San Diego Metro Pigeon Club taught me so much

We join the club of fanciers

When we went to the Del Mar Fair, I was feeling guilty. I had decided not to tell my brother right away that Chocolate was a goner.
  • When we went to the Del Mar Fair, I was feeling guilty. I had decided not to tell my brother right away that Chocolate was a goner.

I had no love for pigeons. I had unhappy associations from childhood, and I shared the popular perception of them as rats with wings. On the Great Chain of Being, birds are rather low; they seem to have the IQ of fish or reptiles or other animals my intellect scorns. I have always been able to eat poultry with impunity, thinking more about the caloric count of the white meat than the little beating heart; heart almost seems an embarrassing word in reference to a bird. Their dull, uncomprehending eyes, their lack of opposable thumbs, their association with the sad, lonely woman in Mary Poppins — pigeons held no interest for me. In The Book of the Pigeon and the Foreign Doves, I found early literature on the subject that validated my prejudice. The "Treatise on the Art of Breeding and Managing Fancy Pigeons," published in 1858, states: "Time was...when a Pigeon Fancier was associated in all men's minds with Costermongers, Pugilists, Ratcatchers, and Dogstealers....Pigeon Fanciers were artisans - men who lived in the courts, alleys, and other by-places of the metropolis. Such men....drew towards them no sympathy - they were profane, vulgar - the pariahs of Society - and their pursuits were deemed scarcely fit to be mentioned within audience of ears polite."

I had no desire to be a costermonger nor a pugilist, so it was with indifference, almost hostility, that I began keeping pigeons in my backyard. I write this now because I am in mourning for a particular pigeon, a dark brown West of England pigeon with corrugated feathers of mahogany, chocolate, black, and iridescent green. But I will return to him later.

I began keeping pigeons out of obligation. I have a brother who lives in a halfway house who loves pigeons only second to family. He has time on his hands and love in his heart, and too little to spend them on. We made our first trip to Dave's Feed Stop in Lemon Grove in January of '98. My son and my brother-in-law had just built a cage from scrap in the backyard, and I had read a simplistic big-print pigeon book, so I felt equipped for the limited project I was undertaking. My brother picked out a gray-and-white pigeon, a West of England, a breed whose distinguishing trait appeared to be its feathered feet. To me, the feathered feet looked more like an encumbrance than an attribute, but my brother was happy, so we took the pigeon home. I was pleased to have a pet in the backyard that asked nothing of me other than a daily ration of cheap seed, grit, and fresh water. I was particularly pleased to have a pet that asked nothing of me emotionally. Just the year before, our family's bull mastiff, Semi, had died of cancer. The grief of this event caused me to take up smoking again for a week, and my husband was so surprised by the depth of sadness he felt at the loss of our dog that he sat up in bed the night the dog died and said to me in a surprised voice, "My heart hurts."

My brother Richard would come home on weekends to sit in front of the cage and stare at his pigeon or, after a few weeks, to let it out and pray that it would return. And it was a good pigeon, an adequate pigeon; it flew around and then flapped back into the cage. The cage is under the canopy of a huge pepper tree, which I had thought was an extra blessing because it acted as shade for the cage in hot weather and a windbreak in the winter. I have subsequently read, in a more comprehensive pigeon book, that a cage should be visible from the sky to enable the pigeon to home. So the pigeons who found their way to this camouflaged cage deserve an extra tribute.

In the anthropomorphic way humans have of looking at animals, we soon began to attribute loneliness to the bird, and we decided he needed a mate. So we got out the carrier for the dead cat, who had died of old age and was buried under the flowering purple tree with the dog, and headed back to Dave's Feed Stop. Such a variety of birds flew around in the cages at Dave's Feed Stop that I would always drag my feet and try to interest my brother in peacocks, or geese, or Rhode Island Reds, which would at least lay some eggs. But no, we would return relentlessly to the pigeon enclosure. We had deduced that the pigeon in our cage was a male because of his behavior, so the new problem was to pick a female. Since there are no visible genitalia, you have to look at subtle things - the males are supposed to have somewhat larger bodies, somewhat thicker necks, and behave more aggressively. After Richard picked out a pretty tan-and-white pigeon, we took it up to the counter where Dave gave it the final test as to its gender. He held it upside down and dangled a golden ball on a chain over its fluffy underside. If the ball began to move in a circular motion, Dave informed me, that meant it was a male; if the ball moved up and down in a straight line, he said, it was a female. The ball moved in accordance with our preference, and we took the female home. Richard ultimately called the pigeon "Old Faithful," because she homed so reliably.

