Keeping pet pigeons is a lesson in learning to let go

When you give the ones you love the room they need, remarkable things can happen all on their own

Published August 4, 2022 4:29PM (EDT)

Valencian Figurita Pidgeon (Getty Images/Richard Bailey)
Valencian Figurita Pidgeon (Getty Images/Richard Bailey)

"Want to adopt pigeons?"

This was the text I sent to my husband, Richie, after I found a listing for two pigeons on the MSPCA website. Beautiful bright silver and glistening, they were described as "gray rock doves" and seemed more majestic and elegant than regular street pigeons. The larger one was named Mayonnaise and the smaller one was named Tartar Sauce and had a little ruffle of feathers under his chin like an ascot.

Richie loves pigeons. Growing up watching "Sesame Street," he loved how Bert and Ernie had pet pigeons that they would feed on the window sill of their apartment. When he got to go to Venice, Italy, in high school, Richie was thrilled to be surrounded by the birds in Piazza San Marco. A city kid — Richie was born and raised in South Boston — he has affinity for what he calls "trash birds" (seagulls, crows and pigeons), i.e. birds that are actually pretty smart and scrappy and resourceful, but that get dismissed as "rats of the sky." Richie also liked the idea of being "that weirdo in the neighborhood who has pigeons." So, of course, Richie responded to my text in the affirmative, and we went to the MSPCA that weekend to meet Mayonnaise and Tartar Sauce. A couple days and one giant bird cage later we had two pet pigeons, whom we renamed Ernie and Bert.

Pigeons are unusual birds, somewhere between wild and domesticated. Reading Rosemary Mosco's "A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching," I learned that all of the pigeons you see on the street are actually feral — descendants of domesticated pigeons brought with immigrants to North America. Pigeons can be found on all continents except for Antarctica, and they come in hundreds of incredible varieties. Richie figured out that Bert (formerly Tartar Sauce) was a Valencian Figurita, bred specifically to have that little feather ruffle on the neck. I started reading about fancy pigeon shows (like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, but for pigeons) and racing pigeons (pigeon races are how fast a flock can fly home from a central starting point, not how fast they can fly a specific route or track). I'd grown up with many pets of all different kinds — finches and parakeets, tortoises and turtles, dogs and hamsters — but none quite like a pigeon. Bert and Ernie were a little bit wild and a whole lot skittish and we had an understanding — they didn't exactly enjoy Richie and my company, but started to associate our presence with food.

But as with all of my pets, I did my best to make sure they were happy and healthy and safe. And, as with everyone I have ever loved, I worried about Bert and Ernie. The pair took up residence in a large enclosure in our backyard, and I found myself checking on them regularly — always making sure they had enough food and water, access to both sun and shade, and even a couple times I scared off a curious juvenile hawk who seemed to be trying to figure out if Bert and Ernie would make a good snack, if only he could figure out how to break through the chicken wire.

"What if I hadn't been working from home today?" I said to Richie later, when I recounted the close call and showed the video I had taken. "The hawk was so close!"

But I knew what would have happened. Keeping pet pigeons, I was learning, was a lesson in learning to let go.

This really began to sink in after we'd had Ernie and Bert for a month, when Richie was cleaning their enclosure one Sunday afternoon and Ernie took the opportunity to, quite literally, fly the coop. He and Bert never seemed to get along, and our theory was that Ernie was a trained homing pigeon and had probably homed back to wherever he was born. I had known this was a possibility — to keep pet pigeons seems to be saying, at least for right now, you live with us. But there's no guarantee. My friend, Jaime, grew up with a flock and told me how one time after a fight with her sister, Jaime's sister intentionally left the loft door open overnight; not all of the birds came back. I'd read about pigeons racing through storms and harsh weather. I'd heard about a man in Brooklyn who races pigeons who lost all of his birds during Hurricane Sandy. I'd had many pets before in my life, but I was learning that, in loving pigeons, one has to be even more open to loss than with other pets.

