Pigeon power

Country Sights and Sounds

DEFENCELESS SQUAB Wood pigeon young are a target for magpies, but only if the predators can get past the protective pigeon community. Pic: Michael Kingdon

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

Remember my pigeon? She and her mate have been fixtures here – at least I believe it is them, although it is not easy to tell one pigeon from another. They nested in the same thorn tree that Pi (her assigned name) had been carrying twigs into, and that is proof enough for me.
Since then a level of trust developed. At first Pi was shy and flew from her nest every time I walked by, but after a while she came to recognise me and sat tight. Perhaps she was aware of the embryos developing within those two chalk-white eggs she kept close to her breast.
They finally hatched as all good eggs do and produced a pair of healthy squabs – an ugly name for a less-than-handsome pair of nestlings. Both parents were kept busy then, gathering food which they delivered part-digested, as pigeon milk. Yet still they found time for celebratory flights around the field – a few rapid wingbeats to carry them high, followed by a sudden ‘Clap-clap’ of wings and a soaring descent.
How I wanted to climb those few feet and look at the little ones. It would risk drawing attention to them – the local magpies have found our pigeons nests before, usually just days before the young were ready to fledge. Those merciless birds would use their cruel beaks to tear my squabs apart to feast on heart and liver.
Last weekend one of the young pigeons walked out of the nest and wobbled precariously along the thorn branch, where it sat in the sun for the first time in its life. What a perfect cradle it had amid fresh green leaves and fragrant May blossom. It knew nothing else, only shelter in the warmth of its mothers crude embrace and an endless supply of food on demand. Now there it sat, utterly gormless, unwittingly awaiting the executioner’s bill.
An hour later the magpies found it. This must be the end, I thought. Weeks of watchful care were about to come to nothing once more. I had reckoned without the parents, who positioned themselves between their baby and the eager predators. As long as there was only one squab exposed they would have a chance. As if reading my thoughts the second youngster clumsily walked out from cover onto the same branch, probably to see what all the fuss was about. Like the first, it swayed back and forth and barely managed to keep its footing.
Now the magpies had two potential meals, a prospect which drove them into a frenzy. I wanted to go and help. Doing so would be worse than useless; the barely-feathered fledgelings would end up on the ground and no amount of placing them back in the tree would persuade them to stay put. Besides, there is an unspoken code, that of not interfering with the workings of nature.
If things had become worse I might have intervened but as it turned out there was no need, for something extraordinary took place as more pigeons began to arrive on the scene. These reinforcements took up various positions and took turns to fly at the tormenting magpies. The magpies were quicker by far and easily avoided any attempt made to strike them, and still they persisted in their efforts to reach the squabs, flying in from one direction and then the other, attacking singly and in unison, but being consistently repelled by those brave six or eight defenders.
Before nightfall the issue was settled for the day. I had expected a repeat the following morning, but when I rose at seven there was not a pigeon around. I walked the ground beneath the thorn, looking for broken bodies or torn feathers. There was nothing to be seen, no sign of violence nor of my friends.
That banding together by the greater pigeon family has left me impressed, and I truly hope that Pi and her mate have taken their family away somewhere safe.
It isn’t that pigeons are in short supply, or that they play a vital role in the scheme of things. They actually make a good meal for quite a range of other animals and birds. I’ve even been known to indulge myself.
There’s no room for sentimentality. One half of the world is devouring the other. Still, I like the thought that by working together we can beat the odds.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.