It was early summer and a great deal of cooing wafted through the open bedroom window at night, and before we knew it, the nest was flooded with eggs. I suspect the pigeons of relying on human intervention, because their contributions to the nest were minimal — if I hadn't put a base of sawdust in the nest box, the eggs would have been laid on a few pine needles, one or two twigs, and several incidental feathers. Though not fond of pigeons, something in me recoiled at smashing the little eggs, but the cage was not big enough for so many, so one day when the parents flew out, I removed all of the eggs but one.

The pigeons were committed parents; human beings could take a lesson from the way they shared responsibility. They both plumped their warm bodies down over the egg in an equal way; I never heard any carping. When the baby hatched, they knocked themselves out ensuring it was well fed. At first they fed the newborn squab pigeon milk, a mush they manufacture from feed rendered soft. They regurgitate this food into the ever-open beak.

When you go to the zoo, you hope to see animals eat or play or mate or do something other than stare back at you. Likewise I began to enjoy the live pigeon show. I took pleasure in watching them nest and nurture. I spied from many angles to glimpse the hopelessly unlovely baby. I was curious about its coloring and hoped it would be able to transform itself like the ugly duckling. My family took bets on how long the parents would continue to hunt and gather to feed this demanding Baby Huey, and Richard mistook himself for the father; he was very proud. In The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell tell this pygmy myth about "a little boy who finds a bird with a beautiful song in the forest and brings it home. He asks his father to bring food for the bird, and the father doesn't want to feed the bird, so he kills it." The legend says, "The man killed the bird, and with the bird he killed the song, and with the song, himself. He dropped dead, completely dead, and was dead forever." To become enmeshed in pigeondom was to become enmeshed in the song. The bird would become more viable — the flicker of movement from tree to tree, the quivering bough, the flash of color.

If you are looking at the sky hoping to see your pigeon return, you are more attentive to the shape and grace of bird bodies, the way they coast or dive or fly in funny little flocks like the bushtits. Or you're taken by the Greco-Roman lines of the cedar waxwings. You fear the stealth fighters, the streamlined Cooper's hawks; you notice how the seagulls fly back toward the sea each night. You laugh at the mourning dove who makes squeaky noises when it takes off, as if it had the rusted joints of the Tin Man; and you can even identify the fat-bodied, heavy-winged sound of your own pigeon as it wends its way into the roost. Pigeons are distinct as pets, they are mediaries between the tame and the wild. Different from dogs or cats, who finally become half human, pigeons remain in their birdness.

In Spanish there is a way to use pronouns to express unintentional and therefore guiltless occurrences. Se me acabo ei dinero - crudely translated, the money just ran out to me; the cake burned itself, the cup broke itself, the keys lost themselves. About this time the pigeons began to lose themselves to us. But if I speak my native language, I have to assume guilt. I began to lose the pigeons, perhaps out of hyper-empathy –a familial illness.

If you are raised in the tradition of hyper-empathy, a difficult lesson is that objects of your empathy may or may not profit from your interference. The difference is a line as imperceptible as a stingray in wet sand. My daughter once had a yellow parakeet. We thought it was lonely so we started putting it out on the front porch by the bougainvilles and spreading seed on the rail between the bougainvilles and the cage. Gradually the bougainvilles filled with bird-friends. The bush was all song and flutter. The hush that fell over the porch was gradual; none of us noticed. One day when my husband went out to sweep the porch, he saw a king snake in the bottom of the parakeet cage - it was coiled around the parakeet trying to drag its broken body through the grill of the cage. We compounded the tragedy by calling the animal shelter. Moments after the officer took the snake away in a gunny sack, the snake's partner appeared and did a wild dance of loss on the grass. This interference with nature, this overabundance of compassion, led to the loss of the parakeet, the loss of the birds in the bougainvilles, and the loss of the king snake's partner. But life is wily, and lessons never come to you in the same form.

It's hard to see a cage as a home if you're the keeper, if you are the human lock and key. When I saw the mother and father pigeon grow exasperated with their shrinking house, and I saw the baby elbowing his way onto the perch, I felt I had to let all of them out. Richard was not home that day; perhaps he would have counseled me against it. It was a stormy day, and I was an ignorant pigeon-keeper. I imagined that behind their beady eyes they had a machine-like ability to find their way home - I didn't know they could be blown off course, lose their bearings, lose their home. By morning only the beige-and-white mother pigeon had returned, Old Faithful.

