V.I.P.'s (Very Important Pigeons)

By John "Birdman" Bryant


Some people would call us eccentric. Others would say we are crazy. But for Lenora and me, pigeons have come to play a very important part in our lives in the last several years. These unpretentious street birds, which are found almost everywhere in the world, are looked down on by many people as being little better than sewer rats. But I can assure you they are some of the cleanest, funniest, most intelligent and most endearing animals you will ever find. And that's why I want to tell you the story of two VIPs -- Very Important Pigeons -- Clubby One and Clubby Two by name. It's corny to say it, I guess, but I loved those birds. And tonight I woke up thinking about them.

I first met Clubby One -- we just called him Clubby then -- at the HoJo's restaurant where we first started feeding a flock of pigeons with our leftover breakfast toast. (This flock was HoJo's unpaid cleaning crew -- it's probably lucky they were never discovered by the minimum wage people!) You couldn't miss Clubby. He had a leg that had been broken and bent backwards near where his foot began, and so he walked on his club in a sort of awkward ka-Klunk, ka-Klunk, ka-Klunk. And he had spirit, real spirit. He was a male, and nobody was going to tell him that he wasn't as good as any other male. He was shy of me at first -- when I put my hand down to offer him food, he was reluctant to come to me like the other birds, maybe because he felt he was vulnerable and had more to lose, or maybe because he had been hurt and was gun-shy. But I let him know that the food was for him, and it wasn't long before he knew what I knew the moment I saw him -- that he was a very special bird.

It didn't take long before Clubby became one of our regular "feeds" and joined the rest of the flock who came clambering into the front seat of our car as soon as we pulled into the parking lot of HoJo's at 7:30 every morning and opened our door. In fact, I made sure that Clubby had a special place on my right arm where he could eat so he wouldn't have to fight the crowd of other birds for food, since he was at some disadvantage -- if not in spirit, then at least in the fact that his club foot didn't offer him the leverage to claim a place in the sun that another bird would have had. In his special place he was just fine, because he could lean his left side and club foot up against my body while getting a grip with the claws of his good right foot on my sleeve. He knew his place, and he made sure that other birds knew it, too -- anybody who got in his way got a peck from this indomitable birdsonality, no matter what their size. And he knew perfectly well that he would prevail, even if he did have to have a little help from his big friend now and again.

It wasn't too long after we first started feeding Clubby that the HoJo people started hassling us about feeding the birds. We'd been doing it for over a year, but we had stopped getting our breakfast in the restaurant, and I guess they figured that having all the birds waiting for us in the parking lot right where all the traffic came in was a nuisance. (As soon as we would drive in, they would all come flying up from the pavement or swooping down from the telephone wires, and cover the car like a sort of feathery blanket, just waiting for the "dining car" to open up.) So we put a partition in the car which sealed off the front seats from the back, and then got the birds into the routine of entering the back of the car thru the hatchback. Then, while they were eating the food we had put down on the floor, we drove off to more hospitable surroundings. Later, we took out the partition, which allowed the birds to come forward and collect in our laps as soon as they had finished the food on the floor, thereby letting us know in no uncertain terms that they were all ready for their "second course".

Clubby was almost always a part of the crowd that greeted us in the parking lot. (In fact, I had to stop making my usual left turn into the lot and approach from the opposite direction so I could make a right turn, since if I had to wait for traffic before making a left, Clubby would sometimes be so eager for his food that he would come flying over and land on the hood, and I was afraid he would fall off and get hit by another car.) And when he came forward, I always made sure that some food was caught in the folds on the front part of my pants so that he would have something to eat while I was driving us to our destination, which was a public park about three blocks away from the restaurant. And when I wasn't shifting gears I would hold him against me with my right hand. That helped to give him as much support as possible, so he wouldn't get thrown off my leg as I made turns, braked or accelerated. Actually, as resourceful as he was, I'm not sure he really needed my help, but I think he appreciated it. And I think he also appreciated it when I would get his bad claw untangled from the fabric of my shirt, where it would sometimes get caught during a feeding period, since he would always wait patiently until I had done the unsnagging before he would try to move or leave.

