Tag Archives: pigeons

The birds in our hands

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Every morning the pink breasted doves are waiting for me and their breakfast at the top of the steps, cooing like pigeons, and many mornings their cooing makes me think of Cher Ami.

Cher Ami, a black checker cock, was one of six hundred homing pigeons British bird fanciers had given to the American Army when they arrived to fight in the last six months of World War One. Trained pigeons were an indispensable part of warfare then. Cher Ami won fame when he became the last of the pigeons left with a doomed battalion fighting in the Argonne forest. Their commander, a hero named Whittlesey, had warned that the plan was a disaster before they began, but no-one was game to take on General Pershing and argue it with him. So as Whittlesey had feared, the battalion was surrounded by the Germans. When he sent a pigeon bringing their position to HQ,  US artillery came to their rescue and began pounding the Germans surrounding the trapped men. Disaster – they were actually shelling the trapped men.

Whittlesey had one pigeon, Cher Ami, left out of the eight he’d started with, so he sent a message: “Our own artillery is dropping barrages directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it”. After a few false starts, Cher Ami took off, and the Germans tried to shoot him down. He circled overhead before setting off through a storm of German shrapnel. Once he staggered and fluttered helplessly before gathering himself together and continuing his flight. One leg was shot off, but he continued on. Somehow he got back to HQ, dropping like a stone onto his left breast. He staggered on one bloody leg to the trainer who caught him. The capsule bearing the precious message hung by the ligaments of the wounded leg, and he had been shot through the breast bone as well.

Thanks to him, the artillery barrage was lifted and lives saved, though the heroes in the pocket still had several more dreadful days trapped, until un-aided by their own side, a handful of survivors made it safely out. Heroic Cher Ami lived for another year, was stuffed and now resides at the Smithsonian museum.

Human beings (not homo sapiens) have used pigeons for their purposes for some thousands of years. By crossing breeds, they’ve evolved fast pigeons who can do roughly 60 miles per hour, fast ones up to 110 miles per hour. Paul Reuter of the famous news agency used them, a pigeon took the news of Waterloo from Brussels to Britain, and even in the eighties, pigeons were being used to carry blood samples to and fro from two Southern English hospitals. Here in New Zealand an enterprising Kiwi founded a pigeon- post from Great Barrier Island to Auckland back in 1897.

Though people assume it’s just instinct that gets them back home, during World War One, while the French were pushing back the Germans from the Marne, they took the pigeon lofts forward with them, yet when the birds returned from Paris they always managed to find their lofts, even though they had been moved… intelligent too…

Pigeons are not the only birds men have used for their purposes. Here in NZ  the Maoris used to catch the male birds and trim the brush-like growth at the end of their tongues so they could train them to speak. They taught tuis chants as long as fifty words, keeping them imprisoned in the dark in a tiny cage till they were trained. Each poor prisoner, when able to do all the Maori cries and chants, was then imprisoned for the rest of his life in a cage, shaped rather like a Maori eel-pot, fifteen inches wide at the bottom, and thirteen inches high. The bird-cage was often hung at the entrance to a marae. This reminds me of the old Chinese men in long grey or brown robes, in Hongkong, who would solemnly take their caged birds for a walk in the parks, still in their cages.

Parrots too have always had a raw deal locked up in cages with their wings clipped. In Japan recently one escaped and a few days later ended up at the local police station. With a captive audience the intelligent bird told them his name and address and telephone number. His relieved owner then came to fetch him.

When Time magazine ran an article discussing the intelligence of animals and other creatures, they ended by quoting the example of a pet parrot being taken to the vet and having to stay behind for treatment. The bird understood he was being left, and began begging his owners not to leave him, promising to be a good boy. This is the exact pattern of small children left in hospital, and attributing the horror of it to what seems like punishment for their own misdeeds. The parrot had responded with the same emotional pattern as a human toddler, but the researchers described him as ‘mimicking human behaviour’.  This did not prove that birds and animals had feelings, the article ended.

I gave away a book on birds in disgust a few weeks ago. It was a detailed account of how they hear see, fly, etc etc. The book opened with a vignette of a white goose waiting by the side of an icy road beside its dead mate, somewhere in the frozen north. Three weeks later it was still there, still waiting, still grieving for its lost mate. The book closed by returning to this grief-stricken creature, and said, just like that  Time article, that neither this behaviour, nor that of the birds they had observed mating for life, returning year after year to each other, flying around each other, greeting and calling ecstatically when they’d been parted, proved that birds had emotions like us. So how do these heartless researchers explain what birds are doing when fluttering around the body of their mate killed on the road, hiding from cats in the garden, protecting their young, showing fear?

Scientists seem terrified to admit that other species have emotions like us. They call it anthropomorphism and think those of us who practise it are mistaken and merely sentimental. And though St Francis was allowed to acknowledge the feelings of all creatures, the rest of us are still supposed to accept Descartes’s malign thinking that since animals and other creatures don’t have feelings and don’t feel pain, they can be used for any purposes (there are still scientists who argue for this).