After an interval of several months we went back to Dave's. This time my brother picked out a beautiful white pigeon with gray eyes. Luck was with us and it was a male. Old Faithful was so glad to have a mate that she dragged him into the nest box and they hunkered down for days. Things went well, and soon there were two new eggs. I never tampered with these eggs, but one didn't make it. The lovely chocolate pigeon that I am now mourning was the issue of this mating. But the fates were already conspiring against it.

My brother often regretted that his birds didn't fly and tumble. They generally flew out of the cage and into the canopy of the pepper tree and sat there until it was time to chow down. On Thanksgiving morning I suggested we carry his white pigeon, which had been homing in a desultory fashion for several months, down to the bottom of the hill. My brother's hands are a bit out of control due to his medications, so I caught the pigeon myself and held his warm body and felt his pigeon heart beat anxiously against my curled fingers. At the bottom of the hill we pulled the towel back that covered the box and let him go. A huge red-tailed hawk transformed into an arrow and pointed himself directly at the daddy pigeon. The fat little out-of-shape white pigeon was last seen flying over the hill, the hawk gaining on him. My husband ran after the birds, I ran after my husband, and my brother ran after me crying, "What's happening, Sue, what's happening?"

That night, while opening a bottle of wine using an opener with two metal wings, a hunk of my thumb got pinched and ripped out. My thumb throbbed so much I couldn't sleep; I lay in bed pleased for the physical pain to correspond with the pigeon loss. I thought of it as my objective correlative, something like T.S. Eliot's scuttling claws.

And so it was that Old Faithful was left to care for the newborn. She knocked herself out. Back and forth from the nest to the seed to the water. Even though she was so grievously and foolishly separated from her mate, she did not give in to bitterness. We were filled with angst about the mother and the baby. Would the wind and the rain make the baby sick? Would the mother succumb to exhaustion? It was winter, and we wrapped the wire mesh with blankets at night and covered the wood plank roof with old carpet. We put morsels of soft food and greens into the food dish to aid the mother in her heroic single-beaked feeding. My book said flatly that "Homers, tumblers, rollers, and others are known as eager and dependable feeders of their young.... They often serve as foster parents for the young of other breeds." As the West of England is a tumbler, I took heart. And the baby grew, swelling like a balloon, as the mother pumped more and more food into its mouth.

This pigeon saga could go on, but it's time to bring it to the bitter present. I often let the mother pigeon out so she could search for bugs and such. She'd never been interested in flying too far. Since hooking up with experts on the subject, I have learned that West of England pigeons aren't great flying birds. Locally, they are mostly bred for show, so it is their wont to head for the closest tree to hang out in until it's time to go back in. Old Faithful was attracted to a dying potted plant on the patio; she always found something good there to peck at. Earlier in the day the chubby baby squab had made his first debut out of the nest. Dusky-feathered and curious, he managed to clamor out onto the platform. Toward evening I let Old Faithful out to feed and wander a bit. I empathized with her; she was going to be caged with her big baby for the next few days as we were going out of town. Dusk is the hour of predators. I never saw what took her; she was just gone, not even a feather to mark her passing.

This was a big problem. I quickly consulted the book, which said, "Young pigeons will leave the nest when they are approximately a month old, still being fed by their male parent for a week or ten days." There was no male parent. And now there was no female parent. The book went on, "When out of the nest and running about on the floor of the loft, the youngsters, seeing other pigeons peck at the food or plunge into their beaks into the drinking water, soon begin to imitate them." The baby pigeon retreated, not to the nest but to a hidden position behind the nest. If anyone opened the back door, it waddled back into its retreat. I spied on it through the binoculars from inside the house. Would it eat on its own? It had no feathered friend to imitate. If we went to Dave's and got a random pigeon and thrust it in there, it might be big and mean and beat up on the baby. My son laid worms from his worm farm in the baby's path. It stepped on them. I rolled small damp balls of bread and put them in its path; it treaded over them as well. When it lingered on the platform one morning, in desperation I imitated the way I imagined it might eat a worm. It was indifferent. I took off the winter wrappings from the cage and fed the wild doves in full view of the bird, hoping to provide a better model. I was about to call Project Wildlife when it began to peck at the seed dish. To facilitate the meal, I mixed gravel with the seed instead of keeping them separate.

