Fly away free

By Bracken Thompson

CONGRATULATIONS, Bracken,for being the first to send in this touching story of love and persistence to the wearethechange website. If only more people cared so much for animals ,the world would be a very different place,Thankyou very much to Bracken.

This a true story. About an experience which enriched our lives, taught us things we never expected to need to know and which I could never have predicted in a million years. This is a story of triumph over everything and how one small creature can have such a will to live it will do so against all odds. It is a story that has changed the way I see the natural world in many ways.

We moved to our current home just over 3 years ago. When we moved in the whole of one side of the garden had a line of huge leylandii trees all 40 foot tall or more. As the years have passed we have been cutting down these monsters and planting indigenous, wildlife friendly hedging mostly of hawthorn and blackthorn but with a few spindle, dog roses, and other plants. We were getting to the end of the leylandii with just three trees left in October 2010 when we cut down two trees. The first one nearly broke my wrist when I stupidly tied the rope which was stopping it falling the wrong way around my wrist. My wrist was still hurting when the second tree came down. Suddenly it was caught on the fence and my partner shouted “there`s a nest!”.

I looked into the branches of the fallen tree and a baby bird was lying there. It appeared dead but when I reached into the branches it was alive and blinked at me. I picked it up in my hands. It was fluffy chick. We found out later it was probably only about 10 days old. We were unsure of what the bird was. A wood pigeon or maybe a dove. I took into the house and immediately to the annoyance of my partner, Mick, I went on the internet to find a sanctuary. I spoke to a woman in Nuneaton who was not far from us hoping she would take in the bird since I had absolutely no idea how to care for it and it would probably die if I tried to do so. She gave advice on feeding and told me once it started to flap to release it. This turned out to be completely wrong since it was far from being weaned and had we done this it would surely have died. It could not yet even sit on a perch!. The neighbours told us to leave him on the floor but this would have been certain death. One neighbour offered to wring his neck since no way would it live. We did not know till a day later that one baby bird was crushed under the tree as it fell. Pigeons have two babys in each litter. I am unsure if litter is the correct term here but they have two babys anyway.

We happen to have many huge parrot cages which are unused in our shed and we put my baby bird into one of these outside the back door on a table. Here he spent the night with a blanket over him in case of early frost.  I had managed to syringe some water into his beak but he wouldn’t eat any food since all we had to offer was chicken mash from my rescued ex-battery hens. For the next four or five days we fed him on scrambled egg which we put into his beak. I am amazed now that he lived this long. Or efforts were very crude. On day three he developed the white banding of a wood pigeon on his wings. I call him “he” but really I have no idea what sex he was. In fact later developments suggest he was actually a “she”. About day four I found an online pigeon fanciers site and they gave me wonderful advice without which my baby bird would probably have died. I posted on their forum for help and a lovely lady called Cynthia rang me with advice. She told us to use an icing syringe to put food to the back of the baby`s throat since pigeons suck their food unlike most other baby`s and unlike other birds pigeon parents actually make milk similar to humans. We soaked chick crumbs in warm water for half an hour and then filled the icing syringe. I had horrible dreams that as I held my birds mouth open I would rip off his beak! It was a scary experience.Mick did the syringing while I held Walter which is name given to the bird by Mick not by me. I was intending to keep the baby bird as wild as possible. This we did achieve despite him spending time inside the kitchen when being fed after it became apparent from conversation with Cynthia that we should not be feeding out in the open where we could lose our unearned bird if he flapped and flew off.  We fed Walter three times a day to start with. It was difficult since Mick does three rotating shifts. When he did earlies ( 6am to 2pm) it was easy. Feed Walter at 5am, 2pm and again in the early evening. When Mick did lates not too difficult but when Mick did nights I had to wake him up mid-day to feed the baby. My poor Mick was getting very tired. I was reading loads on-line about pigeons and how to raise them. He was still not able to sit on a perch as yet and I kept lifting him up when we fed him to get him to do it. Then one morning he was sitting on the perch when I got up. It was getting colder and October was nearly over so we started to put Walter`s cage in the shed next to the back door at night. He was lovely and showed no fear at all. When we held him to feed him he cuddled up. The poor animal probably was missing his parents. I found we should have dropped to twice daily feeds so we did this and tried to get Walter to eat defrosted peas. He resisted. It took weeks and weeks. In the end we starved him for half a day. Then we gave in and fed him. He pecked me and had his first tantrum. It was a shock but why really should the little pigeon have no individuality? Certainly he did. Again we starved him. Then we fed him and then we starved him. I am weak and kept giving in. I asked the doves who live outside the back door to help me. I did not for one moment expect them to help or understand me, but before I knew it they were standing next to him and seemed to help him understand. The doves remained my friends to this day which is a very strange thing I never expected to experience. Eventually Walter did eat peas and I swear to this day the doves made him do it. It was a long trek to get him there. Now he was starting to try to fly.

