What We Learned from a Pigeon

Portrait of Franco, the homing pigeon

The way I met Franco was not very glorious. My roommate and I were on the couch near our front apartment window when she noticed something white hopping around the parking lot. It appeared to be a dove of some sort. We ran down the stairs to get a closer look. My roommate, Stassia, grabbed a shoebox before going down, knowing that the animal was injured. She got down before I did, and when I opened the door to the lot, there was no sign of the dove or my roommate. I began shouting her name. The two were in a stairwell behind a building, my roommate holding the shoebox closed. She had caught the dove.

I peeked in the box to see the bird and its potential injuries. The all white and very large pigeon was streaked in black as if it had hit a power line. It held its left wing limp at its side and beat it uselessly when trying to take off in the lot. I once worked at a wild-bird rescue center and thought we may be able to take the pigeon there to heal. Unfortunately, the center was closed for the season. Stassia and I decided it would be best to take the bird to an emergency vet to be examined.

When we arrived at the vet, the receptionist asked for a name for the bird. The box it was being held in was for “Franco Sarto” shoes. I announced that the bird’s name was “Franco.” In the patient room, Franco attempted to flap around. She looked starved and ragged. The vet inspected and observed her overnight to check for signs of west-nile virus. The vet called the next morning for us to pick up Franco. Thankfully, there were no signs of west-nile (as they would euthanize the animal). We took her home and kept her in a large rubbermaid box in our bathroom. We lined the box with towels and gave her water and parakeet seed. She ate. It was a great sign. She slowly recovered, loosing the black marks on her body and revealing pure white feathers. Franco had more visits with a vet who explained that she was a domesticated pigeon and couldn’t be released in the wild because she wouldn’t know how to survive. The fact that the bird was bred white also made her a beacon to predators, especially birds of prey. We kept her and built her a large cage. Stassia bought her “pants” to wear around the apartment so she could exercise while collecting her droppings. We loved watching her become more comfortable. For a while we thought that a) Franco was a King Pigeon and b) that she was a boy. Later, after a lot of research and talking with pigeon experts, we were informed that Franco was a homing pigeon, and built more like a hen (although still not 100% clear if she is a girl).

Homing pigeons are bred for ceremonies, such as funerals or weddings. These “release doves” are trained to return to the roost after being let out at the ceremony location. Ideally, the birds return back to the roost. However, due to the lack of camouflage and survival skills that these captive birds have, many do not come back. White doves symbolize peace in many religions and cultures. Breeders will isolate the gene for white feathers in the homing pigeons to embody the visual of the white dove. It seems to be that Franco was a bird like this. (King pigeons are white and bred for squab with the potential to escape from backyard breeders. The same issues apply.)

It never crossed my mind about what happened to the “doves” after releasing them. My great grandmother’s funeral released a pigeon and it seemingly went off to freedom. I was frustrated that I had not realized these birds were being used as props. Freedom was not there for an animal that relied heavily on humans for survival. Releasing it with the likelihood that they may not go home seemed cruel to me, as if they were disposable. The amount of research that Franco caused both Stassia and I to partake in really opened our eyes.

Franco also taught us that all animals have personalities. Her stubborn and stoic behavior became comical when her lack of gracefulness was seen. Companion animals are sometimes disrespected unless a price tag is attached; she is not a $500 parrot that people covet for its “exoticism” (don’t misunderstand me here, nothing against a parrot, just people’s mentality). She is seen by some as a “sky rat.” She was used and forgotten by someone. She was found. She has taught me to appreciate all life even more.

Illustration by: Lauren Korany, Urban Hermits

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