Some people, some animals, prosper in the world in spite of all that has happened to them. That's how it was with this little squab. It groomed itself. It watched the mourning doves pecking the ground, and I believe it grew up thinking it was a dove. Its feathers layered themselves in rich hues of brown. Around the neck and on the lovely cordate-shaped breast it sported an emerald iridescence. Secretly I called it Chocolate, though my brother reserved the right to name it. I loved that pigeon. My sense of well-being became linked to Chocolate. Deep, stupid anthropomorphizing had taken place; I had motherly feelings for it.

One morning when I opened the cage to put water inside, it was startled and fluttered out. It wanted nothing to do with the world outside its cage; it arrived there by accident. It flew without landing because it didn't know how to land. When it finally bump-landed, it seemed stunned. It clung to the neighbor's arbor, its little feathered claws gripped each new landing spot like an island in the sea of air. As it gangled about the backyard, the enemy made its appearance. A Cooper's hawk shot across the yard. All of my birdsong empathy flew away. I ran and got my son's BB gun and pumped it full of air. The hawk was not going to have that baby. The noise alone was enough to scare the hawk, so I didn't have to make any big moral decisions. At times like these, you learn who's in your hawk hole with you. I had to go somewhere for several hours, but my husband sat in the backyard armed with the BB gun and a gin and tonic. Ultimately, the baby bumbled back into the cage and lived a happy life for many months.

My brother was pleased because Chocolate was a real flyer and homed well. We thought he might be charmed because of his color; he didn't stand out in the sky or in the trees like the light-colored pigeons. But one day his luck ran out. Something surreptitious, evil, and four-legged pulled the lightweight chicken wire loose from its staples and nails and ripped that baby from its home.

When we went to the Del Mar Fair, I was feeling guilty. I had decided not to tell my brother right away that Chocolate was a goner. By way of silent recompense we were going to stroll up and down the aisles looking at the hundreds of show pigeons - sleek and speckled, dark-feathered and gleaming - Birmingham rollers, West of England tumblers, Brunner pouters, English trumpeters, fantails. Unfortunately, it was a hot day; heat and my brother's medications don't mix. He had to sit down often. Each time he sat down we struck up a conversation with a different person who raised pigeons. It was good for me as confessional. The various fanciers told stories to match ours. One man told me about a time a hawk grabbed a pigeon through the wire mesh, and all the other birds killed themselves flying against the sides of the cage. And these weren't just any birds, they were birds that represented years of breeding as well as money.

The best thing about the fair was the information table of the San Diego Metro Pigeon Club. Amiable, dedicated Dale Cates, president of the Pigeon Club, sat at the table and dispensed flyers and experience. My husband and I went to visit Cates on a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon. The lush green grass, the bubbling pond in the front yard, hinted at the larger love of nature we would find in the Cates' backyard. A garden bordered the length of the yard. Tomatoes ripened on their vines, and huge white dahlias hung their heads over the wire fence. The backyard also corralled two Australian shepherds; an aging, complaining cat; and clean, beautiful walk-in cages. The cages were colorful and spacious. Each pigeon had his or her own roost, and the nesting pigeons had their own apartments. One of the cages was painted red outside and white inside, reminiscent of a Midwestern barn. On an interior wall, the pigeons got some culture - an oil painting of several Brunner pouters. We had ascended to pigeon heaven.

As Dale handled the pigeons to show us their markings and attributes, it was obvious he worked often with the birds; they were so calm in his hands. Using a red bandanna on a long stick, he shooed some birds out of their cages so we could watch them fly. These birds were called Donneks and Dewlaps. White with black markings, they circled above us like exotic fish in a clear blue bowl of sky. They flew in a pattern, veering and shifting in a way that only birds and pilots can imitate.

After the birds had flown a while, we witnessed an impressive display of pigeon training, Dale brought his pigeons down by using another pigeon called a "dropper." By holding a fat white pigeon in such a way that it flapped its wings repeatedly, Dale was able to give his Donneks Dewlaps a living signal to descend. He worked with the birds individually, removing them first short distances and then longer distances from the flock, making use of these particular pigeons' instinct to "fly to the flock." I also hadn't imagined that pigeons were intelligent enough to be well trained. Ultimately, they learn to descend from significant altitudes when they see a buddy's flapping wings. Within a few minutes Dale had pulled all his pigeons out of the sky and back into their cages.