Cynthia had told us to let him have a minimum of two weeks to learn to fly before release. We didn’t dare to put him in with my chickens since they would probably bully my gentle bird. We built a new aviary for him from scrap wood and wire netting. WE put a bright green ring on his left leg so when he went free we would know if ever we saw him again. Then we put his cage inside and opened it up and Walter came out to learn to fly. Here my Walter lived for the next three months. He was meant to go free but then it snowed! I was so worried about him. We gave him a house but he wouldn’t use it. Woodies do not apparently. He had some bits of Leyland for perches and some brushes of branches for shelter. He spent all the time outside in all weathers. In the end I got some poly carbonate sheets and used plant ties to tie them around him each night to try to give him some shelter. Every night I went down and did  them up in the snow and my hands were frozen. I expected Walter to die of cold but he thrived. All November, and December my Walter practice flying and I encouraged him and praised him when I saw it. He used to fly around my head which was really not a nice feeling. On 8th of January it was a lovely sunny day and Walter had for several weeks been trying to fly out – or so we thought but it had been bitter cold and I told him he must wait. His friends the doves were ever present and had a bowl the opposite side of the wire outside the aviary where they could socialise with my Walter. He also had a robin who seemed always present and stole his food. I mentioned Walter to someone who told me off for looking after him. They wee under the impression we had “rescued” a fledgling which of course we had not. Some people are very quick to condemn with not first asking all the details. I found it very upsetting. I was told about “all these people who tame birds and make then incapable of surviving”. This we had not done and had tried so hard to keep him wild even when we could have tamed him. From the day he went into the aviary I never touched him despite my obvious desire to do so. I could have made him tame but I decided better for him to be free one day and not a cage bird. Anyway it was 8th January and we decided to open the aviary. Walter was very excited. We left him and went about our business. At several intervals I went down to check but he was still there at the end of the day. I locked the aviary to keep him safe just before dark. On the 9th January again we opened the aviary and this time I put the food bowl on some steps which Walter had been using as a perch just in the door way. I asked the doves again for help. I actually saw one of the doves go insides the aviary. At 10:30am I went to check. Walter was looking out the door but still there. I went inside and flapped my arms and “flew” out of the door to show Walter what he should do. Still he stayed. At 11:30 I checked again and he was there. I went back at 12:00 and he had gone.

I was so upset! I cried and cried for days. I borrowed binoculars to find him. I really did want to free him but never realised how hard it would be to do so. Never to know where he was and if he was ok. I had got far more attached than I had intended to. The morning after he flew free a pigeon was on next doors roodf and followed me down the garden and sat next to the chicken pen. I did not know if it was Walter since I couldn’t see a ring. I assumed not at the time but the behaviour was unusual to say the least. In the next few days I looked everywhere. I sat for hours in the frosty outside world, looking at sky, freezing waiting to see him.  All my life I had noticed birds but never really seen them. Suddenly a whole new world was all around me. I let the chickens out and took my mug of tea and sat on the bench my Gran had left to me. It was bought in 1952 for my Nanna, my dad`s Mum and when she died she left it to my Gran, my Mums mum. Its old but still sturdy and here I sat waiting. And watching the sky. The chickens were enjoying scratching up and as usual generally trashing my garden when suddenly I became aware of a small pigeon sitting just above me in the walnut tree. I was in tears as I realise it was my bird. My Walter. He sat in the sun and preened while I talked to him for a full half hour. Then he flew off. I saw Walter many times over the next few months.  Never again did he actually come to see me but nearly every morning she came for the food and peas I put out and often also I saw him in the evenings. One morning I walked around the corner to find her at the bowl and said “ Ah sorry to frighten you, Walter darling. Finish your breakfast” And she turned back to her food and ignored me. Having said this she was very much a wild bird and I never got too close. She also looked now fully grown and probably a female. The rings round her neck do not join up. Then in March she was canoodling with another pigeon and it is now three weeks since I have had a sighting. I think perhaps she is sitting on eggs.  I do not really know. I still wait on my bench every now and then and I still look up. Maybe one day soon again I will sight her.

My bird is free. Free to be wherever she can be. Free to fly. Free as you and me can never really be. I have had many pets, dogs, budgies, cockatiels, rats, hamsters, chickens and rabbits. I have loved them all. I have let them all live as free as I can but none have ever been free as Walter is free.  Its a scary world though and full of predators such as sparrow hawks which we see quite often and buzzards which we see now and then, and farmers shooting guns, foxes and cats. I wonder and I hope. I also have now changed my views on leylandii. We have left the last tree for Walter and other pigeons. Strange that by removing what I considered a blight and trying to create a wildlife friendly garden we inadvertantly destroyed a habitat. Food for thought indeed! Somehow I think I will see Walter again. When my beautiful gentle girl gets hungry next winter she will come. Did you know wood pigeons have been known to get to 17 years of age? However this story ends I know my bird did live to grow up and she did fly away free. What more could I wish for?

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