for good reason.  He was in grave danger from the rush hour traffic.  If I had not acted, Bernie would have been killed that day.

    We tied up two westbound lanes on Sunset Drive in Waukesha.  People honked.  Good ole boys made sign language at us.  But a woman in a burgundy Buick stopped and waved me to go ahead.  Kind souls may not be the norm, but they do exist.

    And so we approached one another, meeting midway on the four-lane road.  His next step was quite remarkable.  He moved quickly toward me.  His head was tilted severely to one side (neck trauma from the impact).  He stopped within mere inches of me and with great effort moved his head nearly erect.  He shook and trembled.  His slender legs were wobbly.  I wasn't sure if it was the cold or shock that affected him. And then he made direct eye contact with me.  I mean he really looked at me.  His body language and “expression” were all I needed to see; he implored, can you help me?

    So, I offered my help.  And he accepted.

    Bernie came home with me.  He declined food and water, but gratefully accepted a blanket and radiant heater.  He dozed.

    Stressed by the event, I needed refreshment.  A long, hot shower and something to eat were in order.  But there were preparations to make.  Judy was due home soon and I didn't want the two of them surprising one another. So, I left a note on the door:


    The two of them hit it off just fine.  We had the room, and as it turned out, he was looking for a place.  He had no insurance.  But we took him to the doctor and paid his bills.  His recovery was hard fought, with no minor effort on Judy's part.  After rounds of antibiotics and physical therapy, Bernie bounced back.  He was not 100% mind you, but he was definitely back.  And if he chose, he had a family and a home.

    I should have known it would be all right.  Judy is a kind soul.  She often makes time for hard luck cases, especially if they're birds, and Bernie is a pigeon.


    After advising us about making sure Bernie was completely healthy (we have other birds), the vet gave his diagnosis and prognosis:  Though ambulatory, Bernie's flying days were over.  He would need support for the rest of his life.

    Pigeons can live up to thirty years under ideal conditions.  There was little debate.  Bernie had won us over completely.  So, I went to work on his residence.

    Our local Walmart had it all.  Muffin cooling racks, a hunter green laundry basket, zip-lock wire ties, garden boarder fence, and a gray doormat were the components of Bernie's permanent home.  I added an aquarium light fixture to finish the project.

    The inverted laundry basket made a fine frame for Bernie's home.  A single edged razor blade scored and cut the plastic as needed.  The wire ties made excellent hinges for the front and side doors (cooling racks) and the rolled edge of the basket, now inverted, served as a lock for both doors when lowered to the closed position.  Paper clips fashioned into swing hooks held the doors open.  One more wire tie secured the fluorescent fixture on one end through two aligned holes.  This step would prevent the lamp from dropping into the place, but still allow easy access to replace the bulb.

    I laced green dental floss in an X pattern across the large openings of the fence.  I then placed neon pink adhesive dots, back to back, everywhere the lines (floss) intersected. The colors actually worked well with the most attractive corner of our living room. 

    Judy merely shook her head and smiled when she arrived and saw the results of my efforts. 

    Now Bernie had a permanent residence, complete with electric lighting and a fenced yard to strut around in when we weren't home.

    This was new turf for us.  We had parrots, fish, iguanas, a turtle, and a transient crawfish in our home.  But yard birds were new territory.  All in all, we did the best we could.

    But Bernie complained loudly.  He fussed, he moaned, and twirling and spinning he told us about it.  He'd bonded with the cardboard box that was his first refuge with us. And he would not readily accept his new accommodations.  We heard him and offered him a choice. 

    For two nights Bernie had two homes.  He went back and forth between both residences and complained the whole time.  Finally, he settled on one -- the new one!  While he was busy, we quietly removed the old homestead.  He gave the matter little notice.  To this day, that's Bernie's place. 


    I do not intentionally anthropomorphize any animal.  Yet, I recognize similarities in our behaviors and personalities.  And lets face it; we are all limited and imperfect.   Bernie, decidedly, has an excess of  personality.  This we accept, and love him unconditionally.

    Whether it was random chance or fate is unimportant.  We are all here and now.  Bernie is family.  We have strongly imprinted on one another.  The process was reciprocal.

    Overall, we found that this formula works best:  compromise and do it his way!

    He would not be contained.  When his healing reached a plateau, Bernie was no longer content with the confines of his yard.  I'd come home to find him sleeping peacefully on my bed, or watching the world go by from a windowsill. I tightened security around his home to no avail. Given any minor chance, Bernie sought escape.  And he exerted himself to the danger point.   Again, we “compromised”.

