Records—a Single Egg—Dumping at the Zoo—The Pigeon
Net—Twizzie—Rollers—The Irrigation Man’s Truck—A
This story has no ending—at least it won't until Lucky
dies. But he just keeps on living and living. All of
the other pigeons in the old coop have been dead ten,
twenty years, and I've long given up raising birds
though I've still got Lucky. He's half white and half
what we call ash-red. His feet don't work well though
he can stand and waddle a bit. But I can fly a lot
better than he can now. He just sits there in the
little cage on the kitchen floor. Sometimes he coos.
Sometimes he growls. Mostly he just sits there. Out in
the back yard is the old, empty pigeon coop. We used
to write notes in pencil on the back of the coop
whenever a pigeon hatched. It was a lousy record
system; the boards weathered and the writing faded and
finally vanished entirely, so I don't know Lucky's
exact date of hatch. But he's twenty-three years old
if he's a day.
Pinned to my kitchen bulletin board is my brother's
cancelled check for $20.94. It is dated August 3, 1985
and made out to "Roer's Bird Farm." That was the check
he and I used to buy Lucky's parents along with
another pair or two. I tend to keep things: old
checks, my baby teeth, Lucky.
We had the worst time getting those birds to
breed. The eggs wouldn't hatch, and we tossed them out
well before the 21-day gestation period was over as
they were obviously rotten. But finally, Speckles,
Lucky's mother, laid a single egg that actually
hatched and we named the squab Lucky.
pigeon check 1985.jpg
Afterwards, the pigeons reproduced like crazy, and the
coop would get so full that we'd take thirty or so at
a time down to the zoo and let them go. We never got
rid of Lucky because he was the first to hatch. There
were lots of other pigeons to which we had sentimental
attachment, and they stayed home too: Squeaky, Mohawk,
The zoo was not really the best place for the birds we
exiled, but it was far enough away that they wouldn't
fly back home like racing homers.
We really thought they stood a fighting chance of
eking out a living at the zoo or we wouldn't have
dumped them there. And we didn't look upon their
banishment as certain death even though we knew the
zookeepers had a big "pigeon net." They would
sometimes throw it across a couple of hundred feeding
pigeons at a time and then serve the birds they caught
to the wildcats and other animals that needed fresh
We used to fly our pigeons in those days. They would
"kit up" in a group and fly straight above the house
so high that we could hardly see them. Then, being
rollers, they would roll. Well, not Lucky. He wasn't
such a good roller.
I said that we were fond of some of the birds and over
the years the one to which I had the greatest
sentimental attachment was Twizzie. I had him when I
was eight or nine years old and kept him in a
different coop in the backyard of a different house
long before the days of Lucky, and Speckles, and
Twizzie was a gentle soul and the best pigeon I ever
owned. I named him Twizzie because he didn't roll but
twizzled, did back flips instead of rolling. Twizzie,
like Lucky, was a roller and as such was supposed to
fly to good altitude and roll backwards straight down
thirty feet or more and recover. The deep rolling
breeds, the Birmingham or Pensom rollers did just
that, but it was also a hazardous habit because if a
bird rolled too far, it would hit the ground and die.
Twizzie's mate, a blue check hen, hit the roof of our
house on a roll and was knocked out cold. We put her
in a recovery cage, and she finally woke up and was
put back in the coop. She survived for many years, but
never rolled again. Ever.
I used to take Twizzie to school with me and release
him out on the playground. He'd circle and do back
flips before heading home with the flash of his white
wing tips contrasting against his dark body. Sometimes
I'd go out for recess and see him high up in the sky
flying and doing flips. I loved everything about
Twizzie—even his coo was the perfect pigeon coo:
Twizzie got run over by the irrigation man's truck. It
came as a blow to me. As I said, Twizzie was a gentle
soul and the best pigeon I ever owned.
