Did you ever see a pigeon with a stump for a foot? I did. I was sitting in the waiting area of Waverley station, just beside the ticket office, mindlessly watching the departure and arrivals screen refresh every two minutes. A limping pigeon, heroically hobbling around on the ground between travellers’ feet, caught my eye. Scavenging for dropped crisps or sandwich crumbs, there were slim pickings to be had. I oscillated between finding the bird comical, and finding it pathetic. Then I noticed a second pigeon with the same condition. What was going on? Well, I have done a little research and injured or missing toes and feet is a common condition among urban pigeons. It even has a name – ‘stringfoot.’ Despite suffering from ‘stringfoot’, my pigeons seemed to be getting along just fine, they just had an odd gait. Pigeons need twigs, straw, hay, or even feathers from other birds to build nests. However, with the concretization of urban areas, string, wire and human hair is much more abundant, so 21st Century pigeons are using unsuitable replacements. Unsuitable, because the birds become entangled in the substitute nest materials. Wire and string constricts birds’ feet and legs and leads to injury, infection, or – like those I saw – amputation. (I know this all sounds macabre and ridiculous, but it is true!) As long as they can become untangled – which my two specimens clearly had – they can recover and survive very well, even with missing toes or stumps for feet. This summer, in North America, I saw a Yellow-Headed Blackbird with a missing tail. As I watched it fly I knew there was something missing but it took me a moment to realise what was different about it. Hardy birds.
‘Ornithophobia: an abnormal and irrational fear of birds’. It probably started with pigeons, as they get such a bad rap generally – ‘rats with wings’, some people call them. When it comes to resilience, I give the urban pigeon full marks, even though I may be a little biased. I have a fondness for pigeons, you see. My dad kept them in his back yard as a boy. He used to tell a story about having an inner-ear infection as a child. It made him so dizzy that he couldn’t walk to the bathroom without holding onto the wall. His pigeons, he told me, helped him recover, as he forced himself out of bed to stagger down the yard to check on them. He loved birds and instilled in us an interest in birds, feeing them through the winter, teaching us to identify them (which I’m still not great at). When I lived in Belfast, I would bring visitors to see the starling murmurations, flocks in their thousands, creating spectacular cloud formations at dusk over the Albert Bridge in the east of the city. Starlings: they almost certainly run a close second to pigeons in terms of least popular birds.
One of the packets of Christmas cards I have bought this year has a picture of a robin on it. Everyone likes a robin: small, perky, unafraid, singular little birds. They would be in the top five, for sure, of my imaginary hit parade for birds. Make friends with a robin and it will appear to remember you, follow you about the garden as you rake or hoe, flitting behind you in case you have unearthed yummy grubs as you work. Robins have personality, and attitude. Back in North America though, the robin is about three times the size of ours. I remember showing one to my sisters in Canada when we were there – their utter shock that this almost crow-sized bird with a red breast could be a robin, was breaking all the rules!
This summer I saw different birds across the Atlantic for the first time: Bluebirds, Flickers, Bald Eagles, Pelicans, a Swainson’s Hawk – which, by now, will be 6,500 miles away in Argentina. I loved to see new birds, but I love to spot the familiar, everyday birds too. E. says that the blackbird is his spirit animal. I think he means it as a joke, but I am not entirely sure. I’m rather partial to a blackbird myself, after all, if it was good enough for Heaney…..
‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ by Seamus Heaney
“On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.
It’s you, blackbird, I love.”