The Secret Lives of Pigeons

My family has cared for birds for the better part of 15 years. They’ve become so much a part of the woodwork it would be difficult to imagine my parents’ house without the playful flight of budgies through the halls and a room full of gossipy chirps. It’s one of the first things I smile at when I visit every few years.

And I have to say, nothing feels more homely than hearing a bunch of budgies imitate my mother’s giggling while a string of dancing, solar-powered flower pots bounce on the windowsill. The house is basically a cross between a classic Disney movie and the front of a Hallmark card, and that’s a nice thing to come home to.

They’ve mostly kept budgies, though our first bird was an ailing, white dove with a very gentle nature. He liked nesting on my Harry Potter hardcovers, and despite his fondness for my bookshelf, I can’t really say he was the brightest feather in the cap.

My parrot Louis, on the other hand, is intelligent to the point of needing therapy, still responding badly to memories of what I can only guess was a very troubled childhood. His machismo also suggests he’s probably in need of fixing like a dog or a cat. If he’s not throwing himself, kamikaze-style, at Mr. Omar in an epic battle of dominance, he’s probably kissing me a little too much as if to try to make him jealous.

They have a weird relationship, Louis and Mr. Omar. It’s generally understood that they don’t get along, yet I always find crumbs of treats in his playpen that I didn’t put there. And once, during the nesting season, a pair of Mr. Omar’s briefs went missing from the laundry and somehow ended up being worked into the folds of Louis’s nest like a bear rug in the middle of a man cave. Like most relationships, I’ve learned to stay out of it and prefer not to ask questions.

But Louis is intelligent enough to also be paradoxical. He will attack Mr. Omar but is scared of any inanimate object larger than a grapefruit. He somehow secured a huge enclosure and a fuzzy carpet to sleep in, but prefers to spend most of his day in a grocery shopping bag, albeit on the most expensive surface in the house. I say “somehow” because I don’t really remember giving him any of these things, they just suddenly become his as if they always were his. One moment he’s coming to us in the dirtiest cage I’ve ever seen. The next moment he has his own towel hanging in the bathroom and an unwritten rule that he’s not to be disturbed before ten on weekends. It just sort of happens.

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It doesn’t really surprise me though, for Louis does most things with a somewhat condescending, commanding attitude, as though he knows his ancestors were awe-inspiring dinosaurs while ours were burrowing rodents. I started boasting about him when he successfully potty-trained. When he started also timing his flatulence, I considered him “just showing off.” That sort of colon-control is beyond a response.

But that’s how Louis is with most things. The little roi de soleil bosses us around with a considerable amount of authority for a bird also afraid of heights, likely thanks to his piercing, tropical screams. When he’s content he’s so quiet I mostly forget he’s there, and I’m proud to say he’s quiet most of the time now. So much so, his screaming is starting to lose its gusto. Point to the child-rodent. “I think it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

An endangered bird, Louis is a handful to look after and is very showy with his intelligence, the polar opposite of the docile dove sitting quietly on my books. Yet they say it’s the quiet ones you have to look out for, and I’ve begun to wonder if the same is true of birds. Whereas Louis’s kind is edging toward extinction; pigeons are certainly not. One of my favorite photographs of New York I took of a pigeon on top of the Empire State building. I was amazed, at the time, that a bird would want to sit so high, as though he were looking out at a city he ruled.

While watching the birds in Cape Town’s Company’s Garden, I smiled at how they reminded me of the birds back home, at which point I stopped to realize they are very much like the birds back home, and not just the ones there but also in Europe and Egypt and dozens of other places. While other birds are hunted, trapped and forced out of existence, pigeons waddle between our feet, eat scraps from the bins and amble through parks and pedestrian crossings in cities the world over.

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It’s kind of disconcerting when you think about it, that a bird with such a small brain could win medals in war and influence the theory of evolution. This video we took only further muddles the issue. I still, to this day, do not know how this a bird managed this breakfast arrangement.  Perhaps I’ll never know.

It would be nice one day to have more insight into the secret lives of pigeons, to learn more about how smart they really are and how they’ve managed to “get it right” in so many places. But they are far from the only fascinating anomaly in the animal kingdom. While walking through a butterfly farm, I also happened to notice this guinea pig, who may or may not be running a mafia from the back of a tortoise.

I wonder if he likes cannoli…

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