There’s this part in “Harold and Maude” where they’re sitting out on a pier after what might be described as the best date of all time, and a flock of seagulls crosses the sky. Maude says, “Dreyfus once wrote from Devil’s Island that he would see the most glorious birds. Many years later in Brittany he realized they had only been seagulls. For me they will always be glorious birds.” Maude is such a baller. Who even knows who Dreyfus is? None of us do. (OK, actually, a quick Google search reveals that she was probably referencing Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894. But that’s not the point. Most of us go on thinking Maude is a lovely, genius eccentric.) I have always associated that quote — one of my favorites in a movie simply TEEMING with great quotes — with pigeons.
I might be reading too much into things, but I think pigeons might be my Patronus. That’s a Harry Potter reference, and if you’re too cool to understand it, here’s the definition of a Patronus, according to Miranda Goshawk in the “Standard Book of Spells:”
"This ancient and mysterious charm conjures a magical guardian, a projection of all your most positive feelings. The Patronus Charm is difficult, and many witches and wizards are unable to produce a full, corporeal Patronus, a guardian which generally takes the shape of the animal with whom they share the deepest affinity. You may suspect, but you will never truly know what form your Patronus will take until you succeed in conjuring it."
The thing is, pigeons have been following me around lately. They’re not just around in the ways pigeons are ordinarily around; they’ve been appearing ostentatiously when things have been very difficult, at the edges of dark moments. This all started about a month ago, while I was sitting in a coffee shop, and I learned that a person I had been somewhat close to had abruptly passed away. I was without words; unable to process the news. A pigeon walked into the coffee shop and right up to my table. It blinked at me. I said, to the pigeon, “You’re a pigeon. You’re in a coffee shop.” The pigeon said nothing. In that moment, that response was helpful.
On my bike the next week, my mind started wandering off in bleak directions. I’m a firm believer that it is OK to mourn, but it’s also important to stay present, and I was worrying openly about hypothetical death (which we all do sometimes, but which mostly signifies that we’re not being present). Although I knew objectively that this thought pattern wasn’t productive, I nevertheless started to spiral. Then, just as my eyes were welling up and I was reaching the mental place-of-no-return, a pigeon flew RIGHT AT ME, from NOWHERE, and practically smacked me in the face. I lost my balance and had to stop my bike. In that moment, this was also useful.
So at a memorial service the next week, I looked for pigeons. They were everywhere. I guess they are probably ALWAYS everywhere — there are 400 million pigeons in the world, and they are especially successful in cities — but they begin to blend in after a while. Anomalously, the more of something there is, the less we tend to notice it is there at all. (“They had only been seagulls.”) As a general rule, I don’t believe in higher powers or great, omnipotent, free-thinking universal forces; but lately I have allowed room in my personal canon for magic. The universe had given me pigeons. There would be nothing wrong with ignoring that, but there would likewise be nothing wrong with NOT ignoring it.
After all, I have a long history with pigeons. When I was sixteen, I sat with my first-ever boyfriend on a bench on a rainy day in Portland and watched flocks of pigeons dive and congregate on this blue-gray memorial statue of a wagon wheel outside the Portland Art Museum. I talked rapidly and at length about the pigeons and how marvelous I thought they were, and when the boyfriend agreed with me emphatically and also at length, I told him I loved him for the first time.
Then when I was twenty, my friend Kim and I found a photograph of a pigeon at a hipster coffee shop in Portland that we took a photograph of and each had tattooed on our bodies the next day. We said, “It’s appropriate that it’s a pigeon — pigeons are so unassuming, and so lovely.” People look at this tattoo — it’s about an inch long and on the inside of my left wrist — and mistake it for a dove. That used to drive me crazy.
But it shouldn’t have driven me crazy, because technically, pigeons ARE doves. The dove that carries the olive leaf to Noah on his Ark was probably a pigeon, for example; back in Biblical times, the word “pigeon” and “dove” were interchangeable. There’s a lot that most people don’t know about pigeons, which, it turns out, are little historical time capsules full of drama and an exciting human-species relationship.
I know this because after the universe gave me pigeons, I went to the library. I have watched enough kid-crime-solving movies from the ‘90s to know that the library is the place to go when you need a mystery solved (um, “Now and Then?”), and I wanted to know what about pigeons was particularly special. Unfortunately, my catalog search for “pigeons” brought up only two titles: “Pigeons,” by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, and “Animals With Jobs: Carrier Pigeons” by Judith Janda Presnall. Both books are intended for middle school-aged children who have been assigned “pigeons” as a topic for a school report. They feature Papyrus font, stock photography, and sentences like, “Did you know that the Ancient Greeks used pigeons to report results of the Olympic Games?” (No, I did not know that. Who would know that? Only pigeon experts. And let’s assume pigeon experts don’t need this children’s book about pigeons.)
