Pigeon culture

nest from below

Here’s a thing. And that’s not a lazy entry, I mean it literally. It’s a half-house, a symbolic home left unfinished as a record of a moment of bonding, a useless thing in itself but an essential tool made to accompany complex thought. By a pair of pigeons.

We have a very small garden, so it’s been curious to watch a couple of these fat birds stake it out as their territory. In the spring they made a nest, but it didn’t last, and the one egg we know they laid ended up broken on the ground. Over the past couple of days they’ve been active again, perching in the honeysuckle and apparently nipping at the flowers. This morning, when she should have been getting ready for school, my daughter and I watched the two birds start a nest in a climbing rose.

While one sat in the rose, waddling around a bit and fiddling with the twigs (for no particular reason we decided this was the female), the other (we called it he) collected sticks. The rose is close to a bit of flat roof. He stood on the edge, fell off, opened his wings and went in search of a new twig – they were thin sticks, almost like grass. In a minute he’d return to the roof, stand on the edge for a few seconds, then flop over to the rose, where he’d struggle to squeeze in, hand over his prize, turn round and escape back to the roof, usually standing on the other pigeon’s back as he did so. While he was gone, she would arrange the stick.

They were still doing this when we moved on, and there was a lot of pigeon action in the garden all morning. And then it stopped. All that remained was a light foundation of twigs in the rose.

another twig

he arrives

he leaves

she fits a twig

Now you could say this was just a first attempt at nest making, in a not particularly appropriate site that was soon abandoned. Perhaps it is. But it feels like more. It feels like a material thing that was created and used in a process of ritualised and partly mechanical behaviour, a rehearsal for a real nest, a test of loyalty and DIY compatibility, an evocative – for pigeons – sticky twiggy metaphor for bonding and sharing. It feels like these birds are telling us, it’s not only people, or chimpanzees, or even crows, who use things to think with: we do, too.

in the honeysuckle at dusk

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