Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Nest in Spring - My Pigeon Encounter

Recently I wrote about a non-human ‘friend’ I’d made, a blackbird that for about a month was knocking against my bathroom window several times a day. Having anthropomorphised what is apparently a common occurrence (a Google search reveals that during the mating season blackbirds sometimes mistake their reflections in the window for predators, and attack) I felt suitably chastened, and a little miffed when the blackbird abruptly ceased her futile quest, having probably gone off to mate.

The explanation didn’t satisfy me completely though. The blackbird seemed to be trying to get a foothold on the wisteria in order to peer inside – she seemed genuinely curious and would only fly away when she saw me coming. Once or twice I noticed her calmly perched on a high branch of the plum tree outside the window, watching me as I showered. She was fascinated, not merely disturbed, by the world beyond that strange invisible wall she kept knocking into. I wasn’t bird watching – she was human watching.

But I would not be alone for long. Soon after she left, a loving couple moved in next door. Again, they were clearly visible through the bathroom window. They seemed very close, and would sit side by side for hours without a word, torsos touching, enjoying an effortless togetherness. Unlike the blackbird, they were sublimely uninterested in me, although perhaps made uncomfortable by the persistent curiosity.

Then the determined building started. In record time the house was finished and not long after that a new development occurred – the arrival of twins!

Okay, so this new family weren’t human either. They were pigeons and in perfect cooperation and record time they had built a rudimentary nest in the plum tree, only about a foot from the window, that they took turns to sit on, patiently minding two small eggs. The nest is surprisingly small and frail looking. It’s been through a lot in the past few weeks, and, truth be told, is now studded with layers of pigeon pooh, yet it continues to withstand the powerful winds and blinding rain we’ve experienced during what has been a wet and chilly spring. I’ve witnessed one of the adult pigeons perched calmly on it during a windy storm, rocked by the force of the wind but seemingly confident it would withstand the battering.

Seeing the branch swinging and the bird calmly moored there for hours, feathers plumped up against the cruel wind, inevitably made me think about human endeavour (I know, anthropmorphising again!). We all assume that the aim of life is happiness. But perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps at particular stages of our lives it is just to hang in there.

Every time I’d go to the bathroom, except for very early in the morning, one of the pigeons would be sitting on the nest, keeping the eggs warm. You’d think the boredom must have been excruciating, but I’ve come to believe that pigeons either don’t experience boredom, or process it differently (perhaps they also receive some hormonal help).

For a while I had no idea that the male was still involved. I thought the female was heroically going it alone, and that perhaps the male was feeding her. But early one morning I witnessed an exciting event. In an uncanny silence, one pigeon hopped off the nest as the other one waited on a nearby branch. The waiting one climbed onto the nest immediately afterwards and settled in for a long stint.

I’ve seen this a few times now and the sense of cooperation and non-verbal communication is palpable. And at the time it made sense: two distinct personalities had seemed to be in play. One of the pigeons would eye me a bit nervously when I approached the window and shamelessly gawked at it, while the other avoided looking at me altogether, as if hoping I’d disappear.

For about two and a half weeks this pigeon pair took turns to keep their eggs safe and warm. Then one day, tiny moving beaks and long necks stretching up for food were barely discernible over the top of the nest. The chicks had hatched! They were half-formed mutants, skeletal and grotesque in their vulnerability.

The parents did an amazing job hiding the chicks from the world – and me. Not surprisingly, apart from feeding, the aim at this stage was to cover up the chicks and keep them safe and warm – the parent seemed to sit on top of them, and I wondered how it did not inadvertently smother them. The adult pigeon’s ability to spread out and change shape with feather plumping is quite amazing. The phrase ‘taking someone under your wing’ now makes sense to me!

As the chicks grew, the feeding process became more visible. The parent regurgitates food it’s eaten, producing a kind of vomit that it then conveys into the beak of the chick by using its own beak as a feeder. It really gets its beak down the chick’s gullet, and conveys the food using a pumping motion. I watched this many times, feeling fascinated but guilty as I’m sure the parent didn’t like anyone witnessing this act of nurturing. It amazes me that this vigorous process doesn’t damage the chick’s oesophagus! Both seemed constantly famished, pecking at the torso of the parent when the other was being fed but giving up immediately when it was clear the meal was over.

