When the Columba livia Comes Home to Roost

I’d like to have a beak
so that any crumbs I came across
would be good enough for me,
I’d be focused on my task and careful, sure
but with my head in the clouds
More or less like a pigeon
I know, it’s a lousy comparison
but imagine how it would feel
if you could trust anyone who threw a piece of bread your way
more or less like a pigeon
And not like people who abandon true love, abandon their dreams,
obsessed with details
I walk in the middle of the road, barefoot like a pigeon
drivers think they’re going to run me over
but at the last moment I leap up
and fly … but not too high
because the secret is to keep your head down
and a pigeon keeps its head down

From “Vorrei avere il becco” by Giuseppe Povia
Winner of the 2006 San Remo Festival

Pigeons and me—up until recently, I mean—we haven’t really been all that simpatico. Back during the Great Aviaria Terror of Ought Six, when I was living in Livorno, some mooncalf massacred scores of them in Piazza della Repubblica because he thought it would help combat “bird flu.” The dubious epidemiological value of this act of avicide notwithstanding, I wasn’t entirely opposed. (As an aside, I should add that I was also all in favor of bird flu: Thanks to general human idiocy and to specifically Italian hypochondriasis, the price of chicken dropped to €1,20 a kilo at the height of the hysteria. Now it’s back up to its usual €5-7 per kilo. Rivoglio l’aviaria!)

Too, when I lived in San Francisco and worked in the financial district, the sky was dark with flocks of pigeons. Herb Caen (though he certainly wasn’t the only one) famously referred to pigeons as “rats with feathers,” and I was in complete agreement. Now, it’s fair to say that, in San Francisco’s financial district, the sidewalks are also dark with flocks of lawyers, which, in keeping with the Caen formula, I suppose we could refer to as “rats with BlackBerries.” Both species shit where they eat. But let me get back to my story.

As I say, I haven’t historically been a great pigeon booster. But then motherhood changed me.


Not mine. Hers. The pigeon that brought Spring to via Calvart. On May 11th, as I was doing my usual morning shooing of the pigeons off our terrace, I noticed there was one who was especially reluctant to leave. I took a closer look and that’s when I saw a nest and, inside of it, two small, white eggs.

We’ve got a sort of broken-down shelf out on the terrace that serves to hold unused pots, bags of potting soil, the watering can, and the like, and our pigeon had made a space for herself atop a mostly-empty bag of gravel on the bottom shelf.

Our little Rousseauvean slice of jungle. The “gin-and-tonic” table is in the right foreground; the “aviary” is at the very rear of the terrace.

Our little Rousseauvean slice of jungle. The “gin-and-tonic” table is in the right foreground; the “aviary” is at the very rear of the terrace.

In truth, the nest is a ragtag affair, and very urban: the bottom of the nest is a plastic bag, and it looks like she flew in a few twigs but not much else in the way of building materials; the eggs are just sort of cradled there in a depression. Indeed, Wikipedia, the source of all human knowledge, allows as how the nest of Columba livia, the Rock Pigeon (for so they are called), “is usually on a ledge in a cave; it is a slight structure of grass, heather, or seaweed.”

A slight structure, indeed. And to think that I once joked that pigeons were living proof of spontaneous generation, because no one had ever seen a pigeon’s nest.

Eppur si muove.

The chicks hatched a few days ago, and should be with us for about 30 days in all. They are, frankly, a tad on the ugly side: they’re covered with sparse yellow fuzz that’s about the thickness and shade of “old blonde guy” hair and sport enormous black, reptilian beaks and swollen, rubbery-looking protuberances around their half-closed eyes. Of course, it’s not like adult pigeons are peacocks or anything.

To have a pigeon nesting on your terrace strikes me as astonishing and wonderful—it’s not falcons in Central Park, but still. More than that, I find it strangely moving to have her there—them there, really: the male and female take turns covering the nest. I can’t actually tell them apart, except for their behavior. One is very nervous and flies off if I open the door to the terrace. The other is quite placid and lets me put food down right next to the nest without even ruffling his/her feathers.

We keep our pigeons fed.

We keep our pigeons fed.

Part of what moves me is what I can only identify as a kind of trust. Not of us. I mean, it’s not personal. They didn’t pick our terrazzo because they knew two soft-hearted humans lived here. It’s a kind of trust in … I don’t know. Design? (“… if design govern in a thing so small….”) Inevitability? And if it is trust, it’s nothing like human trust, which always includes at least a fragment of conscious decision.

This is an irrational, implacable, animal trust that we virtually never know. You pick a rock ledge—or what appears to be one—and that’s where your nest is going to be, no matter what happens. Everything could have gone wrong, but they laid their eggs anyway. There might have been a dog here, but the chicks hatched anyway. The rain and cold might come, as they have over the last few days, and they might be too much for the chicks to bear in their purblind and semi-naked helplessness, but for the moment they’re alive anyway. Some cat might kill the adults while they’re off looking for food, but for the time being they keep coming back and they feed the chicks anyway.

In the end, I may never see the day when the chicks are ready to fly away. They might not make it. But then again, I might not make it. Anything could happen. And that’s why, when I watch them in their nest, or when I bend down, slowly and carefully, to look their mother in the eye (the calm one is the mother, I’m convinced), my curiosity is wholly existential. I’d like to know how they do it. I’d like to learn how not to mind the terror. Vorrei avere il becco.


Posted on 29 May 2007, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. >I don’t want to sound too prosaic (especially because your post was great), but, I invite you to be careful. Pigeons are dirty and full of leechs. My mother felt similar feelings as you and left a nest on her balcony, then her house filled with bad bad bad tiny insects she had to fight with for weeks… careful, wen.

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