Mating For Life—A Population Drop—Painted on Their
Perches—Dreams of Flight—Squeaky and Chalky—The
Pigeons mate for life, but they are still a little
promiscuous, and if their mate is gone any time at
all, they quickly mate for life again. Lucky's mate of
many years died and he then said, "I do" to Speckles,
who was his mother, but what do pigeons know or care?
He sired countless offspring that either died of old
age, wound up getting fed to wildcats, or flew the
coop some other way.
Playing host to all of these pigeons became tiresome
over the years, and so I kept my favorites, and in
time they became infertile, and the population began
to drop in the coop as they died. I never did let them
out to fly again.
I remember seeing two of them, Columbus and Cielito
year after year sitting still upon their perches as
though painted there. They rarely moved. It gave me a
pang of guilt every time I looked at them.
But I was always able to solace myself with the memory
of what happened to a rough and tumble old street
pigeon I invited to the coop. He became the cock o'
the walk immediately and loved the place. In the coop,
he had a social life, three squares, and no cat
trouble. I once tried to throw him out of the coop,
and he flew back and clung to the chicken wire,
desperate to be caged again. I gave him his wish.
Pigeons love the coop, but still I wondered if these
old birds sometimes dreamed of flying once more.
Somehow, I'm sorry to say, I believe they always did.
How could they not?
Squeaky was a petite blue bar roller with splashes of
white on her face. I was fond of her, and she fell
into a very elite group of pigeons along with Twizzie
and one old cull I remember named Chalky. They were
special because they were so obviously smarter than
all of the other pigeons. They'd trick you when you'd
open the door and make a break for it, getting right
past you and taking to the sky. Squeaky did this quite
often and I would shout, "Get back here, Squeaky!" And
wouldn't you know it, Squeaky would fly back and dive
right through the door again and alight on her perch.
She knew exactly what I said—or so it seemed at least
Squeaky got sick and died, and I froze her in the
refrigerator, which has become something of a pigeon
mausoleum. As I said, I tend to keep things, and for
those who think this is a strange habit, I point out
that Vladimir Lenin has been lying in state wearing
the same cheap suit for close to a hundred years with
(as far as I know) no refrigeration at all, and people
wait in line just to see.
Professors—The Dilute Gene
One day, more than ten years ago, Chuckles came to the
coop. One of the women at work had a pigeon and she
asked me if I would adopt it, and I did, and I
You see, Chuckles brought with her a kind of vileness
and wickedness that I don't remember seeing very often
in a coop. Oh, the coop can be plenty tough even
without a bird like Chuckles. The walls at the floor
of the coop, for example, should always have a kind of
running board, a wooden skirt a few inches above the
floor, so any squabs that might happen to fall out of
the nest can get under it and not be pecked to death.
And yes, once, my brother was examining a squab and
then accidentally put him into the wrong nest box, and
the pair of birds living there pecked it until there
was nothing but a pink skull cap showing. In the case
of skull peckings, by the way, there was never an
infection. The squab would slowly heal and skin would
cover the bared bone. Afterwards, down would grow
until perhaps three years later the adult bird would
have a smoothly feathered head like a bird that had
never been scalped at all.
Yes, there were some rough moments in the coop. Still,
Chuckles was to bring with her a ferocity and meanness
that I have rarely seen in a bird, especially a hen.