Descartes’s theories have influenced our society since the so-called Age of Enlightenment.  But if only we really had been enlightened! If we were, would we all be anthropomorphists? I suppose it depends on whether we come from our head or our heart.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Reverting to an ancient English tradition, we had roast lamb for Sunday lunch! I never do it with mint sauce, since originally the idea of the vinegar and mint was to disguise the taint of meat that wasn’t fresh, but I do like the mint, so I chop it up and stir it into the gravy. (When my seven year old son first encountered mint sauce at a friend’s house, he told me the meat was covered in: “yucky black tea-leaves!”). When putting the lamb in the oven, I rub the skin with salt to make it crisp.

I also make an onion sauce, which I suppose is some sort of throwback to the capers in white sauce that used to be served with mutton- a meat no-one seems to encounter in the west these days. I boil a large chopped onion, and drain the onion water, using it to make a white sauce which is then enriched with milk or cream and a good tasting of nutmeg. Then stir in the chopped onion – delicious with the lamb.

 

Food for thought

Accuracy is not a virtue; it is a duty.

AE Housman, 20th century English poet and brilliant classicist, best known for his poems in ‘A Shropshire Lad’.

 

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Filed under animals/pets, army, birds, cookery/recipes, food, great days, history, military history, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, world war one

The mystery of other lives

 
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Not a picture of hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil, but a picture of the three fat wood pigeons sitting on the power line outside our house yesterday.

They used to be plentiful, but between the Maoris and the settlers they nearly became extinct. They’re now protected, and their numbers are increasing. The Maoris call them kereru, we call them wood pigeons. They are precious to us.

This morning, waiting for the kettle to boil while I made a cup of tea to take back to bed, I stood at the bench looking out of the kitchen window, and watched one of these pigeons in the guava tree. As he swallowed the guavas whole, they travelled down his throat and then the lump disappeared into his white curving bosom.

I was fascinated to see how this big heavy unwieldy bird kept his balance on the thin frail branches. He moved from fruit to fruit, gobbling them up, without ever looking or checking to see where his feet/ claws were going to find a secure foothold. The feet moved with an intelligence of their own. Once, the twig bent so much, the bird keeled over, and his wings flapped open to hold him, as his feet found a better foothold. Enough being enough, he whirred heavily out of the little tree shortly after, and lumbered off. The tangy red guava berries are small and sour this year, with no rain to swell them, so I’m leaving them all for the birds.

I took the tea-tray back to bed, and lay back on the pillows looking out of the window on the other side of the house. The loquat tree, just beyond the window, which is covered in blossom, was rustling and shuddering. A turquoise and black tui was enjoying the blossom, seeking the honey, long beak pushing aggressively into the flowers, and plunging from one bough to another, with the same sure-footedness as the wood pigeon.

As I watched this bird, with his bright white bobble of feathers jiggling at his throat, which caused the early settlers to call him the parson – bird, I felt I was watching something familiar, and then I remembered. As the tui sucked the honey, his tail waggled back and forth in an ecstasy of concentration, just like the tails of lambs when they are suckling their mothers in the fields.

During the nightas I turned over in my sleep, I heard a morepork, the New Zealand owl calling, very close; later, the huffing of a possum in the loquat tree, which sounds like the hissing of a python and what I feared were rats rustling in the roof above. I hoped the hedgehog I found yesterday was on the move in the garden drinking, eating and making merry by the ivy. I seemed to be inhabiting a corner of the universe where other creatures were getting on with their lives oblivious of homo sapiens.

When I drove through the little hamlet at the edge of the sea on my way to shop the other day, I slowed down when I saw a couple of ducks crossing the road. I stopped a good fifty yards away from them, so they wouldn’t feel hassled, and was tickled to find them being followed by at least another twenty waddling, feathered bodies. When I slowly drove past the drive where they had all disappeared, I saw there was a feijoa tree hanging over the fence, and the ground was covered in the fallen green fruit.

The ducks were feasting… how did they know the fruit was there, that this drive was the only way to get at it, and that this is the time of year for fallen fruits? Their intelligence is of a different order to ours, and it works for them. It being the beginning of the duck shooting season in a few more weeks, they will soon all congregate on ponds they know are safe from hunters, in city parks like the duck pond in the Auckland Domain….

And on the way home I dodged a quail family scuttling along the side of the road with half a dozen speckled brown babies. In our last house, I once looked out of the window and saw a veritable army of quails advancing down the drive… eleven to be precise, four adults and seven tiny powder puffs on wheels. They all scattered over the lawn, while the four adults stood one at each corner, with their backs to their babies, guarding them.. When the babies had finished, the adults marshalled them, and moved off, with one adult bringing up the rear, and keeping the stragglers in order. An exquisite example of responsibility, co-operation and parental love.

Henry Beston wrote in ‘The Outermost House’:  ‘We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate in having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

And philosopher Ken Wilbur writes that: ‘Every single thing you perceive is the radiance of Spirit itself, so much so that Spirit is not seen apart from that thing: the robin sings, and just that is it, nothing else…’

And so as I catch in a glass the bumble bee which has just blundered into the house, and is buzzing angrily at the window, I release it outside, sending it on its way with a blessing, knowing that we are all fellow travellers and all connected by Spirit.

 Food for thought

This prayer of St Francis is dedicated to America with love – and to the world – since we are all one…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

St Francis is the patron saint of animals. He lived from  ADe l,ived fromH1181 to AD1226

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Filed under animals/pets, birds, cookery/recipes, great days, life/style, philosophy, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, wild life