Monday, June 16, 2008

SF: Rethinking Pigeons

She was looking in my bathroom window and I knew at once this bird was serious. Bright yellow eyes glared from a new nest, built in the light well while I was in Kentucky during April. I looked back, and quickly recovered from longstanding pigeon-bias to enjoy a daily lesson the domestic life of he-bird and she-bird, a thoroughly modern couple who shared nesting responsibilities.

She-pigeon was small and soot-colored. He-pigeon loomed larger: the gray of a foggy San Francisco sky, an iridescent crest of green on his breast. She was fearless; I could crank open the window to the light well and send out food and water without disturbing her. He was another story. As soon as I appeared in the window there was a flutter of wings and I could hear him at the roof, gurgling, fussing, sputtering.

The nest they constructed was first a scant bundle of twigs swirled into the far corner of the space, but as days passed the pigeons added a substantial number of sticks and their home seemed more structurally sound. I was relieved. A week into the process I could see the tops of two white eggs.

Apparently pigeons have quite a following--positive and negative-- and you can learn almost anything about them on the web. Eighteen days is the gestation period for pigeon eggs but I knew in a week that one of the eggs was damaged...the shell dented and crushed but not fully broken.

Emotional involvement was not what I needed, but there I was. I recalled a 12-year-old version of myself, my brother's BB-gun in hand, taking a few wild shots at a pigeon roosting on the vacant Johnson house down the street. Miraculously I killed the thing, and what I recall beyond my immediate regret was the intense color of its blood. Later in college pot-throwing class I would be drawn to pigeon's blood as the most dramatic, most mysterious glaze color of all. I love it still.

More days passed, well beyond the eighteen day mark, and the couple continued to take turns sitting on the eggs. The female would usually be on the nest at night; the male would be there much of the day. They were no longer shy about the food I proffered and I refilled the dish about once a week. Other than glancing out the window at intervals I tried to keep my distance.

Still, I was hooked. I searched for my pigeons when I walked toward Speedway Meadow; I found myself looking backward after descending my front steps, wondering if one of the pigeon pair might be watching me as I left the house. The small iron pigeon in my kitchen window, a find at the Paris Flea Market, suddenly became more about a bird than about the City of Lights.

Three weeks passed and it was apparent that neither of the eggs would hatch. I felt like a physician who knows the truth about a stillborn child but doesn't want to acknowledge it. All three of us, the two pigeons and I, went on with the nest sitting and the nest watching for at least another week. We all pretended nothing was wrong.

Then one day there was a change. Both pigeons were strutting around the light well, agitated, on and off the nest. This was, apparently, the day they would end the vigil. I wondered if they could feel what I felt: all this long wait--for nothing. Ira tried to cheer me up, saying this was probably an unplanned event, that the pigeons were hugely relieved not to have to deal with squawking young ones, that they were anxious to get back to their normal pigeon-lives in the park or on the sidewalk at Geary. I couldn't laugh.

In the next days, the June light drew me to other windows. I reveled in the view of the bridge and tried to memorize the play of light on the Church of Holy Virgin. Still I sometimes looked out at the pile of twigs and once I was shocked to see the female back on the nest. But then she was gone.

A good week after the light-shaft tenants departed I noticed a shadow on the roof above the nest. The two pigeons were sitting there, still as statues, their heads both turned downward at an identical and awkward angle, peering at the what remained of the eggs. I expected them to fly away but they didn't move...not for the entire time I stood at the window.

Now a broken eggshell has blown into the main part of the light well--one of the eggs has decomposed and crushed. The last time I looked the other egg was still resting there, temporarily protected from the elements. And the pigeon couple, bright male and charcoal female, they've finally moved on. At least I guess they have.


The pigeon couple returned to their nest in July. Both eggs hatched, and the fledgelings are almost ready to take flight. We've named them Rebecca and Walter.

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