Now, Chuckles didn't come with a name. When my father
saw the bird, he said, "Why don't you name him Charles
Darwin?" Chuck for short. Well, I had a Columbus, so a
historic name wasn't out of the question. We thought
Chuck was a cock at first (You can only tell the
gender by the bird's behavior.), so we didn't know
we'd have to change the name to Chuckles, only
slightly more feminine in sound. But I knew that
Darwin was a good person to name a bird after, being
as he was the most famous of all pigeon fanciers. In
fact, he kicked off his first chapter of The Origins
of Species with:
“Believing that it is always best to study some
special group, I have, after deliberation, taken up
domestic pigeons. I have kept every breed which I
could purchase or obtain and have been most kindly
favored with skins from several quarters of the
world... Many treatises in different languages have
been published on pigeons and some of them are very
important, as being of considerable antiquity. I have
associated with several eminent fanciers, and have
been permitted to join two of the London Pigeon
They talk about Darwin's finches, but perhaps it was
really his pigeons that are to credit for his
insights. The pigeon was absolutely perfect for the
development of Darwin's theory. He knew that the
breeds of pigeon were so preposterously different in
appearance that no sane person could place half of
them in the same genus by their morphology alone—much
less call them the same species. There were giant
"runts" with three-foot wingspans, broken-necked
fantails, sliver-thin tipplers, chicken-like modenas,
pug-faced Chinese "owls," and falcon-winged Ukrainian
sky cutters. And yet all scientists and fanciers
universally agreed that they were all simply
variations of the common rock dove, Columba livia—not
because anyone knew a single thing about genetics at
the time, but because they could all make babies
Darwin devised a wonderful experiment which perhaps is
best to let him explain himself as he did in the first
chapter of The Origin of Species:
I crossed some white fantails, which breed very true,
with some black barbs—and so it happens that blue
varieties of barbs are so rare that I never heard of
an instance in England; and the mongrels were black,
brown, and mottled. I also crossed a barb with a spot,
which is a white bird with a red tail and red spot on
the forehead, and which notoriously breeds very true;
the mongrels were dusky and mottled. I then crossed
one of the mongrel barb-fantails with a mongrel
barb-spot, and they produced a bird of as beautiful
and blue colour, with the white loins, double black
wing bar, and barred and white-edged tail-feathers, as
any wild-rock pigeon!
In short, the barb-spot-fantail mix reverted back to a
classic blue bar street pigeon with no effort at
selection on Darwin's part. It would be hard not to
wonder how great a part this experiment may have
played in Darwin's work on diversity and evolution.
Now, here we come to genetics, an advantage that
contemporary breeders have over Darwin. Let me explain
this advantage with the following story: there was a
department head at a major university who was kind of
deranged and used to hire only Baptist preachers to
teach biology. This may sound like an outrageous
claim, and it's one my father used to make, but
consider this: my mom came up to me once and said,
"Tom last night Jerry was introduced to a biology
professor whose wife said he'd been hired by W.T.
Wentworth. Jerry shouted, 'Well you must be a Baptist
preacher!' and his wife said, 'Er... actually he is.'
" Faux pas City, but my father couldn't have cared
less, and it does show there was some truth to his
At any rate, the story goes that these neo-professors
would get up and have the undergraduates take notes as
they said various things. One of the things they
always said was "If Darwin had known about Gregor
Mendel, he would never have developed his theory of
evolution." The undergraduates would write these words
down in their notebooks and carefully review them
later. Then, there would be a test.
In actuality, though, Darwin would have loved to have
known about his contemporary Mendel because he could
have explained, in part, the problem people confronted
him with regarding the selection of favored
characteristics in plant and animal populations.
People argued that advantageous genes of a
particularly sturdy animal would simply find
themselves awash in the run-of-the mill genes of its
mate—diluted like watered-down whiskey generation
after generation until there was no whiskey left at
all, just a homeopathic remedy of some sort. There was
no mechanism, they argued, to keep the favored
characteristics from being very quickly winnowed away.
I imagine Darwin might have replied to this with
something like, "So you envision a system in which all
the genes just average out and we are all stuck with
the lowest common denominator—repeatedly. Well, that
would appear to be true, but since this doesn't
describe the real world, and I am obviously correct in
this by all the evidence, we can only assume that
there may be somewhere an Austrian monk named Gregor
Mendel, whose fledgling science of genetics will begin
to explain some of this with its dominant and
recessive genes and so on."
Darwin would have liked Mendel's work for a better
reason than that it upheld his theory; he would have
liked it for the sheer fun it provides the pigeon
fancier. For example, Darwin would have liked to know
about the dilute gene that turned his blue birds to
silver and his red ones to yellow. When Lucky hatched,
we immediately knew by his thick coat of yellow down
that he would not be a "dilute" with regard to color.