    I know what you're thinking.  So let me set you straight.  A pigeon's droppings are typically like a bunny's.  They bounce when they hit the carpet.  We keep a neat home (really).  But, admittedly, we use more than our share of Kleenex.  Thus, he has earned nicknames like, guanomatic or guanotron.  His is a busy little bottom! 

    And so, we pretty much gave him the run of the house.  And that's how it has been.  Except for when he's tucked in for the night, or when nobody's home, Bernie more or less does what he feels like.

    Bernie is a proud individual.  He spends much time on personal grooming and appearance.  He appreciates an occasional shower and takes a full ten minutes doing so!  He's no trouble in the shower, raising his wings one at a time, as you would an armpit in the warm water.  He shakes and flaps himself dry.  His antics are endearing.  Bernie is far and away less mess than the parrots or iguanas.  His droppings are neat and odorless.  He eats at two or three stations.  During a molt he leaves localized messes and his downy feathers find their way to the air cleaning system -- but this is easy to pick up after and no big deal. 

    Daily maintenance equipment for Bernie amounts to a tabloid newspaper, Kleenex, seeds and water, vitamins and a vacuum cleaner.  He is a worry, getting under foot, and any of the parrots could shred him at will if he didn't have them bluffed by his bluster.  But by and large, Bernie is no trouble and I think his life with us has been pretty good. 

    Still, no existence is perfect and Bernie's is no exception.


     “Spider Creatures.  Spider Creatures that come here from Jupiter!  Spider Creature is here for your seedsies!  Spider Creature's in your house, eating your seedsies!”  Say these words loud enough; repeat if necessary, and you'll see Bernie in attack mode!  When the crisis passes, as often as not, Bernie will remain in patrol mode with heightened awareness of claimed territories (there are many).

    Spider Creatures have five legs and look an awful lot like a human hand (mine!). But the threat is real.  And Bernie seems to relish the challenge.  He can be in another room and all I need do is loudly and playfully say, “Spider Creature is in your house, eating your seedsies!”  Almost without fail a small gray streak comes racing through the doorway, from under the bed, or around a corner.

     The attack is immediate.  A struggle ensues.  The Spider Creature invariably dies.  The seedsies are saved!  Bernie gives a victory coo, with one foot on the fallen Spider Creature.  On some occasions he twirls and drops a “victory dud!”  Bernie loves this kind of play, as the superficial wounds on my hands will attest to.  He plays like a puppy!


     One of the best ways to really understand pigeons is to move in with one!  I know people may label me an Animal Rights Whacko and I'll admit, if you'd told me six years ago that I'd be sharing my home with a wild pigeon, I would have laughed.  Still, the term, Whacko, is subjective.  Some societies eat horses, dogs, cats and parrots.  Anyone befriending these animals in such a society may well be labeled a whacko.   I suspect that it bothers them about as much as it does me.

     My impressions and observations of Bernie reflect complete accuracy, in so far as I am capable.  They are flavored with affection and whatever poetic license I may be allowed.   This is Bernie, as I know him.

     His affections and overtures are unmistakable.  Bernie is big on ritual and demands deferential treatment.  And so he should!  He is adorable at bedtime, accepting gifts of thistle seed, kisses on his sweet head, and stroking.  Before this, I had no idea… 

     When not on patrol (for Spider Creatures!), Bernie is subtle.  Much of his communication is lost on untrained eyes.  But once you learn to recognize it, it is nearly constant and unmistakable.  Self-expression isn't one of Bernie's problems.


     His kisses are rapid, gentle pecks around your hands and face.  He will gently place his beak between your lips if you allow it.  If not, that's okay too.  Bernie can be very considerate.  There is no aspect of this little creature that I find repulsive.

     Of course Bernie blinks.  But winkies are altogether different.  A few days into his recovery I took a moment to check on him.  He seemed more alert.  Judy was medicating him and got him to drink water from her hand.  But he still would not eat and his future seemed shaky at best.  I spoke soothingly to him and he very deliberately and slowly, winked his eyes at me.  He squeezed them closed for a heartbeat, and then opened them.  Like I said, Bernie really looks at a person when he wants to.  Have you ever been stared down by eyes the color of rusty nails?  For me, at least, the experience was special.  I repeated the action as best I could (I lack the nictitating membrane he has) and he did it again!

