Richmond Park, mid September. The wood pigeons scuffle through the crisp detritus under the beech trees looking for beech nuts. Their smoky blue bodies are plump and perfect. So many of them. I have played a small part in shoring up this overblown population. By one. One extra pigeon in 2017. I’m not ashamed. In fact I’m pleased as anything.
This is how it happened. I was working at the table by the window. Risky, with all that outside business going on – insect, plant, bird, light etc. But we were past the spring frenzy and coasting into early summer, so it was cool and placid and I figured I’d get stuff done.
An odd movement kept catching my eye though. I’d look up but I couldn’t place it. And then I saw the neighbour’s cat, hunkered down, tail twitching. Sodding cats. I opened the door and it scarpered – our relationship is one of mutual loathing – and I went out to see what it had been up to.
Under the holly tree I found the source of movement. Caught in the thorns of the berberis, such an unearthly thing, at first I couldn’t make sense of it. A still lump of yellowing goose-bumped flesh the size of my palm. And then it spasmed.
It was a bird, not old enough to have feathers. A chick then, but big. I lifted the limp body off the thorns. Its skin was cold and clammy but the puncture wounds on its back were slight. Minimal blood. I stuck it in my armpit to try to warm it up.
I couldn’t type with the chick under my arm so I put it in a nest of tissue paper in a plastic lunchbox, on top of a hot water bottle and waited for it to keel over. Its ridiculous dinosaur head with its big knobbly beak and holes for ears and the sparse proto feathers on its crown like too much brylcream. Wood pigeon. One ugly bird. Doomed.
After half an hour, it opened its eyes. Not dead then. I gave it some water, pinching its soft beak so that it opened. And then some watery yoghurt. Actually quite perky. Come on little fella. You can make it.
But hell, now what? All that feeding. All that fledging. Do I never learn? Thinking of all the times I’ve done this, all the hopeless times I’ve picked up young birds and tried to keep them alive. The rook, the redwing, the house martin, the pheasants. And so on. All the wasps I ‘rescued’ from jam traps. The bee I ‘saved’ from Lake Achensee, swimming with one hand out of the water to the shore while it sorted itself out. Pity, then empathy. Impulse, then bonding. Hope, then loss. Fool.
This unviable creature had caught me up. But it was still doomed. Maybe I’d just put it in the bin and forget about it. But then again, maybe I’d give it a name. Pidge. And a gender. Her.
A mature wood pigeon sat in in the big tree of heaven a couple of doors down. Was it the mother bird, waiting for the all clear to go back to the nest? Would it know that one of its babies had gone? How would it feel?
Pull yourself together. It’s a pigeon. It doesn’t have a stream of consciousness. Those elephants, they don’t know they’re the last. Those pandas, they’re not popping corks because they’ve moved from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ in the red list. Those polar bears, they’re not weeping about their grandchildren’s future as the ice melts under their feet. Conservation shouldn’t be driven by the pathetic fallacy. We shouldn’t have to blooming well adopt lion cubs or orangutans to make the connections. But maybe that’s the only hope.
The cat was back. It had crept off the fence into the lower branches of the holly tree. I chased it away again and looked up. Wood pigeon nest six foot above. About the most casual nest construction there is. These birds are real slackers when it comes to nests. A bunch of twigs like spillikins caught between two branches. But it was occupied. There was another chick there, stock still. No wonder the cat was so intent.
Still, I had an idea. Maybe I could put Pidge back in the nest with its sibling. Then I’d have tried my best. If the mother bird never comes back, if both of them die, if the cat gets them? Just nature taking its course.
I borrowed a ladder. I gave Pidge a final dribble of watery yoghurt, stuck her in my pocket and climbed up into the holly. The other chick sat rigid on the flimsy stack even as Pidge tipped in. Somehow the platform held. Two ugly birds. Doomed.
The cat was watching. It would be after them as soon as I was out of the way. I borrowed a saw and took out the lower branches of the holly. If this didn’t shake the babies from their nest, if this didn’t stop the mother bird returning, nothing would.
I took the ladder and the saw and went inside. Dispassionate intellectual, that’s me.
Minutes passed. The cat did a couple of reccies along the fence and gave up. The holly had resumed its glossy spiky deep green inscrutability. I looked away, on the basis that a watched pot never boils.
Hours passed and guess what? The next time I went out and looked up into the tree, the mother was back. She did that rigid deadpan ‘I’m not here so I don’t know what you’re looking at’ thing. God, I loved her.
The days passed and no bloody corpses appeared under the holly. The parent pigeons came and went, clumsy and noisy. I opened a few conversations with them, standing under the holly tree. They were a bit one way. Soon the chicks were so big you could see their silly heads from the ground, doing the ‘I’m not here so I don’t know who you think you’re talking to’ thing, just like their mother. And one day they were gone.
Pigeons waddling under the bird feeder. Pigeon eyes popping as they scoff the big cherries on the tree. Pigeons flapping away like paper bags when the cat comes back. Of course, I recognise the one I rescued. Of course she recognises me.
‘Alright Pidge? How’s it going?’
Diagnosis? Chronic anthropomorphism. Treatment? None.