I watched each stage of the chicks’ development with something like delight, and had soon installed a little stool in the bathroom to get a better view of these David Attenborough moments. I continued to feel a bit guilty, worried I was unsettling the parent, but as the chicks grew more sentient I reasoned that they had never known a world without me in it, and indeed they would prove calmer in regards to me than one of the parents.

They grew amazingly quickly, and were noticeably larger every day. Gradually I no longer had to stand on the stool to get a good view of them, and instead of being in the nest they sat on top of it.

As they grew, the parents stayed away more and more frequently, seeming to desert them entirely during the day but always coming back to feed them in the evening (and probably in the morning, before I was up). For as long as possible the parent on duty even managed to fit on top of them in the nest at night. The two siblings seemed increasingly calm in the absence of the parent, as if confident it would return. But they also seemed to know instinctively that it was important to keep still and hide themselves from predators while their protector was gone.

For a few weeks, their main goal in life was to wait – wait for the parent to arrive with the food, wait to grow bigger, wait for that first chance to pound those impatient, unwieldy wings against the wind. They endured the long hours alone with each other surprisingly calmly. Now, when they stood up to be fed, they revealed their bulk - huge when compared with a few weeks earlier and looking like small ducks, with plenty of down, but narrow necks. Together in the nest from the get-go, they somehow continued to fit themselves in and share the increasingly inadequate space, turning when necessary, flapping a wing every now and again, and occasionally gnawing at their own necks, perhaps in hunger or boredom, perhaps shedding down.

New stages continued to occur. One morning when I checked in, one of them had ventured forth from the nest and was perched on a nearby branch. This one was more adventurous and perhaps more developed than its sibling, and it continued to explore further up the tree. I watched enthralled as it made a tiny experimental flight from one branch to the next. The next day, both were perching and moving around on nearby branches.

I was fully expecting to witness the day-shift parent come back to give them a flying lesson. What would happen at this next stage? Would the family stay anchored to the nest at night? Would I witness the young pigeons take a full flight into the air for the first time? Unfortunately, my hopes of seeing further developmental triumphs were disappointed.

Some time after their sally forth earlier that morning, I discovered them sitting companionably together in the nest, looking diminutive, peaceful and sweet. I gave them my usual greeting (I can’t confess it, it’s too embarrassing).

Then an hour or so later I went by again, and they were gone. Just like that. No sign of them in any part of the tree. No goodbyes, not even a ceremonial escorting of them into the big wide world by the parent. They’d just disappeared.

I was shocked, bereft. The nest looked obsolete, forlorn. I sensed its purpose was complete.

It wasn’t the total end, although close enough. That evening I saw the shapes of young birds – for they’d become birds by this stage – in the spangling evening leaves. I rushed outside. Relief! The two young were sitting next to each other on a branch in easy sight, and Mum or Dad, still large in comparison, was keeping watch from a branch further up. I gazed up at the two young and they gazed down at me serenely – that silly gawking monster again. It was the parent, funnily enough, who took fright and flew away. Since then, I’ve only had one more sighting, when I was just able to discern the parent feeding one of them in a part of the tree near the neighbour’s fence. It appeared for a while that the plum tree was still the ‘home tree’, although a few days later I’m not so sure. But the nest has been well and truly forgotten by everyone except me.

Nature makes life look so simple. Pigeons don’t seem particularly enterprising to me compared with some other bird species, perhaps partly because of their environment, but it strikes me they’re the hippies of the natural world. They do whatever is required to sustain existence, and live peacefully in the moment. They also seem to really enjoy simply hanging out with their kids and partners, and on sunny days they soak up the sun, sometimes with a close friend beside them to enjoy the moment with.

Like other birds they seem able to call on extraordinary reserves of stamina and endurance when required. Seeing the parent and even the chicks getting sodden in the bitter spring storms, yet never complain or give up, made me think of the documentary Travelling Birds – I’ve never forgotten the look of preternatural determination and concentration revealed by the amazing close-ups of migratory birds, their wings beating the air as they travelled hundreds of miles without a rest.

Ah well. The plum tree’s branches are now so extensive it’s threatening to wrap around the house and trap me in there. With its main tenants now gone, and its job of protecting one small family completed, it’s time for some judicious pruning.

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