     Then he added a very slight nod of his head.  I mimicked this too and from there he took over.  I could not keep up.  Bernie has an entire repertoire of signals involving winks, nods, wing twitches, grunts and moans.  Judy and I have learned to interpret many of them.

     It is accepted that cats, in part, talk with their eyes.  Any vet up to speed will tell you that.  So do pigeons. 

     As pigeons go Bernie is not overly large.  Still, this bird was no fledgling.  Bernie had the language down pat.  I do not believe that this knowledge is genetic.  I think Bernie learned this behavior.

     With Bernie, for the most part, you can expect reciprocity.  Like I said, his overtures are unmistakable.  The olive branch I mentioned earlier is a famous metaphor. 

     In our home, olive branches take the form of brightly colored strips of paper or trash bag ties.  When he's in the mood, Bernie will accept these with grateful grunts, winks, twitches and kisses.  He places them under his rotund little body and grunts with satisfaction.  Conversely, if he wants to cuddle, he will sometimes round up a love twig and proudly present it to you -- usually while you're watching a movie or typing a manuscript like this one. He does this with much deference and ceremony.  It is a deliberate overture and we are appropriately honored. 

     Sometimes I wonder about the life Bernie left behind.  About the loved ones and family, the familiar places, the favorite roosts, I can only speculate.  I'm not even sure how old Bernie is.  I only know that I will never be prepared to lose him.  As crazy as it may sound, I love Bernie pretty much more than anything -- or nearly anybody.

     Again, I know this is a pigeon.  And I would not anthropomorphize any animal.  But this little creature has earned the respect of a household.  He is all I say he is.  I know that in the broad strokes, his death would not matter.  And yet, I could not quantify the loss.  Why do humans do this -- offer friendship and love to creatures that in all likelihood will expire long before their human friends?

     I've seen him doze in a shaft of sunlight, his breast slowly heaving, he sighs.  Tucked in on himself with throat inflated, his feet are not visible.  At other times he naps, balanced on one foot, the other foot tucked away, out of sight.  He balances without swaying, a long while.

     Picture yourself, say, on a Sunday afternoon after a good meal, resting on the sofa with this pigeon on your chest, rising and falling with every breath you take. His ash colored eyelids signal all is well.  And together you doze.  For a moment in space and time, you fold your wings and rest.  You gently scratch his head and he grunts that everything is okay.  And it is.

     Beyond logic, there is feeling and belief.  You can't stuff this neatly into a box.  Call it an ineffable quality.  Label it any way you want. To me, Bernie's is as viable a life as anybody's.  Bernie matters.  He just does.  Perhaps, nothing that is is unimportant, at least to somebody. 

     Through Bernie I have learned that sometimes it's enough to be.  Just to be, here and now, with Bernie, is miracle enough.  Me and my dove, alive and well, together we doze.  As the shadows grow long I treasure the moment.  I do my best to take mental pictures no technology can capture.  For I learned as a child, that all good things…

     Still, we're only mortal.  Surely, it's best not to dwell on such matters.  Doing so diminishes the gift that is here and now.   Individuals like Bernie show us how to live in the moment.

      We can provide only so much for Bernie.  To meet his needs we can watch, learn, compromise and improvise.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn't.


     It was the five legs that got him.  I know it was the legs!  The other ingredients were there.  The shape and size seemed right.  Bernie's sexuality had begun to assert itself and Crusty seemed like a good option, especially in lieu of the circumstances.  Certainly Crusty would serve better than one of my running shoes.

     At first encounter Bernie seemed interested, even intrigued.  He came when I called him.  Banking around a corner of our spacious apartment, he streaked within close proximity of Crusty.  Crusty quivered with joy.  Bernie took a closer look.  Crusty's big expressionless goo-goo eyes gave cause for suspicion. Bernie lowered his head and looked intently at Crusty's five legs.  You see Crusty is a kind of hand puppet.

     Bernie moaned and then growled (yes, he growls).  Judy and I could not hide our chagrin.  As our pigeon's inspection continued, we began to snicker.  That made things worse.

     The attack was intense.  He tore into Crusty as you would a mortal enemy.  Anchoring Crusty to the carpet with one foot, Bernie groaned with the effort to rend flesh from the hapless stuffed cardinal.  He then flung Crusty nearly two feet into the air!  It was hilarious! 

