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Unexpected Pigeon

July 29, 2020

Unexpected Pigeon

By Josh Stevenson


The sun bled upwards into the sky—yellow, pink, and whitish purple—the day that they arrived. Needless to say, even though I’ve raised birds for a few years, I wasn’t expecting baby pigeons.

I remember watching that sunrise with a sense of awe, observing how the light bent double over the tops of the rolling foothills above Golden, Colorado before spilling downwards into the valley and up to the window where I sat. I thought, even before knowing that new life had actually arrived, that life is always a cycle of renewal—no matter how dark the night becomes.

Then, as I always do, I donned my jacket (it was still April and quite nippy) and slipped out the front door into morning air quickly awakening with the sounds and movements of everyday life.

I keep my birds in a quite unconventional shelter, tucked up under a grove of cedar and ponderosa pine trees. Instead of a small shed or lean-to, two industrial-sized totes house my birds. For those who may not know, a tote is generally a large storage bin or tank. My totes are 250-gallon plastic containers wrapped in a heavy-duty cage of metal bars—quite impenetrable by bears or other critters. Totes like these are normally used by industrial companies for liquid storage, but with a couple little doors cut in the side, I found that they make a great bird shelter.

On that morning, I pulled the sliding wooden door upwards to open my tote shelter and, peering through the door, saw nothing out of the ordinary—that is, at first. The adult female pigeon had been laying on her eggs for over two weeks, but I’d thought little of it. Nothing had happened yet, and to be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. Pigeons tend to be difficult to hatch, and I wasn’t even positive that I had a male and a female adult.

But something had happened, and my first tip off was how violently the adult female reacted when I reached in to change their food and water, puffing up to twice her size and pushing herself into the corner of her enclosure, which revealed the two baby pigeons.

No way, I thought. They are… well, pretty ugly.

And let me just tell you, baby pigeons are not the prettiest sight in the world. When some friends and family saw those scrawny, pinkish little things with bulging, blind eyeballs, they thought the same.

“They are so ugly!” they all exclaimed, everyone expecting to see a cute baby chick covered in down. “They look like little demons!”

To use its technical term, a baby pigeon is most fittingly called a squab. My squabs’ eyes wouldn’t open for the first few days, and their bodies were covered in what looked like porcupine quills (pin feathers that developed into mature feathers later on).

As I peered into their shelter that day, one squab was already out of its egg, its bald body bobbing up and down with each little breath it took, and the other was in the process of cracking open its egg. I got to watch as it pecked away at the shell, knocking bit after bit away until it entered the world.

My little experience with new life sparked an interest in pigeons. Pigeons are considered an altricial bird, basically meaning that they are born helpless. They are blind, bald, and unable to walk. This explained the why behind my squabs’ ugliness. Because they are an altricial bird, pigeons are notoriously difficult to hatch, especially if one tries to manually incubate them. They take 17-19 days to hatch. Typically, only one of two baby pigeons survive, which happened in my case as well. And though I was definitely crestfallen that one didn’t make it, I was also glad to have at least one new member join my feathered family.

Like pigeons, most songbirds are also altricial birds. This is opposed to precocial birds, like chickens, ducks, and quail, which are born with a coat of down and can see, move about, and leave the nest almost immediately after hatching. This is what most people picture when they think of a baby chick: a cute, fuzzy, lively creature.

But even though my squab—blind, helpless, pink, bald, and covered in demon-spikes—was not exactly the prettiest creature in the world at first, it soon began to mature. In no time, it sprouted adult feathers, began moving about, and even started trying to perch high on the pole I installed in their enclosure—one attempt at a time.

A once ugly little squab always held the potential to grow into a beautiful, mature Oriental Frill with silky white feathers flecked with brown—in only a couple weeks. Out of the ugly, the beautiful was born. Out of the helpless, the capable was built.

This mature bird would be dubbed by my niece, “Pigeon Toady,” after a character from the animated movie, Storks, and he’s already developing his own personality and taking his own stride in his tiny life.

The story of unexpected Pigeon Toady reveals to me not only the surprises that can lie just around the corner, but it also shows the little moments of beauty to be found in the most unlikely of places. Beauty, after all, can easily be missed. I, for one, must watch closely, wait expectantly, and appreciate it once I find it.

And this is one of my favorite aspects of living a more “rural” life: the unpredictability, the surprise of joy, the way life tends to astonish you in a flash with tiny ephemera of beauty at every turn, new revelations at every sunrise. Those little things are a love of mine—the things that make your heart smile and help you realize that there’s always good to be found even in the darkest times. You learn, in time, to expect those unexpected tidbits of life, because life after all is about learning to love the unexpected.

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