Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

by S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published in the Basler Zeitung English Section, 2002.

Imagine the streets of Basel the morning after Fasnacht , and you will know how my balcony looked by the time I was done with my close encounters of the bird kind. Only in my case, the balcony was covered with confetti produced by pigeons instead of the usual paper dots.

Normally my balcony is a part of my apartment that I ignore, except for the hottest days of summer. But one day I detected movement out there. Looking closer through the semi-sheer curtains, I saw that a pigeon had just flown into a nest. After a few seconds of looking through the curtain, I pulled it back. As I did so, the bird flew away, revealing two eggs in a clean and orderly nest.

Of course, I thought to myself. This is the logical outcome of those strange noises I heard some weeks earlier. I searched all over the apartment wondering where it was coming from and found myself homing in on the balcony that was off the kitchen. There I found two pigeons – engaged in the rites of spring. Sans Stravinsky, they were busy making their own kind of music. Now, what was initially a pit of passion had been transformed into a place of parenting.

I had read that pigeons are a nuisance in Basel, and cost the taxpayer many Francs in clean-up costs per year. At the same time, I thought to myself that they had a right to exist too. So I decided to let them be and see what would happen. Just to be sure, I called the Tierschutzverrein (Animal Protection League) for a second opinion.

A friendly woman answered my questions. “They are harmless. They just make your place a little bit dirty that is all. In a couple of months they will grow up and leave.”

Others offered me their opinion too. One of my business friends suggested I profit from this and make myself a couple of scrambled eggs. I passed on the scrambled eggs, and told myself that it was not every day that a psychologist has access to a private study in animal behavior.

I told myself that I was privileged and settled in for the long haul, ready to observe from behind the semi-sheer curtain, which allowed me to see without being noticed. I made the commitment: for better for worse, for clean and for dirty, for quiet and for noisy, I agree to let you live on my balcony until your offspring fly the nest.

I watched how the former lovers, now parents, took turns keeping the eggs warm. Mostly though, it was the female who sat the longest hours on the eggs. I learned that although the parents appear to sit on the eggs, in fact, they nestle them in their breast feathers. I also learned that when pigeons hatch, they are light yellow in color and are cute and fuzzy. They look nothing like the grown up version we see hanging around building ledges

Feeling enriched, I sought to share the pigeon presence with others in my life. In the process, I discovered that the pigeons served as a kind of Rorschach Test – whereby people projected their own inner workings on the birds.

My business friend repeated her remark about consumption and profit – something to the effect that I ought to roast them and eat them. A colleague from south of the border said in his Italian accented English “I am looking at two leettle meat balls.” Some time later, as they grew from adorable little fuzz balls into punky adolescents, he said, “Why don’t we make a salami out of them?”

A couple of Swiss women revealed their inner joie de vivre as they looked at the baby birds. They did not say much, but mostly made those sweet noises of empathy accented with umlauts – yueuw – in a way that only a native Swiss German speaker can produce.

Time passed and they grew as they were supposed to, but they had not moved out as I had been told. I awaited the proverbial empty nest, but was confronted instead with long-term squatters. They had begun to renovate their nest, which by this time, like the entire balcony, was solidly encrusted with bird droppings. I learned that when pigeons want a new nest, they just re-do the flooring. Over time, they build, layer upon layer, resulting in a structure rather like what archeologists are fond of digging through.

At this point, I feared that I might be violating some Swiss rule or other about cleanliness and order. So, I called the landlord. I explained that the birds had taken up residence when I was away, and I did not know what to do.

No problem, I was told. I just had to pay the cleaning costs and the landlord would install a net preventing future inhabitation of the balcony. I stalled for a while, sorry to evict the birds. But then I had no choice. The birds had definitely reached maturity, and a sub-letter was coming to look at my apartment.

Upon seeing the balcony covered with netting, she broke into a big smile and said “Oh I see you have a cat too. I love cats.”

“Uh, actually, it’s not a cat net,” I explained sheepishly. “It is against pigeons.”

Upon hearing this, her smile transformed into a look of disgust.

If only she had been lucky enough to experience what I did, she might have felt differently.

Now whenever I pass pigeons on the street, I see them in a different light. Thanks to my close encounter of the bird kind, they are no longer an annoyance. Rather they are merely some of Basel’s residents whom I got to know up close, and who were, for a time, my housemates.

Copyright S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D. All rights reserved.