     We laughed until we cried.  We playfully admonished Bernie for his cruelty.  And so, a new game was afoot:  “Crusty loves you sooo much!”  “Crusty knows today will be better than yesterday!”  And it never was.  Almost without fail Bernie would tear into this crimson wannabe.  We were impressed by the strength of Bernie's rehabbed neck muscles and awed at the display of temper from our little dove.  Crusty continued to help with Bernie's “rehab”.

     Crusty was presented to Bernie on the date of his first anniversary with us.  As intended, our plan was a complete failure -- but a source of great fun for everybody!  Today, having been beaten into total submission, Crusty is a common fixture in any one of Bernie's haunts.  The gaudy ersatz cardinal, showing much wear after four years of torment, is no longer hopeful, but finally tolerated.


     Everybody likes a special place to hang out, a home away from home, as it were.  Bernie is no different.

     She knew it would be a hit when she first spied it at a major grocery store.  As Judy described it to me, I saw the potential too.  When she brought it home, I knew she'd found a winner.  I immediately dubbed it, the “Passion Cube”.

     This is a finely made, ornate, upholstered cube, with two symmetrical portals on adjacent sides.  It features plush construction with no hard bracing.  My guess is, that it's made from die-cut foam, sandwiched between a soft, long pile interior and linen outer panels.  Sturdy welting joins the six sides.  Intended for kittens and ferrets, this is perfect for a discriminating pigeon seeking a place for a chance encounter, or just to “hang” in the off hours. 

     Once again, Judy was right -- this was an immediate hit with Bernie!

     Bernie flirts, winks, moans, grunts, twitches, pulses and complains from his toasty lair.  His hot little body generates surprising heat, in the well-insulated space.  He naps at length... And woe befalls any Spider Creature brazen -- or careless -- enough to closely approach the Passion Cube!


      “My God, is that a pigeon?”  I've heard this more than once with company over.  Since he is a worry getting underfoot, we usually keep him secured until people settle in.  Then he's released, eventually to wander into the populated room.  Judy or I generally greet him as we would anybody: “Hi, Bernie!”

       Bernie is pretty fearless.  He will scrutinize each guest and invariably land upon or near anybody occupying one of his spots.  Reactions vary.  But given half a chance, Bernie wins the affections -- or grudging admiration -- of anybody that takes the trouble to know him. 

      “What is it with you guys?”  I have asked on many occasions of Bernie, Ricki, Zigfried and Little John, (the latter three are iguanas).  Every morning it's the same.  Bernie gets up in a foul mood.  Regardless of the pains we take to assure a peaceful nights sleep, Bernie is definitely not a morning person.  Perhaps he needs the pigeon equivalent of coffee.  At any rate, he gets up plenty cranky.  He twirls and complains, then gets his bearings and charges off for morning inspection.

       “Admiral on the bridge!” is frequently called as Bernie enters the kitchen, his head held high and feathers dragging.  Invariably he makes for the iguanas and puts on quite a show!  It's always a standoff, with feathers splayed and dewlaps extended.  This behavior has got to be genetic.

     At this point, often as not, he demands sex.  He courts his favorite shoe, deftly jumping over the instep and circling the object of his desire with his feather cape dragging.  Within moments the shoe's been had.  Bernie departs the scene with an audible whoosh of feathers dragging on the carpet.  He looks a little like Darth Vader from the back when he does this.  His disposition changes noticeably.  Again, there is nothing about this little creature that I find repulsive.  I can only smile.

     Bernie enjoys sharing the experience of a snack or meal, and complains readily if I fail to prepare something for him when we nibble or dine.  Clearly, he considers himself a kindred spirit.  We are of a brood.

     I read this over and I realize that most will find the whole thing anecdotal.  Well, in that context, so was your birth; so was your wedding; so was the funeral of a friend; so was the finest piece of music you ever heard -- or composed; so was your favorite color; so are all the little things that make all the difference.  I don't pretend to be the first that has noticed, “little things mean a lot”.  In the final analysis, that's pretty much all there is.

     As I close this, he is near, head held slightly crooked as he preens.  Purple and emerald, graphite and ruby, the feathers on his graceful neck are iridescent in the light.  The white stockings are plain to see on his red legs.  His ebony nails shine on his rhubarb toes.  Pigeon toes.  He has come a long way in five years.  He has even regained very limited flight.