I don't know whether handicapped birds have an old-boy network, but not long after adding Clubby to our stable we found ourselves with another bird who was in an even worse state than Clubby. This one looked as if he had had his foot run over by an automobile -- which of course was an impossibility, since if he had, the car would have run over him, too. But in any event the foot was as flat as a pancake, and looked as if it had been dipped in tar for good (or bad) measure. In fact, within a fortnight of first seeing this new bird -- whom we instantly named Clubby Two -- the foot had dropped off entirely, leaving only the upper stub which wasn't even good for a pegleg since it was too short.

Now some people will tell you that birds are stupid -- after all, who hasn't heard the expression bird-brain? But let me tell you something -- pigeons are smart. In fact, sometimes I think they are a lot smarter than the scientists who study them, because on the very day I sat down to write this story, I read about a chimpanzee who was causing scientists "amazement" because of his ability to "recall past events", an ability that scientists had heretofore thought was limited to human beings. (Needless to say, not even the owner of a dog or cat would be "amazed" at such a feat -- but then that's government science for you.) Now if you want an example of how smart a pigeon is, Clubby Two is as good an example as any. I know this because one day after I had herded the birds into the car in preparation for our drive, I started talking to the original Clubby who had taken his place on my lap, and after I had addressed him by his name several times I looked up and, to my very great surprise, I found myself not three inches away from Clubby Two, who was looking at me directly in the eye, and who apparently thought that I had been addressing him. Well, from that point in time, Clubby became Clubby One, and I was always careful to address him by his full name.

Clubby Two was a male just like Clubby One, but it took us a while to find out. Normally, you can tell a male pigeon because he will frequently do what my wife and I call an "Alexander Haig" -- a sort of little promenade in which he struts first in one direction and then in the other, all the while making a special staccato clucking noise. This is done for the purpose of announcing to everyone in the general vicinity -- just like President Nixon's advisor General Alexander Haig once did -- that "I'm in charge here". Now Clubby Two was not in the best of shape when we first met him, since it took a couple of weeks of feeding before we ever saw him attempt an Alexander Haig. You couldn't really say he would do an Alexander Haig, because a true promenade requires some strutting, and the best that Clubby Two could do was hop. But Clubby Two was just as much male as any other male pigeon, and one day when I was opening the hatchback for the pigeons to come in, who should I see at my feet but Clubby Two, clicking in the male staccato way, and strutting his stuff -- or rather hopping it -- in front of a female that he was hoping to impress. I guess if I had been a female I wouldn't have been too impressed -- maybe I would have laughed out loud because it was so absolutely comical -- but if love springs eternal from the human breast, I'm pretty sure it springs eternal from the pigeon breast as well -- after all, I've never ever noticed a scarcity of pigeons.

Now one reason I especially remember this encounter was that when I saw it, I knew I had to get a picture of it with my video camera. I knew Clubby Two wouldn't mind my being amused, because he knew as surely as he knew anything that I loved him, and I am pretty sure he returned the feeling. I know because I would hold him in my left hand just like I would hold Clubby One in my right, with his body resting on my arm or in the palm of my hand while he ate. Well, like I said, I remember this day, not merely because Clubby Two was so comical, but because it was the last day I ever saw him. I always like to think that I never saw him again because he was feeling so much better from having been well-fed, and that my feeding him had enabled him to find a mate and set her up in a nice pigeonhole somewhere, so he could show the world that, in spite of his handicap, he, too, was just as much a male as any other male, and that he didn't really need my help at all, thank you. But I also know that pigeon mortality is high, especially for pigeons with just one leg, and even moreso for one-legged pigeons who are forced to fight for nesting space with their two-legged compatriots. But even if I do sometimes wake up at night with tears in my eyes, I'm still going to hope that everything turned out OK for my Very Important Pigeon.

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