an unnatural disaster (a pigeon story)

Jefferson West, early demolition stages

Each evening last week, after arriving home from work, I'd spy on the progress of the demolition of Jefferson West. The workers had already gone home, leaving only their CAT 336E (hybrid hydraulic excavator) frozen in place, waiting for the next day to claw apart more walls. What remained were the open faces of former apartments, plumbing pipes sticking out of walls, toilets and stoves tipped on their sides, broken lath sticking up out the rubble like spears. Now I have a better image of what the aftermath of a bombing or massive earthquake looks like. In late summer with the windows still open, the air in my apartment now smells like fresh wood overlaid with chemicals, slightly acrid, full of substances I can't name. I figure I'm breathing toxins formerly hidden within those exposed walls and broken rooms. But this story's not about me, the bystander. It's about a family of pigeons.

two pigeon nestlings, Jefferson West alley, August 25th, 2014

two pigeon nestlings (August 25th, 2014)

pigeon nestlings, feeding (August 25th, 2014)

mother pigeon, tending young (August 25th, 2014)

It wasn't true, what I said before, that the pigeons would be fine. The mother pigeon had been nesting, sitting in the alley nest alongside the giant rusty pipe for long periods each day, watching me with one eye. And then mere days before the demolition started, I began hearing cheeps and seeing two little fuzzy heads poking out from under their gray mother. Zoomed in with my telephoto lens, I watched the babies nodding in their nests as they waited for her to return, their necks unsturdy, their heads fuzzy, their big eyes blinking. The parents would flutter back in the evening to tend them, warm them, feed them. (What do pigeons regurgitate, McDonald's fries, dropped sandwich bread?) I knew what was coming. They didn't. As the demolition destruction moved closer to the nest, evenings I stood at the window as the mother eyed me, hearing the repeated clicking of my shutter, and whispered I was sorry, so sorry.

shattered window, Jefferson West, August 28th, 2014 (the day before)

balcony scene August 28th (the day before)

Friday, when I returned home, I teared up when I walked across the street and saw the pigeons' wall and their big rusty pipe vanished as in a magic trick, another whole top section of the building down. I stopped beside the alley and saw that some of the rubble had tumbled over the remaining concrete wall on the west side and now lay against the tall windowless wall of the opposite building in the narrow alley (narrower on that side of the alley but which doesn't help to allay fears, despite the contractor telling me they'd be putting up "a screen" when they got closer to our building). I was already crying as I climbed the stairs, unlocked my front door, dropped my bag, walked into the kitchen, and pulled back the curtain.

new view of the West Hills, August 29th, 2014

Sunlight. There were new shadows and light rays in the kitchen and a view of the West Hills, as well as a new-to-me traffic signal, new buildings, new neighbors—but I was focusing on what wasn't framed by the window, or rather, what was there but newly configured. The big rusty pipe shaft lay dented in the alley below and horizontally in pieces along the balcony amid concrete rubble and long shards of window glass glowing in the evening light.

father pigeon, landing

dead nestling on window glass shards

But even as I was taking in the new background, I was focusing on a pigeon walking back and forth along an intact concrete ledge along the alley, its neck and body darting back and forth, up and down. And as I scanned the scene, tears running, I saw a small pile of feathers to the left of the pigeon and what looked like a skinned head, red. Flies crawled over the still body. I sobbed, never thinking I would be eyewitness to the death, only assuming the knowledge of an absence, presumed death, rather than its proof. The adult pigeon didn't seem to see or take notice of the dead baby but rather seemed to be searching for something—its nest, its home, its young, its known world. And then there were two pigeons making the same movements, their bodies giving all signs of a search. They would walk back and forth, heads looking down into the alley and then up and around, and then they would fly up and off, only to land back at the same place within a few minutes—over and over.

pigeon parents searching for nestling

pigeon parents scoping alleyway below

pigeons seeking nestling

pigeon parents, listening

mother pigeon in flight

Watching for an hour and a half, I began to see that the speckled pigeon with the fatter neck who was searching more aggressively, more actively, who would flutter and fly more often was the father, while the pigeon who seemed more befuddled with the stripes around her lower feathers was the mother, recognized from her nest.

father pigeon in flight

And then it got worse. The pigeons, as I said, seemed to be searching for something. I had thought it was just their trying to reconcile past with present. We are told, despite the evidence from crows and parrots, that birds like pigeons aren't smart. We call someone a dodo or bird-brained as pejoratives. What if we're wrong?

