“Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?” - Sir David Attenborough.
My friend Ken texted me from the Barker Tea House in the High Street Arcade, inviting me to join him. Ken dreads birds, unless they are deplumated and roasted or broiled or fried. I told him I would be right there.
As I stepped out of my apartment and turned down the hall for the elevator, further down the hall staring back at me was a pair of pigeons. I evaluated the situation and realized they represented a threat to the building’s pristine carpet. How did they get into the building, anyway? The hallway is lined along one side with a row of single-hung windows that overlook Barry Lane, which has the characteristics of an atrium and serves as a maternity ward for pigeons. Just one of the windows was opened, restricted to a six inch gap. Evidently, the pigeons had landed on the outer stone sill and strolled in. That six inch gap presented itself as the only route by which they could exit, unless they were prepared to ride with me in the lift.
I took it upon myself to herd these two birds back out the way they came in. The larger of the two was primarily grey and the smaller was black. The black one appeared to lead and the grey followed. I assumed the black one to be the female.
I don’t think Ken’s ornithophobia is focused on the feathers; rather, he sees the pointed beaks and sharp talons and does not want to be poked. I have no such fears. When I was young, somewhere before the age of ten, I got into a serious game of tag with a goose. The goose would bite or peck me and run. I would catch it and wrap my hand around its neck just to demonstrate I could choke the life out of it if I so desired. Thinking it had learned its lesson, I would release it. But the goose would attack me again before running away. It went on for a long time, until we both found ourselves in the river. Did the goose think it was safe in the river, that I wouldn’t jump in after it? We were in the water, me with a torn shirt and scrapes that were bleeding superficially. The goose won, making one last strike before fleeing to the opposite bank. I was not willing to cross the river.
I spent half an hour herding those two pigeons up and down the halls of my building. They would panic and fly into the glass of other windows, flustering frantically to pass through the invisible barrier. As hard as I tried, they insisted on avoiding the gap by which they came in. I don’t understand this. They take pigeons hundreds of miles, to places they’ve never been before, and release them to, remarkably, find their way home. These two couldn’t find the way they came in. I have read The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. Obviously, these two had not.
Eventually, I herded them to a different hallway, one with large, modern, side-hung windows that would open all the way. I had a key to unlock them. They opened onto a flat rooftop. The smaller black pigeon was the first to figure it out and escape. The grey one tried flying through the closed windows several more times, but he too finally got it right.
Here would be the best place to end the story, arriving very late to join my ornithophobic friend at Barkers, where the walls are decorated with birds in a William Morris wallpaper, and blaming my tardiness on those very creatures he hated. However, the story does not end here.
The next day I came out of the apartment and the grey pigeon was back. That is, I assumed it to be the same pigeon, but I won’t claim certainty.
This time there was no urgency and I succeeded in herding the bird to the window by which it came in. The problem was the pigeon avoided the sill and insisted on perching at the meeting rail by the sash lock. With soft talk and slow movements, I presented my hand and was eventually able to stroke the pigeon. My hope was that this was having a calming effect, but who can read the stony faces of birds? Maybe it was paralyzed with fear. In any case, I was, at last, able to clasp the pigeon in both hands, like Noah. I didn’t want to hold the bird too tight, giving it more stress, but I didn’t want it flying off until I had the bird pointing at the six inch gap in the window’s bottom. I lowered it the short distance to where the gap was and the pigeon burst free as I, simultaneously, thrust it through the gap. The pigeon flew off like an arrow and I wondered if that bird brain would appreciate that it had been rescued, or would it believe it had made a narrow escape?