But we still had Bert. We gave him plenty of fresh bird seed and water, let him live outside during the nice weather and brought him indoors for blizzards. Even though I knew I couldn't control all the factors, I tried to manage what I could.

In loving pigeons, one has to be even more open to loss than with other pets.

A year later, I was on Pet Finder, helping friends look for a Great Dane to adopt. Instead, I found a pigeon. This one was all white — what most would call a regular old dove, but is actually a King Pigeon. Big, glowing white birds, King Pigeons are bred for their breast meat. This pigeon had also been named Lieutenant Dan by the Lowell Humane Society and was missing a toe, and so Richie and I immediately felt affection for this weird special bird. We drove to Lowell that weekend and brought Dan home.

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So, this is the part when I explain that while we had been using male pronouns for both Bert and Dan, we didn't really have any idea what their actual sexes were. The staff at the MSPCA hadn't seen Ernie and Bert build a nest or engage in any courtship behavior. Similarly, Lieutenant Dan had been in an enclosure with another King Pigeon named Forrest (who had passed away or we totally would have adopted him too), and they hadn't shown any signs of nesting or mating either. Pigeons, unlike other birds, don't have distinctive markings or size differentials to indicate their sex. The guy at the MSPCA told us you only "really know for sure if you see one lay an egg." So the assumption had been that both pairs were made up of two males. You know what they say about what happens when you assume.

Right away when we introduced them, Bert and Dan started cooing at each other. The Lowell Humane Society had suggested we keep the birds separated until we were sure they'd get along, but after only a couple days it became clear that Bert and Dan really wanted to hang out. They spent a lot of time sitting next to each other on the perch, and I pointed this out to Richie: "Do we have gay pigeons?"

"Maybe they're just good buddies," Richie replied. "Men are allowed to show affection for their friends, too."

Then one night that winter, when both Bert and Dan were inside waiting out the freezing temperatures, Richie walked in on them.

"So, Bert is definitely a male," Richie told me later. "And it seems Lieutenant Dan is more of a Lieutenant Danielle."

A couple weeks later on a Friday night, Richie and I checked on the pigeons in their indoor enclosure, and we saw the saddest thing: a small egg, broken in half on the bottom of the cage. The yolk had slipped out and it looked like the perfect miniature sunny side up. Not sure what to do, we removed the remains of the egg from the cage and put a couple old cardboard boxes inside. I told my dad what happened, and he immediately started emailing me listings for egg incubators and nesting boxes. I thanked him, but said we were just going to wait and see what happened.

A few more weeks later, I was in Maine with friends when Richie texted me the photo of one small perfect white egg in the bottom of a cardboard box. I screamed when I saw the egg and showed my friends like an ultrasound photo. The next day, Dan laid a second egg, and then we didn't see the eggs again for three weeks. Fiercely protective, either Dan or Bert was always on the nest.

So we waited.

I screamed when I saw the egg and showed my friends like an ultrasound photo.

Each day we checked on the birds, looking for any changes or new sounds, but Bert and Dan hunkered down. Finally, on the last day of March, I went downstairs and found Dan up on the perch feeding, while Bert sat on the nest. As I cleaned their food and water dishes, I noticed a piece of eggshell stuck to Dan's butt. I listened intently, but didn't hear anything. I sat and watched for a bit, but both Bert and Dan just continued to glare at me until I left them alone.

The first day of April, I went to check on the pigeons again. This time, I sat a little further away from the enclosure, on the floor behind a chair, hoping Bert and Dan would forget I was there after a while. Bert stayed glued to the nest, but suddenly he started to shift back and forth. His feathers fluffed up as he seemed like he was trying to balance on something moving below him, and he adjusted positions until there it was — just for a second — a scrawny beige little pile of flesh that looked like an animated raw chicken wing. I gasped, and Bert quickly plopped back down, covering the baby pigeon from sight, and glared at me until I left. But I didn't leave them for long.

