Vlaardingen, the NetherlandsTick tick tick tick tick. The sound of a creature’s nails on the laminate flooring approaches from the hallway. I look up from behind my laptop, where I’d been writing photo captions. During these times of pandemic-induced isolation, I’ve set up my home office on the couch. Across the room at the dinner table, my wife is helping our oldest daughter Merel, who’s 9, with her homework.
All our eyes are focused on the hallway now. As the sound gets closer, our 6-year-old daughter Fleur welcomes the visitor. “Hello Ollie,” she says.
With perky steps, a pigeon enters the living room. Ignoring us, he walks straight to the dinner table in search of breadcrumbs that our girls might have dropped during breakfast. He begins to feast, and I tiptoe towards the table to grab my camera.
Ollie and his partner in crime, Dollie, have been visiting our house for several weeks now and have become a welcome distraction from the daily news. I should have been on assignment in Romania at the moment, but I was forced to stay home when the coronavirus started spreading across Europe. On March 16 the schools closed, and the Dutch government called for an “intelligent lockdown,” advising us to stay home and to keep five feet of social distance. Unlike in other European countries, we’re still allowed to go outside, but we’re too busy homeschooling and keeping our daughters entertained to go anywhere.
When our isolation began, I decided to keep a visual diary to document the odd reality of this time. Soon, however, our pigeon visitors came to be my primary subject, with their freedom to expand their territory juxtaposing our limitations.
These days, the only place that offers me a breath of fresh air is our balcony. Thankfully spring has arrived early, and I’m able to enjoy my tea out in the sun every morning.
It was during this daily ritual in early April that I first took notice of the bird sitting on the railing, its iridescent purple and green neck feathers shining in the earlylight of day. The pair of pigeons that nested on our balcony last year had returned—as pigeons usually do—to claim their spot, right underneath my chair.
My wife was not too happy at first. Last year was quite a smelly affair. Rock pigeons—your common city pigeons—are generally despised for their droppings and are often believed to spread diseases.
“All wild birds carry parasites and bacteria,” says André de Baerdemaeker, an urban ecologist at the Natural History Museum Rotterdam and longtime wildlife rehabilitator. “I don’t consider an urban pigeon more dangerous than any other wild bird in that respect. Under normal circumstances, the chances that free-flying birds transmit a disease to a human being are very small.” The pigeon’s bad reputation isn’t justified, he says.
“Some people believe that by living in an urban world, these birds avoid the rules of nature, but the opposite is true,” he says. Not only do pigeons face predators, food shortages, and competition for nesting sites, but they’re also subject to the whims of human society. Weaker pigeons still manage to stretch their fate by begging for crumbs in the streets, he says, and it’s these bottom-rung pigeons that shape the species’ overall reputation.
But we’ve got to know them as intelligent birds and loving parents. They mate for life, and they’re one of a small number of non-mammals that can learn to pass the mirror test, commonly used to measure self-awareness.
It’s fascinating to me that while many of the animals we don’t interact with are our most-loved, the animals we draw into our lives unintentionally are often the most hated. Pigeons must be one of the most unloved birds around.
When Ollie and Dollie returned this year, Merel and Fleur were still a bit frightened. “Help, they’re coming straight at me,” Merel screamed from the balcony a few weeks ago. I couldn’t help but smile. These pigeons are one of the few opportunities our children have to interact with wild animals in the city, and I believe there is great educational value in that. It gives me the chance to explain the opportunistic nature of urban wildlife. Besides, the girls quickly realized there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Every time I’m cleaning their waste off our balcony, I do understand how people see pigeons as a nuisance. But my impulse to malign them evaporated last year when Ollie and Dollie raised their chicks underneath our chair.
I’ll never forget Merel’s excitement when the first egg hatched and revealed this alien-looking, yellow squab. Sadly the chicks died over the course of two spring heatwaves, and then the nest became home to a large number of ants that marched their way into our kitchen. We eventually removed the nest, certain that we didn’t want pigeons on our balcony the following year.
But the pigeons came back this April. We’d just finished dinner, when suddenly I heard a loud noise from the kitchen. There was Dollie, feasting on the rice leftovers on Merel’s plate. The bird looked up. Apparently unafraid, she continued.
Pigeons. Give them a finger, and they'll take the whole hand.
Before we knew it, Ollie and Dollie became regulars in our house. These daily visits have become a reminder of another reality: We are not alone on this planet, and we need to share it with all living beings as if our lives depend on it.
Ollie has finished his business in the living room. I follow him to the hallway from where he can see Dollie. She has been waiting on the kitchen counter for him. For a minute they both stare at me. Then they fly off through the open balcony door into the clear blue sky. I envy their freedom.