     Soon he will want to cuddle or play.  After Judy gets home there will be bonding before bedtime.  Love twigs and thistle seed.  Pijjy kisses and things.  I certainly know where the term, “Lovey Dovey”, comes from. 


     Apparently, science does not distinguish greatly between doves and pigeons.  They are one family.  In fact, the traditional White Dove of Peace is actually a white pigeon when rendered accurately. 

     Since the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, pigeons and doves have been revered for their beauty and practical reliability.  Since all pigeons are essentially homing pigeons, their unique capabilities were recognized early:

     According to myth, a white dove returned to the arc with an olive branch to let Noah know that land was not far (that is the root of the proverbial olive branch).  Pigeons are clearly depicted on Egyptian tombs.  Pigeons delivered late breaking news of the early Olympic Games.  Pigeons carried engineering updates for King Solomon’s mines.      Long John Silver, a preserved carrier pigeon, holds a place of honor at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, for his deeds of valor in World War One.  His tiny body riddled with shrapnel, and one leg nearly blown away, Long John Silver accomplished his mission, and survived to be decorated.  In World War Two, GI Joe, another carrier pigeon, saved a thousand allied lives by delivering a pivotal message, just in the nick of time. Joe was awarded the Dicken Medal -- the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.  Heroes all, thousands of pigeons served in two world wars.  Many were never recognized. 

     History is replete with remarkable Pigeon/Dove credentials.  Even today, there is a whitewater rafting adventures company, Rocky Mountain Adventures in Fort Collins, Colorado, which exclusively uses “Pigeon Express”, for the rapid processing of customer action photos.  How could many loathe creatures as dedicated and noble as the pigeon?  How small have some of us become? 

     Yes, these creatures are prolific.  Yes, pigeons and doves routinely beat the odds.  And yes, their existence is, by most, taken for granted.  They're great survivors.  You will find them on every continent, except Antarctica.  But in all their robust forms, history records that they are not immune from eradication. 


     In the fall of 1815, Audubon himself calculated the numbers in a single flock of passenger pigeons as they passed over rural Kentucky.  His estimate:  1,115,136,000 individuals.  His observation required three days -- the time it took the flock to cross the sky.  In his journal, he wrote of one fateful encounter when the flock arrived to settle in for the night:

      “Few pigeons were to be seen, but a great number of persons, with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments on the borders.  [Farmers] had driven upwards of three hundred hogs to be fattened on the pigeons which were to be slaughtered... Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of ‘Here they come!’  The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea... As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me.  Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men…  It was a scene of uproar and confusion.  Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard... Towards the approach of day... the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dieing, and the mangled.  The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.”
     History recalls that the wholesale slaughter of the passenger pigeon was not limited to this event.  Audubon speculated that ecological concerns (deforestation) posed the greatest threat to the species overall.  At any rate, on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon died in a Cincinnati zoo.  Today, the passenger pigeon is extinct.  If we could recover its genetic material, perhaps, one day we could clone a male and female passenger pigeon.  But the gene blueprint would likely be incomplete and the culture and society, the entire archive of collective knowledge and unique coping skills of the species are lost forever.  Sadly, as a citizen of my time I can attest that there are a large, perhaps growing number of people that would say, “so what?”

     In my home state of Wisconsin, right now, there is a loud minority hell bent on hunting the traditionally protected Mourning Dove.  To observe the current government forum and local media, one would think that these people embody popular opinion.  I can tell you with certainty they do not.  The forum is carefully slanted to accommodate political agendas -- i.e., gun ownership rights -- and the majority of people who are against this proposal are not going to be heard.  Since the hunting of Mourning Doves is currently not a right in our state, I fail to see how not changing this law is a threat to gun ownership in Wisconsin?  It seems one way or another the dove is destined to symbolize somebody's agenda.  One ambitious politician was actually heard to say, since there's so many of them, why not shoot them?  Unbelievable… 

     As it is, perhaps in an effort to cope, we see Mourning Doves braving our Wisconsin winters rather than migrating.  Many never make it till springtime.  I strongly recommend that anybody read Allan W. Eckert's, The Silent Sky:  The Incredible Extinction Of The Passenger Pigeon, before forming opinion or policy on matters such as these.  History is important only if its lessons are learned and all sides of an issue are examined carefully.  I dearly hope compassion and morality remain part of the equation. 

Rev. 1/2001
Click on one of the following underscored titles to go to that home page:
Web page composition and additional pictures - D.Roth, 1/01