Next, he sent his Iranian highfliers into the air. As they soared above us, we sat back in our chairs and talked pigeons. The pigeons swooping and circling overhead were a gift from his friend Amir. "I like to watch them fly, first and foremost," Cates told us, but he also began to breed pigeons for competition when he became president of the club. The breed he chose to raise for show is called the Brunner pouter; its tall, thin body and high, inflated chest (which I later learned is called a globe) could be considered stately or ugly. Cates says show pigeons can be judged by "excruciatingly exact" standards. One grave error that can count against a Brunner pouter is being sooty, or not clearly marked. Cates showed us the National Pigeon Association Encyclopedia of Pigeon Standards. This particular standard awards 15 points for the globe of the Brunner pouter:

"When inflated, the crop should be round as a ball. It should be set as high as possible with particular emphasis on the juncture between crop and waist/back of the bird. The beak should be set tightly on the globe so that only the upper mandible is visible."

Another factor in pouter judging is the bird's demeanor. Cates demonstrated how he trains his pouter to show. When he made repetitive cooing sounds to the bird, it responded by inflating its crop. The bird didn't seem to be doing this out of fear or a need to exaggerate its stature, as humans are instructed to react when encountering a mountain lion; it seemed glad to be called upon to show off. The more Cates encouraged the bird, the puffier it got. This Pouter won the Reserve Champion award at the Del Mar Fair because it had good color, shape, and, most importantly, it showed well. In the category called Station and Showmanship, the Encyclopedia of Pigeon Standards states, "Brunners should show easily, displaying much strutting, bowing, and hopping." Something that isn't written into the standards but clear to anyone watching is that show birds, like show dogs or horses, need handlers who know how to work with them. This was a love of a different kind. Not the anthropomorphic kind I'd been lavishing on pigeons, but a love of perfection, of standards, of breeding - a living art form.

As president of the pigeon club, Cates also judges pigeons himself. The monthly meetings of the pigeon club are often used as opportunities to practice showing birds. Cates says, aside from the standards, "If a bird is dirty, I'll handle it, but I'm not going to place it." He looks for birds that "look good, show well, and are pristine." Much preparation goes into a big show. Fanciers will trim toenails, file beaks, and give the birds several baths. With certain breeds, Cates says, "If a feather is out of place in the pattern, you can pluck somewhat, but too much and the judge will DQ [disqualify] you." Cates feeds his birds safflower and flax seeds to enrich their diet, which improves their appearance and helps them through moulting.

Cates began to raise birds seven years ago. He and his wife, Yvonne, were visiting the Humane Society one day, and she encouraged him to take home five white doves. Their neighbor, who raises rollers, gave them a pigeon egg to place under the doves; that's how it all began. Though it sounds easy, raising pigeons can be expensive. One member of the club can get $300 for a pair of fantails; the price represents the amount of time it takes to breed birds to a high standard. But Cates believes raising pigeons is also an economical hobby. "It allows someone to enjoy the company of a living thing in a relatively small amount of space, with the minimum of labor and expense. The birds are intelligent, easy to clean, easy to care for, cheap to feed, and can be very, very tame." (For more information about the pigeon club, visit the club's website at www.pigeon-page.com or call 619-268-8139.)

No heaven is complete without a devil. The last orange rays of the day were glancing off the white wings of the Iranian highfliers above us, when a Cooper's Hawk showed up. My husband and I looked at one another anxiously - had we brought our pigeon luck with us? Cates tried to reassure us by saying that birds would climb to get away and that "a Cooper is more the ambush type."

Nevertheless, Cates began whistling and bustling around the cages. Whenever he feeds his pigeons he whistles to that the birds associate the whistle with food. He also said he'd fed them on the lean side that day to keep them responding to his signal. How amazing to see how that simple sound, accurate as a well-tossed lasso, could pull the pigeons out of the wide sky and down to their domestic lives. Within a few minutes all the birds had returned to their cages and were closed up and secured for the night. The hawk had to dine elsewhere.

Cates reassured us that contrary to being "costermongers or pugilists," if we continued to keep pigeons we would be in regal company. "The current Queen of England is a pigeon fancier," he said, "and, historically, certain breeds of pigeons could only be kept by royalty." Cates also told us we didn't need a high level of expertise to be pigeon club members, so we joined. In the knowledgeable company of real fanciers, we have already learned many things that should improve success with pigeons. We are building a better pigeon coop, and my brother may change to a different breed of pigeon.

I suspect in the Great Chain of Being, the implied hierarchy for grieving a pigeon is low. The poet Tess Gallagher writes that we live in a society that expects grief to end in a few months - she calls self-help books about "getting over it" hamburger shops of the soul. How long is it appropriate to mourn a pigeon? I know I miss having pigeons in the cage, miss watching them fly - miss, in particular, that chocolate-colored go-between that negotiated the space between species, between wild and tame, earth and sky.

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