Honestly, the books weren’t terrible. While neither Dorothy Hinshaw Patent nor Judith Janda Presnall seem THAT passionate about pigeons or pigeon life, they each offer good primers. For example, I learned that pigeons as we know them today are feral — meaning they were once domesticated, and now they’re wild. I learned that pigeons have a layer of skin called a cere that grows over the upper half of their beak. (It looks like a bit of potters’ clay has hardened there.) And best of all, I learned that, although scientists have tirelessly studied the homing abilities of pigeons, no one is sure WHY they are always able to return home.
During my research, my pigeon-loving friend Luke asked me if I had listened to “that On Point episode with the pigeon girl.” Of course I hadn’t. I don’t listen to On Point, because I’m not in my late ‘50s. He sent me the interview, which was pretty interesting, but importantly led to the MORE interesting detail, which was that this girl (her name is Courtney Humphries) had written an entire book about pigeons, and she had titled it “Superdove.” I hadn’t thought to search for a non-pigeon title in the library catalog! And as luck would have it, the wonderful New Orleans Public Library had a brand new copy of “Superdove,” AND it was checked in.
I finished “Superdove” in one day. It is totally amazing, and I recommend it to everyone on earth. Just to give you a taste, it opens with this perfect quote from Annie Dillard:
“I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance god a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.”
I don’t know about you, but that’s maybe the most amazing pair of sentences I’ve read in my entire life, and that it was the opening quote in a book about pigeons suggested that “Superdove" would surely put Dorothy Hinshaw Patent and Judith Janda Presnall to task.
Which it did. I won’t bother you with too many of the specifics, because if you have an interest in pigeons, you can do yourself a big favor and buy this book yourself. (Or you can check it out at the library — I just returned it, so if you live in New Orleans you’re in luck.) There was one wonderful section that stuck out for me, though, which I will copy here: [Pigeons are] “physically and psychologically ‘tough’ in spite of their delicate, fragile appearance and their timidity. […] Their gentleness should not be mistaken for delicacy. In their quiet way, pigeons and doves have managed to succeed very well in vastly different conditions and habitats.” Their gentleness should not be mistaken for delicacy. Isn’t this true of all the people we admire and revere? Perhaps no truer quality exists in a known hero: the gentle toughness that allows the seemingly meek to persevere beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
The scientific reason that pigeons are so “tough” is because they’re good at reproduction. But I think that they’re good at reproduction because of their central mystery: pigeons are excellent at “home.”
There is a terrific Radiolab episode about this which tells the incredible story of G.I. Joe, a pigeon in WWII whose unprecedented homing abilities saved hundreds of human lives. He was even awarded a medal of honor (which probably annoyed him). The episode then digs into this question: a pigeon can find her way home across hundreds of miles, even if she has been locked in a sound-proof smell-proof windowless box and flown across the country in airplane with no access to the sun; HOW? There is no satisfactory answer. Science can’t explain it. We believe it is some combination of compassing (pigeons have magnets in their brains that orient them to the earth) and mapping (recognition of the land around them), but no one can quite figure out EXACTLY how it works. Scientists have fogged pigeons’ vision, they’ve distorted the magnetic pull of their brains, they’ve blocked pigeons’ sense of smell; and still, pigeons always find their way home.
I went home over the weekend. There was a family emergency, and I had to fly to Portland. It was very expensive, and to get there on short notice from the East Coast took 18 hours. But when I was home, I felt this weird, unscientific swell in the sinews of my brain; this feeling of right-ness, of connectedness, of “this-is-where-I-needed-to-be”-ness. It’s crazy, but I felt like I could have found my way there from anywhere on earth.
Pigeons are monogamous. They mate for life, and family is extremely important to them. Although scientists have scoffed at the suggestion, one can’t help but wonder: Is it possible that pigeons can find their way home because they love? That maybe there is this fragment of a possibility that love is bigger than science? That love has this weird, guiding energy that gets us where we need to go?
Maybe I’m wrong. But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter: in times of great struggle, when the land seems to be sinking from beneath us, and there is so much that doesn’t make sense in the world, we NEED to believe in these stories of impossible love; of species that should have died out, but survived, despite their gentleness; of beauty and triumph in plain sight, never begging to be seen, but becoming visible when we need to see it the most.