Sunday, April 19, 2015
Photo Essay: A Bird in the Hand
It's been a long time since I held a bird in my hand.
When I was a sophomore in college, I placed into the notoriously difficult Vertebrate Zoology class without first having to take the 101 introductory course, but I ended up getting only a 2.0 at the end of the semester despite having been an A+ student in high school and getting at least a 3.0 or 4.0 in all of my other classes.
I was in a little over my head, because I don't have an affinity for all vertebrates. I failed the fish chapter after a mystery illness rendered me bedridden for three weeks. But when I got better and the professor assigned me to go capture a chickadee by the beaver pond, observe it for a few weeks, and try to prove (or disprove) some hypothesis I came up with myself, I discovered my surprising connection to the avian sector of vertebrates. It was easy for me to open the cage door and clasp the chickadee between my hands gently, despite its flapping wings. And once it was nestled between my palms, it seemed to be comfortable there.
I almost decided to be a scientist after that experiment, but instead I only minored in Biology (with a focus on animal behavior) and flitted about various other pursuits that I was good at and that interested me.
Since then, I've obnoxiously flirted with every bird I've seen in the wild, or in captivity at a friend's house, pet store, zoo, or botanic garden. I got up before the crack of dawn to hang out with some falcons, one of which perched on my arm.
But I hadn't held one, in a long time.
A few vestiges of LA's agricultural past still remain, hidden from view: Compton's Richland Farms, and some surprisingly rural plots of land in Reseda, one of the first suburbs in the San Fernando Valley. Most of Reseda's ranches were subdivided in the post-war mid-20th century, except the properties originally zoned for agricultural land use. If the plot was never sold, but instead handed down or willed to a beneficiary – like Drew Lobenstein – it can still have horses, chickens, and, it turns out, over a thousand pigeons.
Many of the coops date back to Drew's childhood (40 or 50 years ago), though he's built some more to accommodate his pigeon-breeding hobby, which has become much more than a way to pass the time.
These pigeons – which he has selectively bred and cross-bred to be more and more fancy – have become a way of life.
It all starts with the common street pigeon, familiar to all. We had plenty of them flocking around the bus stop in Downtown Syracuse, scattering with the Centro buses, vagrants, students, and business people that intermingled at the intersection of Salina and Fayette streets. In 1995, London's Trafalgar Square was overrun by pigeons, which became as much of a tourist attraction as they were a nuisance. Because many people consider pigeons a negative presence in the urban landscape – "flying rats" instead of what they really are, blue rock doves – London has done its best to eradicate them in the 21st Century.
But elsewhere around the world, pigeon keeping is enormously popular, and breeding the pigeons that are considered "fancy" can be extremely lucrative for those willing to part with their prize-winning birds to international collectors willing to pay a high price.
And all of these specially-bred pigeons, like the Lemon mutation (a racing homing pigeon), come from that feral rock pigeon.
Pigeons are known to be incredibly hardy animals, surviving for days without food or water, and some traveling long distances up to hundreds or even thousands of miles. Because of this, military forces all over the world deployed carrier pigeons to deliver critical messages, and decorated them with medals for their war contributions. Unfortunately, though once an (overly) abundant species in the U.S., the passenger pigeon (a kind of carrier pigeon) is now extinct.
But these fancy pigeons are a bit more delicate than those out in the wild, or those who have been put to work. They are bred for their physical attributes – color, plumage, eyes, beaks – and are asked to merely show off. Some of them aren't really even meant to fly, and won't try to escape when you open their cage doors.
Does that make them happy in there? Condemned to a life of experimental breeding? How would we know? If they are fed and protected from predators and their cages are cleaned, is that enough?
The good news is, many of the fanciers whose lives revolve around pigeon keeping do it for the love of the pigeons. Some, like Drew, won't even sell certain special pigeons that could have been their biggest money-maker (though they will sell the ones that don't turn out quite right, with the wrong color or an extra toe).
The fanciest of the pigeons is perhaps the Jacobin, known for its distinctive feather collar, reminiscent of the high-collared costumes of Queen Victoria – who herself was a fancier, and raised a number of racing pigeons which she employed in military activities.
But not these pigeons. In ideal conditions, at least for best in show purposes, most of the plumage that surrounds their heads actually creates a hood, sometimes entirely obscuring their vision.
Although some of the selective breeding techniques have been more or less perfected, Drew is constantly experimenting with new variations – an endeavor which sometimes takes years. And because he's essentially pioneering scientific experiments in avian genetics with classifications of characteristics which are undocumented outside of Drew's own brain, sometimes the results aren't necessarily a mistake, but...unexpected.
In an attempt to create frilly feathers, the resulting progeny also had a curled beak, claws, and nails.
I got to hold two of the full-grown birds, surprising their caretakers a bit with my comfort and confidence that they would not fly away. These doves are a lot bigger than those little black-capped chickadees from my college biology class, but they'll stay put if you hold them in the right spots and don't squeeze them too hard. I know this instinctively. I feel like we understand each other.
And although human babies make me incredibly nervous and anxious – those little alien parasites that burst out of your womb screaming and then hate you for giving birth to them – nothing felt more natural to me than cupping a seven-day-old pigeon chick today, nuzzling its beak, stroking its spiny newborn quills, and keeping it warm while it was outside of its nest.
This is not a monster, though it's a genetically-modified hybrid resulting from a process that Dr. Frankenstein would probably admire. This is just a baby entering the world. He doesn't know his parents are different from each other. He doesn't know he's different. He doesn't even know how special he is. He can't fly yet, and he can't run away. But his heartbeat is strong, and he nestles comfortably into the hands that hold him.
And thankfully he'll never know what it's like to live out on the street.
Photo Essay: Falcon Flight
Compton's Hidden Agricultural Riches: Richland Farms
Elegy for the Flightless Bird