Birds with the dilute gene hatch naked.
The dilute gene is recessive and sex linked. Pigeons
have no Y chromosome, and the male has two X's and the
female just one. I used to write a zero next to the
female's single X for purposes of symmetry and clarity
when I mapped things out: X0 is a hen, and XX is a
cock. Since the dilute gene is recessive, a male will
need two of them for the dilute color trait to show up
in his appearance—his phenotype. The following chart
shows how an otherwise XX red cock becomes diluted to
a cool-looking yellow when the dilute gene (indicated
by a little "d") is present on both X chromosomes, and
how in the same way a blue cock becomes silver:
The female with a dilute gene always shows the trait
in her phenotype because the recessive gene has only
that zero to compete with it. Thus, using a zero to
even things out for the missing Y chromosome, an
otherwise X0 red hen becomes a cool-looking yellow
bird when the dilute gene is present on the X
chromosome, and a blue hen becomes silver.
Some males carry the trait but do not show it. In that
case, if you cross a male carrier with a non-diluted
female, you can sometimes know the sex of a squab the
minute it hatches. It's easy. Any of their offspring
that hatch naked will be females—and will show the
dilute color trait when they grow feathers.
There's a world of genetics like this and breeders
have fun mapping out whether the birds will be barred
or checked or grizzled or whatever.
The Story of Chica, An
Beheaded—Timeshare—Banishment—The Ants Always know
When Chuckles went into the coop, Lucky had no mate as
Speckles had died, so Lucky and Chuckles paired up. By
this time Lucky was infertile, and so Chuckles would
lay infertile eggs, and I would end up breaking them
after a time, and Chuckles would lay more. In a short
time, the last of the other pigeons in the coop died,
and Lucky and Chuckles had the place to themselves.
One day, I was driving home through a kind of run-down
neighborhood and saw a pigeon with a broken wing. For
some reason I stopped, picked him, up and put him in
the car. The neighborhood was heavily Hispanic, so I
named him Chico and later Chica when I found that he
was a she.
Chica went into the coop and went on living. Years
passed and one day I saw that Chuckles wouldn't allow
Chica to eat. Chuckles had a new nest on the floor and
that's where I threw the grain, so Chuckles was
defending the whole floor as her nest. Chica, with her
maimed wing, was no match for Chuckles, yet the
trouble seemed to pass, and I soon forgot all about
Chuckles' attacking Chica.
One day, I found Chica on the floor of the coop
apparently dead. I picked her up and found she was
breathing. I felt she was on her last legs, so I took
her to the side yard and got a shovel to cut off her
head, but I lost my nerve and called my brother. "Hey,
Steve," I said. "Will you come over and cut this
pigeon's head off? I can't stand to do it."
"No," he answered "Hell, no. Do it yourself."
I went back to Chica with the shovel and pressed it
against her neck ready in an instant to slam it down
and put her out of her misery. I tried again and
again, but I couldn't force myself to do it. Finally,
I chickened out entirely and got a little cage from
behind the coop and put Chica in it. I put the cage
and the bird in the kitchen. The next morning, Chica
was standing up looking fine. It seemed almost
miraculous. I put Chica back in the coop and came back
a while later.
It was then I understood what had happened. There was
Chuckles smashing away at Chica with wings and beak.
Chica was in the corner of the coop, down for the
count. I threw open the door in anger and grabbed at
Chuckles. She roared and fought me, but I drove her
away and picked up Chica. She was practically limp,
but after another night in the kitchen cage, she had
again miraculously rallied. And there in the kitchen
she stayed until it occurred to me that Chica didn't
deserve this banishment.
I picked up Chica, went to the coop, and said, "Oh,
Chuckles! Let's do some time sharing." I put Chica in
the coop and went after Chuckles. It was a noisy catch
with a lot of slamming about, angry cooing, and a
cloud of feathers in the end, but I finally had
Chuckles in my hands and brought her into the kitchen.