father pigeon, mid-flight

pigeon mother searching in rubble

Only after a long while at the window did I begin to hear the faint cheeping, which wasn't coming from the small pile of fluffy feathers the flies were after. The other baby was alive, but even its parents couldn't tell where the sound was coming from amid all the rubble. What I couldn't see were any signs of the nest, no twigs, no long strands of pigeon poop glued onto vegetable matter. I had supposed the nest must have dropped down into the alley. But then I noticed the pigeons had begun zeroing in on one corner of the balcony courtyard which was blocked from sight by a piece of galvanized metal. They had found the crying baby down there but couldn't seem to get to it, though they moved closer each time they came back from their rounds of pacing, fluttering, and flying off.

pigeon parents finding second nestling alive

Finally, I saw the father swoop down behind the piece of metal. Soon after, I stopped hearing any cheeping, and around that time, I noticed the pigeons had stopped coming back. Surely with all the glass, concrete, brick, metal, and wood lying strewn about in pieces, the live baby must have been fatally wounded, but if miraculously not, it would have died from exposure and shock. Or, I wondered, could the father have pecked it to death to put it out of its misery? Who knows what pigeons are capable of, other than this witnessed proof of avian maternal and paternal instincts in the face of highly localized catastrophe?

smoker neighbor (fellow witness)

Though I had been sobbing over a family of pigeons loud enough for my neighbors to hear, I didn't care. However, I found I wasn't the only person watching, for at one point in this small private tragedy, I started to see something light-colored, possibly popcorn, being tossed from below up towards the ledge where the pigeons were standing, over and over, though most of the pieces fell into the alley. And then I realized I wasn't the only witness, for my downstairs neighbor who smokes against the rules at his kitchen window must spend more time at the window than I do; so he, too, must have watched the pigeons on their nest, evening upon evening. I suppose we all have our own ways of expressing sympathy: sobbing at a window while documenting with a camera or tossing up caramel corn to birds who have just lost their young at human hands (or rather, hydraulic robot hands).

I would have stayed watching longer, but I had a houseguest coming and still needed to clean my floors and eat dinner, though I was no longer hungry. My tears dried. Life moves along.

bird (pigeon) on wire

While cleaning, I took my one small rug out to the fire escape for shaking and happened to look up. Two pigeons—my pigeons—were up on the roof of my building, watching over the scene. Crows paced even higher on the roof of the building opposite. I'd never thought much before about urban bird hierarchies. Would crows eat dead pigeon meat? Do pigeons hold wakes? As I cleaned house and tried to process what I'd seen, I'd keep returning to the window as dusk fell, as night fell, until I could see nothing. And though I kept returning to the window whenever home over the holiday weekend, over which I attended a wedding in the rain, I never witnessed the pigeons landing near the dead nestlings again until two days later, when I saw the mother pigeon standing still on the ledge, staring in the direction of the first dead baby, immobile, searching for nothing. And then she flew off.


  1. this was beautiful and sad

  2. Thank you for saying that and for reading, Erin. I'm still a little sad about it all. No sign of the pigeons anymore—the whole wall is now gone.

  3. Thank you for sharing. As a youth, I raised and raced pigeons and, yes, do find their way home from over 600 miles away in less than 24 hours. Your instinct of what played out with the second nestling, though tragic, is likely correct. I've witnessed similar inside the coop when a nestling is deformed. The parent(s) just seemed to know what a correct nestling looked like and took matters upon themselves. I'm also certain the parents recognized the dead first nestling. Keep an eye out, I would not be surprised if they return from time-to-time.

    I found your blog via your Birkenstock post as I buy used for the leather/buckles and then have them re-crafted at Footwise as you did or do them myself if I can source materials.

    Greetings from the Dalles

    1. RW: I appreciate your insights and experience. I later figured I'd missed the scene where the parents found the dead nestling. As an observer, I was behind in the narrative because at first I couldn't figure out what they were doing until I heard the live baby, and then it made sense. And then when I saw the mother come back a couple days later, acting so different, calm, and staring (seemingly) at the first dead baby, it made even more sense. Most humans like to think they're so different from other animals, but the commonalities can be striking for those who really look.

      The building's all gone now. The workers have been prepping the foundation this week, spreading dirt with the earth movers, filling in the old basement. I wonder sometimes where the adult pigeons went, or if I ever see them in the neighborhood without knowing (hard for me to tell city pigeons apart). But there's nothing for them to come back to here, other than the roof of my building, which is possible (I haven't looked). Instead, I hope they've found a new sanctuary somewhere safe and quiet. It's going to get extremely loud around here once the builders start pile driving—which is half of why I'm leaving here myself.

      Hope you're enjoying autumn there in the Dalles.

      P.S. I'm impressed you can work on Birkenstocks yourself!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...