Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Mysterious Life of the Pigeon

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Pigeons are everywhere in London and yet they go largely unnoticed as they scuttle around our feet and keep watch from the rooftops. If they were rarer we would appreciate their beauty more – their mottled grey plumage, the patch of iridescence on their necks, their fast, powerful flight – but because they are common they tend to be derided as vermin, and are not thought of as birds at all. However, in many ways they are mysterious, private creatures, and this is never more the case than in their reproductive habits.

Every so often, in the question section of a newspaper, someone will ask ‘why do you never see a baby pigeon?’ And yet, I doubt that there is any London dweller who has never heard one. As you pass under one of the bridges that darken the towpath along the Regent’s Canal, you may hear a demented wheezing sound coming from one of the overhead recesses. It sounds much like a character buried alive in an Edgar Allan Poe short story. You can hear the same sound coming from the windowsills of buildings, from the bare metal girders of deserted factories. Undetectable in the gloom is a baby pigeon, his only bed a few scraps of straw or shredded newspaper that his parents have found and used to create a makeshift nest. He is calling for his supper, and he is in luck, because pigeons are amongst the few birds that can feed their offspring on a kind of milk, produced by glands in the throat of the adult birds. This is one reason that baby pigeons can be born at any time of year – they are not dependent on the vagaries of caterpillar hatching or seed ripening.

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A baby pigeon is also something of a recluse. He will stay in the nest until he is able to fly, which is approximately a month after hatching. At this point he will look very similar to his parents, so probably the best way to identify a baby pigeon is by his behaviour – he will often whine and chase his parents for food, in the hope of a hand out. He won’t yet have that characteristic iridescent patch on his neck either. But within a few weeks, he will be indistinguishable from the rest of the flock. For an urban dweller of any kind, the best way to stay safe is not to be obviously vulnerable.

All along East Finchley High Street is the evidence of pigeon deterrence measures. Above every shop there are sharp, two-inch long needles, which aim to prevent the pigeons from getting comfortable or, heaven forbid, from nesting. However, the birds can often be spotted sitting behind or amongst the spikes, surveying their kingdom with equanimity. And imagine my delight when I noticed that some pigeons are building their nests in the awning above the newsagents, putting the multi-coloured plastic sealing tape that binds the newspapers together to good use. If they are allowed to remain (which I somewhat doubt) I will have a great view of some baby pigeons to share with you all in a few weeks. However, I suspect that they will be moved on by the shopkeeper, if only to lessen the cleaning that will be required if they are allowed to stay.

Studies have shown that the population of pigeons in any area is solely determined by the amount of food on offer. If there is less for the birds to eat, they breed less often, have smaller broods and may disperse. There is no need for poison and hawks. If people were a little more careful with the remains of their Kentucky Fried Chicken (and the pigeons are not above eating the remains of a Bargain Bucket) there would not be so many birds. However, this overlooks another mysterious urban phenomenon – the Pigeon Feeder.

For a time, I was heading into town very early, catching the tube train at 6 a.m. All the shops were shuttered, the sky turning a light green as I made my way downhill. When I got to the collection of stunted rosebushes and random spiky plants that passes for a flowerbed outside Budgens, I would often see a great pile of carefully crumbled bread, with pigeons throwing the larger pieces over their shoulders in an attempt to break them up. Further down the hill, outside the MacDonalds offices there was another pile, with another population of plump and happy birds having their breakfast.  I never saw the person who fed the birds, but I imagine that they were sharing the equivalent of several loaves, every single day.

I wonder who it was who was feeding the pigeons? Were they waiting somewhere, watching as their largesse was devoured, or was it a furtive act, one that they feared would get them into trouble? In my experience, the people who feed pigeons are often isolated souls, people who get little understanding from their human compatriots. Like the pigeons, they are everywhere but we choose not to notice them as we go about our busy lives. The people who feed the pigeons get to know the birds as individuals, understanding their habits and their characters, and getting more attention and recognition from these ‘feathered rats’ than they might get from anyone all day.

I use the word recognition advisedly. Once, from the top deck of a bus, I watched an elderly woman crossing the junction at Euston Road and Tottenham Court Road. She wore plimsolls and an oversized raincoat, and was carrying a plastic shopping bag. As she crossed the busy intersection, cars hooted at her and she stopped occasionally to curse at them and shake her fist. Wheeling about her, appearing from all four corners of the crossroads, was a flock of pigeons, circling over her as she made her unsteady progress through the lanes of traffic. More and more birds joined the throng, and as she slumped down onto a bench on the other side of the road, they started to settle around her, so thick that you could barely see the pavement. As my bus moved past I could see the beatific smile on her face as she opened her shopping bag to reveal that it was full of plastic-wrapped loaves of bread. She started to feed the birds, wagging her finger to gently admonish the greediest, making sure that everyone got their fill. She might have been on the most distant outskirts of human society, but she was a necessary, useful part of this community of birds. As the bus moved away I caught a last glimpse of her, her feet invisible under a carpet of feathered bodies. She looked like the Queen of the Pigeons, a latter-day St Francis of Assisi in all her unkempt, wild-eyed splendour.

The Perils of a Mild Winter

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When I got off the tube train at East Finchley Station this afternoon, I noticed a small, hunched shape on the platform. As I bent over for a closer look, I realised that it was a bumblebee, lying motionless on her back. As everybody else piled past on their way home, I wondered what to do. I couldn’t bear to think of people treading on her. What if she was still alive? So I picked her up and rested her in the palm of my hand. She looked substantial, but her weight barely registered. And then she moved, one of her legs groping into the air as if looking for something, anything to cling on to.

My bumblebee is a Queen, who has come out of hibernation too early because the weather has been so unseasonably mild. She has been unable to find any flowers to feed from, and has used up her last energy searching the desert of the station platforms for something to eat.

I cradle her in my hand all the way home. Once there, I put her onto a plate, and position her so that she can drink from a spoon filled with sugar-water, the closest substitute for nectar that I can make. I watch as her leg twitches, but gradually the movement becomes weaker. I fear that there is no hope for her.

The bee will not be the only creature to die – she has some ‘hangers-on’. I count four mites crawling through her fur, each the size and shape of a flaxseed. That’s a heavy burden for an insect to be flying around with. The mites live in bumblebee nests, and will attach themselves to the young queens, like this one. When an infested bumblebee lands on a flower, some of the mites will get off and wait for another bee to latch onto, as if changing buses. However, without the bee the mites won’t survive either.

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Looking at the bumblebee closely, in a way that she would never allow if she was healthy, is both a privilege and a kind of impertinence. I notice, as I never did before, that her wings are like smoked glass, the ridged veins standing out and catching the light from my angle-poise lamp.  Her eyes are black, like twin coals in her alien face. She has little hooks on the end of each leg, rather than feet. There are bands of dirty yellow fur behind her wings but just behind her head there is the faintest shadow of gold, only discernible from a very particular angle.

As I watch, she is curling up, her antennae covering her face, her legs crumpled under her. I will leave her for a while, but I am sure that she is dead.

The other casualties, apart from the bee herself and her little team of parasites, are the eggs that she carries. She will have mated once last summer, when she first emerged from the nest as a fresh young queen. I imagine her flying to meet the male bees at the top of the lime trees where they leave their pheromones, a kind of sexual perfume, so that she can find them. Inside her will be the first of her fertilised eggs that, if things had been different, would have hatched into the first workers to support her nest. From this one female up to four hundred and fifty bumblebees would have been born, going on to pollinate countless thousands of plants. When any creature dies, however humble, however common, there is a ripple effect that spreads much wider than that little death.