She struggled, but I threw her into the cage. Chuckles
looked about, took in her surroundings, and made a
decision. She then busted out of the cage—just flew at
the swinging wire door on the top and bashed it clean
open and went right out, flying through the house. She
had the brains of Squeaky, but not the good-natured
soul. It took me a half hour to catch her and get her
back in the cage, which I secured with a heavy river
rock on top.
The next day, Chica and Lucky were billing. They had
mated for life, and I savored a little satisfaction at
that and went right to the kitchen and said, "Oh,
Chuckles. I've got something to tell you!"
As the days passed, I began to resent Chuckles more
and more. I punished myself for my blindness to what
had been going on—for how many years? Had poor Chica,
odd hen out, been in a pigeon hell that I had
unwittingly devised? How long had I let that evil and
jealous hen torment her? Finally, I decided to get rid
of Chuckles. I couldn't put her back in the coop, and
how long could anyone go on with a pigeon living in
their kitchen for goodness' sake?
I put the cage in my truck and drove to the
university. Getting her out of the cage was a battle
royal. I finally got a good hold of her, but she
fought me almost breaking free. To keep her in my
hands, I needed to use so much strength that I thought
I would crush her. I turned from the truck and tossed
her out on the campus grounds. She alighted and then
flew away. She was the strongest, most ferocious
pigeon I had ever seen.
The next day Chica lay on the floor. There were ants
on her, so I knew she was dead. The ants always know.
I put her in the freezer with Squeaky.
Lucky was alone.
And he got old. And he couldn't fly. So I put some
bricks on the floor of the coop for him to sit on. And
there he sat through the burning summers, and the
freezing nights of winter.
Roommates—Seventy-five-Watt Bulb—Special Seeds—A
Night out under the Stars—Sierra Pond
A man goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, I've got
a problem. My wife keeps a nanny goat in the bedroom.
It's a pet. Now, I've got nothing personal against
nanny goats, but this one happens to smell to high
The psychiatrist asks, "If that's the problem, why
don't you just open the window?
"Are you crazy?" says the man, "And let out all of my
I never thought I'd be the man in that story.
How the summer heat might affect the pigeons never
concerned me very much though I live in Arizona, and
the temperature has risen as high as 123 degrees. I
knew that Mourning doves sit on their eggs in the
summer and rather than warm the eggs, the birds keep
the eggs from frying by evaporative cooling. The adult
bird simply begins to dry up in the sun, and the
slowing evaporating bird cools the eggs. So I knew
that doves could stand the heat.
In 2005 my dog Noodles died, and in July of 2007 I had
a dream about her. I dreamed that I had left her on
the shore of Lake Itasca in Minnesota, and in the
dream I realized what I had done and went and found
her and told her would never leave her again. In the
dream, I gave up my airline ticket to drive Noodles
back to Arizona. And so a few days later as I was
walking back from the local saloon through the blazing
115-degree Arizona day it hit me: Like in the dream, I
had abandoned Lucky in the coop, and Lucky was too old
to take the heat anymore. I wrote in my journal that
July 8 2007: When I got home, I took Lucky inside in
the air conditioning into my room in a nice cage
....How could I have left him outside any longer when
it is 115 degrees? I scratch him on the head, and he
likes it. God forgive me for the time I have wasted.
LUCKY LOOKING GOOD 2005:
It was not to be as joyous a decision as I thought. I
was soon to learn something about how Lucky viewed me
and his world. This happened when I got it into my
head to change the living arrangements. You see, I
felt that the cage with its wire top gave Lucky an
uncomfortable feeling of confinement. Outside, I had
fastened a yard-square board atop a single post which
I had embedded in a five-gallon can filled with
cement. It was a bird feeder that I didn't use much,
preferring instead to throw the seed on the ground for
the Inca doves and other birds. If I brought it into
my bedroom, Lucky could live on it. He couldn't fly,
so if he didn't just fall off, it would be a perfect
place for him.
