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Selected Podpieces

Pigeon Sense

Mourning Dove In Lights
The other day I went down to Provincetown for lunch. I parked in the nearly empty municipal lot at Macmillan Wharf, and before going to meet my friend I walked out to look at the harbor. The wind had stopped, but although the sky was clear it was a cold day, and the usual flock of pigeons stood on the walkway with their birdly shoulders hunched, absorbing as much heat from the winter sun as they could. I stopped and stood with my shoulders hunched, too, and the birds nearest me, the outliers on the edge of the congregation, muttered and blinked and shuffled their feet, but they didn’t unfluff themselves or open their wings to the air.

Something about seeing a vast company of creatures like that gives me a remarkable amount of pleasure. On a few days each fall, my yard is inundated with common grackles. I stand still at the window and watch hundreds of them rampage through the neighbors’ yards, descending through the trees to lurch across the driveway and stalk around under the oaks. I love the way they look – dark as sin and flashing luminescent purple as they move – and the way they sound, just like their name: Gracklegracklegrackle. The mass of them thrills me, the throng of wings and dark bodies, filling my field of view with a meteor shower of birds.

I get this thrill from other birds, too: the hordes of robins that arrive mid-winter to strip my hollies of every last berry; the mobs of gulls that pursue loaded fishing boats coming into harbor; rafts of Brant in the winter bay, whispering and gabbling ceaselessly as the sun comes up on the far side of the outer beach. I’m not alone in this fascination: people travel long distances to spy on ducks and geese, raptors and cranes during fall migration, and crowds gather with lawn chairs at dusk to watch as great clouds of Vaux’s swifts swarm and wheel against the darkening sky, then turn and pour themselves down into a single chimney to roost for the night.

As I stood on the pier among the pigeons, lulled a bit by their murmurs and drooping eyelids, I saw that in the sea of gray one white pigeon stood out, bright and sudden among her darker neighbors. Leucistic, albino – I wasn’t close enough to tell. She stood in the dense center of the group, apparently content to not budge unless everyone budged.

It was the safest thing for a her to do, to stay on the inside of the group; her very whiteness would draw attention, not just of a benign observer like me, but of something hungry – a hawk, a person with a gun. Even among the myriad accent colors of her companions, the grays and purples, blacks and mauves and tans, those gleaming bright feathers would catch the eye. But hiding herself inside the crowd was her best alternative.

Years ago I helped open a political campaign office in a storefront that had long stood unused. Unused by business, anyway; we cleaned out empty Thunderbird bottles, cigarette butts, pieces of fabric which we chose not to examine closely enough to identify. And one morning when we opened the door a single pigeon stood in the back of the room. She paced back and forth, bobbing her head and keeping an eye on us.

I propped the front door open, and the two of us walked toward her. She hurled herself skyward, only to hit the ceiling and find herself back on the floor. My coworker, who kept chickens, said, “Make yourself big.” So we lifted our arms and spread our legs and staggered like monsters toward the bird; and without too much trouble, we herded her across the room and out the front door.

That was an exciting campaign, and my candidate won. But the brain being the odd thing it is, the stalking of the pigeon is one of the more vivid memories I have of that year. My colleague’s words became a little catch phrase that I use for myself in times of uncertainty, and I offered it to the white pigeon.

“Make yourself big,” I said. But of course, by tucking herself into the heart of the huddling flock, she already had.

(First published in The Trouble With Birds by Joyce P. Lopez)

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