Monday, February 9, 2009

Rats with Wings

My father built a pigeon coop in the backyard. It was a mysterious place to my brother and I, an outbuilding that seemed like it would make the perfect fort if only we were allowed to commandeer it away from the birds. It was the definition of ramshackle: plywood nailed together, rectangular windows covered with chicken wire, a clattering door hung on secondhand hinges. The door had just one flimsy lock, but he’d screwed it in high enough that it would have taken more determination or defiance to sneak in than either of us apparently held. The structure rested, at its corners, on uneven concrete blocks so that the whole thing looked like it could buckle at any minute, or tip off its foundation and tilt like some kind of half-assed raft at sea. The inside, which felt more stable than the outside would have indicated, was lined with shelves that held what seemed, at the time, like hundreds of pigeons. My father had painted the outside red, just like the picnic table that he’d also built and which suffered from similar endearing flaws. He liked to build things in the same way my mother liked to cook and sew – there was no artistry involved, per se, but they were sincere and seemed to enjoy their endeavors. Everything in and outside our home was always a little off, a bit askew, and there’s no doubt that my enduring need for orderliness was born of some reaction to the off-kilter nature of my day-to-day existence back then.

My father was part of some kind of pigeon club, a bird fraternity for neighborhood men. They were just a bunch of area guys who had their own birds and would get together on weekends and shoot the breeze and drink beer, looking up at the sky once in a while to see whose birds made it home first. Between races, there were daily feedings, medicines to administer, and once in a while a bird had to be put down. I’d tag along after my father when he fed the pigeons, sticking close to his legs, half curious and half timid, half wanting to hold a bird, half afraid one would peck my eyes out. I was 5 or 6, my eye level at about my father’s hand level if they were relaxed at his sides. That’s how I came to see a quick flick of the wrist, then a bird body held casually, the way a guy might carry a baseball. I could tell that the bird wasn’t right, was off kilter in its own way; I could see, as I shadowed my father, its head lolling loosely from its body. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “Had to put it down,” he answered. “Why?” I persisted, puzzled by the phrase, sensing “put it down” had nothing to do with placement but rather with something final and still. “It was sick,” my father said, never stopping in his ministrations to the cooing, nervous birds. “If I didn’t take care of it, all the other birds might get sick and die.”

This seemed reasonable to me, both noble and practical, and I think that explanation, coupled with my father’s cool demeanor, informed my earliest ideas of what a man was, what death was. A man could put a bird down if he had to, could snap its neck and keep on working. Death was awful and simple, a practical thing, a remedy. All the gravity and weight behind his words lent subtext I didn’t fully understand and may, in fact, have imposed years later, thinking back on the moment, crafting it, teasing the edges of old images in search of meaning. My father’s care, his attention, his tenderness and brutality towards those birds incited a love of pigeons in me, has allowed me to maintain great affection for them despite decades of hearing them called rats with wings, flying rats, filthy birds, useless birds.

I came across a sidewalk once, newly poured concrete, the tangible proof of other good men’s labor. The surface was pristine, the borders straight; had I been more mischievous it would have been a perfect canvas for handprints. But a pigeon beat me to it. All up an edge of the sidewalk was a trail of pigeon tracks. The tracks looked like climbing ivy, created a decorative, off-kilter border. I snapped a picture and moved on. Kept working.

pigeon photo courtesy


  1. Amazing! I love the way you write. My father and uncles used to raise hawks and we would let the pigeons fly and let the hawks loose to feed. Beautiful. Haudenosaunee have a great social dance song and dance named after the pigeon, check it out. Not to diminish the story at all, but I work at Rudy's and our version of the "rats on wings" are seagulls. Stop in and lunch is on me, yea. I've cooked pigeon multiple times and it's considered a delicacy in old and modern European culinary culture, especially French. It does taste fine, like the silk of fowl. try it, yea?


  2. An old man down the street owns pigeons. They bob along the roads and some people make a game out of how many they can hit. It breaks my heart. But during the spring, while I'm out walking and staring at the sky, I'll watch them fly as a group, making a big circle around the old man's home. I can here their wingbeats, small coos escaping their throats. Blue and grey and brown swooping cirlces in the air. The whole moment is one glorious sigh.