I carried the heavy "table" in and tried it.
Lucky fell off a couple of times, and I'd find him on
the floor and put him back. But falling off was not
the problem. The problem was that while in the past he
tolerated me as a casual visitor to the coop, I had
now become a permanent live-in. He used to allow me to
pick him up and scratch him, and this agreeability I
took to mean he liked me. I had mistaken toleration
for affection. When I set him up to live in the
bedroom, I learned that Lucky regarded me in an
entirely different way. Now, I was not the occasional
guest visiting briefly. Now, I was there to stay.
LUCKY OLDER STILL PERCHING:
I would come into the bedroom, and Lucky would stiffen
on the tabletop. He would growl and look up at me with
the red eyes of a bull. He couldn't paw like a bull,
but he did something I had never seen a pigeon do: he
started batting, rapping his wing, where the bone met
feather, onto the tabletop. The behavior was filled
with aggression and perhaps even hatred. "Rappity
rappity rap! " he was saying. "The creature visits
itself upon me forever! The creature! Curses! Rappity
I put Lucky back in the cage and put
the cage in the kitchen where Chica and Chuckles had
been. At least I wasn't in there with him. And so he
stayed there until winter when he went back out in the
Arizona winters are mild, but there are nights that
freeze. On those nights, I always used to cover the
coop with blankets so no icy draft would kill anybody.
Now, Lucky was very old and sitting on the floor, so I
ran an electrical wire out to the coop and plugged it
to a metal desk lamp with a 60-watt bulb in it. I
covered the lamp with tinfoil and put it just inches
from where lucky would sleep at night. The blankets,
of course, stayed. A little later, I swapped the bulb
out for a 75-watter just to make things a little
warmer. But it got to be a hassle, and now Lucky is
back inside on the kitchen floor and has been for some
time. And here he will stay.
His eyes have dried up and get stuck shut, but every
day I pry the lids apart and put drugstore eye drops
in, and the eyes seem to work fine even though they
are now strangely almond-shaped instead of pigeon
round. He bites me viciously when I put in the eye
I go to the Sunflower Market and get specialty grains
for him: flax seed, buckwheat groats, lentils, wheat
berries, and mix them with milo and peas and corn and
sunflower seeds, so Lucky eats like a king. But he
bites me when I reach in to fill his tuna can with
I take no offense and still try to do things to make
Lucky's life a little more interesting. I used to take
the cage out and set it on the coop and have a beer
while Lucky had vacation outdoors under the sun. Once,
however, I awoke one morning to find that I had left
him outside all night on the coop, and I raced out in
horror that the neighborhood cats might surely have
gotten into the cage and killed him, but he was fine
having spent nothing worse than a mild evening out
under the stars. But I've quit putting the cage out
The other day, it was 112 degrees out, and it occurred
to me that Lucky never got a bath, and pigeons love to
bathe. I turned on the backyard hose with its nozzle
in the little cement depression I had built and
christened "Sierra Pond." The bloom was on the sage
around the pond, and some of the purple flowers had
fallen into the water. I got Lucky and set him in the
pond. The water boiled beneath him, cool and bright in
the burning Arizona sun. He floated, feet just
touching the bottom, spinning in the water like a
miniature armful of laundry. The almond eyes blinked.
He spun slowly, wings extended over the shining water
and the whirling purple blossoms.
EPILOGUE OF SORTS:
LUCKY DEAD February 28, 2011. God, he
was AT LEAST 24 YEARS OLD. I think twenty-five! The pigeon
check in 1985 bought his parents and he was THE FIRST to
Journal entry in bird database:
2/28/2011 LUCKY DIED! I went to the
store and bought him some milo as I thought he might have
missed it recently what with all the other seeds he was
eating. When I got home he was lying on his back as dead
as a doornail.
CLICK TO SEE A BIGGER, PROPORTIONAL IMAGE
dead lucky in lifelike pose.JPG.jpg