There's a joke about how no one has ever seen a baby pigeon. Rosemary Mosco points out that is because baby pigeons grow up fast, and by three to four weeks old, they already look like adult pigeons. And in the time leading up to that, the parent pigeons are extremely protective of the baby. But I spent hours watching Bert and Dan, hoping for a glimpse of Murray, which is what Richie and I named the baby.

Murray started to sprout fuzzy yellow feathers like a baby chicken, his (her?) enormous eyes still sealed shut and her (his?) large beak and scaly feet like a dinosaur. A couple times I caught Bert or Dan feeding Murray. Baby pigeons drink "pigeon milk" that the baby sucks out of the back of the parents' throats. After only a week, Bert and Dan started to leave Murray alone in the nest so they could both go off to eat bird seed together, and by two weeks old he was wandering out of the nest on his own to explore the bottom of the enclosure.

The second egg that Dan had laid didn't seem to be viable if it hadn't hatched at that point, and I removed it from the nest. Richie gently broke it open to reveal a small pigeon embryo with no heartbeat. We buried it under a tree in the yard. With pet pigeons, it seemed, I was closer to the fleetingness of life and the nearness of death than with any other animals I'd had before.

I remembered the hungry hawk. I recalled Jaime's story about losing some of her childhood pigeons after a "weasel massacre."

Murray, however, continued to grow. His feathers shockingly came in a beautiful reddish brown. Who knew that crossing a white pigeon and a gray pigeon would make a brown pigeon? He stopped looking like a horrifying dinosaur and began to look like an actual pigeon by three weeks. He stared out of the cage and out the downstairs window, seeming to be considering the great world beyond.

One day Richie turned to me and said, "You know, this is a pretty small space for three adult-sized pigeons."

I had known this day was coming. Winter was long over, and it was time to move Bert, Dan, and now Murray, too, back outside. They'd have much more space, more stimulation with all the plants and bugs and other birds to watch. Maybe they even could eventually be trained to be homers, flying out during the day to explore the world and returning to their loft at night. But I was scared. I remembered the hungry hawk. I recalled Jaime's story about losing some of her childhood pigeons after a "weasel massacre." I thought about fast-moving hurricanes and Nor'easter winds and curious neighborhood kids who might leave the door unlatched. But how does the saying go? If you love something, let it go.

Richie and I moved the trio outside to the outdoor loft. Murray seemed thrilled with all the new space, hopping around, eating bird seed, flapping his wings and taking little practice jumps. One day in early May, I went out to feed and water the birds, and I didn't see Murray in his usual spot. I began to panic. Had a raccoon gotten in? Was there an opening somewhere and had Murray flown out and was now lost? I looked at Bert and Dan who were both glaring at me again, and then I saw Dan glance up to the highest perch of the loft. There was Murray! He'd flown up there all by himself! I gasped out loud, so proud of this accomplishment. I immediately texted my friends to share the news: Our baby pigeon wasn't a baby anymore. We'd given him the room, and he had learned to fly, all by himself.

When anxiety claws at my throat, all I want to do is clamp down my hold on things even harder. But you can't control everything — not even for the people and pets you love that live safely inside, protected from hawks and weasels and hurricanes. I can see the pigeon loft through the window next to my desk, and when I'm working from home, I often glance to the left and see Bert, Dan and Murray flapping around, sitting on their perches, basking in the sun. You can't protect those you love from fate, and part of learning to love is learning that loss is inevitably part of it. But when you accept that, and when you give the ones you love the room they need, such remarkable things can happen all on their own. Richie and I never intentionally bred Bert and Dan, we didn't do anything to assist with Murray's birth, and we definitely didn't do anything to help him learn to fly. It all just happened, and we were lucky to witness it.

By E.B. Bartels

E.B. Bartels is a nonfiction writer, a former Newtonville Books bookseller, and a GrubStreet instructor, with an MFA from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Toast and The Butter, among others. She is the author of "Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter," a narrative nonfiction book about the world of loving and losing animals, exploring the singular nature of our bonds with our companion animals, and how best to grieve for them once they’ve passed away. E.B. lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Richie, and their many, many pets.

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