Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Island (Yard) of Misfit Birds

Things have been hoppin' in Pigeon Town.

As I've mentioned before, I have a resident "special needs" pigeon named Timmy who lives (or at least hangs out most of the time, I don't actually know where he roosts) around my house.  Timmy was briefly trapped in our attic last year when we evicted his parents and sealed up the opening.  We were sure everyone was out, but it turns out Timmy wasn't, and was trapped in the attic for several days.  I'd feel even if I hadn't noticed before that Timmy was a weird bird.  Special.  At least I know that the trauma we accidentally inflicted on him is not the cause of his oddness. 

Timmy's Plus One
Timmy (who despite his behavioral issues is a big, beautiful and healthy looking pigeon) now has a friend.  Who I call "Timmy's Plus One".   Of course I can't tell a male a pigeon from a female pigeon even if they're dressed for the prom, so I don't know whether Timmy is male or his friend is female, or the other way around.  They could both be males or both be females for all I know (not that there's anything wrong with that).  But pigeons are known to mate for life, and these two seem to be a couple. 

(I've read speculation on how birds recognize each other and distinguish gender -- in many birds it's easy because differences in coloration or size are so striking -- but in birds like pigeons and crows, who don't show much sexual dimorphism, it's more of a puzzle.  Mammals do it mainly by smell, and by visual cues in some species, for instance primates whose noses are not good.  Most birds have only a rudimentary sense of smell -- so there must be other kinds of cues.  I would suggest looking at them more in the infra-red part of the spectrum, which we can't see naturally but they can.  Could it be they have hidden patterns on them like some flowers do, or that the oils in their feathers show some difference in those wavelengths?  I haven't been able to find any photos of birds in the infrared, but I'd be curious to know if anyone has explored it.)

Lately, there have been two other pigeons dropping by (I unfortunately do not have photos of them yet).  They are both unusual in their own way -- mostly white with gray mottling.  One of them is almost albino. 

I have observed -- and have also read -- that pigeons sometimes seem to shy away from the "odd" members of their flock, and that unusual coloration may make a bird unwelcome. But I'm not totally sure that's true.  The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, as part of their Celebrate Urban Bird project has Project Pigeon Watch, a chance for citizen scientists to contribute their observations, and one of their goals is to study how different color patterns among feral pigeons effect mating.  Anyway, these two pigeons have been hanging around lately and I started wondering if maybe our yard was becoming a sort of island of misfit birds.  Like Timmy, these guys might be less at home in the big flocks that hang out down the road in White Center.  I've often observed the two mottled pigeons eating on my rail together, and I've seen them eating along with Timmy's friend.  I've never actually seen Timmy eating with them though.

Saturday, I finally saw them together, and it got pretty exciting.  First, I saw Timmy's friend on the rail with one of the white birds.   They were eating together like usual, and then suddenly a fight broke out.  Timmy's friend and the mottle pigeon were going at each other up and down the rail for about a minute, and then they both flew off. 

I thought maybe the food was getting low and that sparked the argument.  So I went out and put more food on the rail.  A little while later Timmy and his friend came back and while they were eating the mottle pigeon showed up again.  This time, Timmy got into it with him.  It even looked like Timmy attacked first.  There was a brief squabble and then all three birds took off.  I was standing in the front door watching and one of the pigeons -- I think it was Timmy -- flashed by just a few feet from my face with a loud crack of his wings.  Timmy, who is by far the biggest of the pigeons that visit here, seemed to have things well in hand.

That wasn't the end of the excitement though.  Timmy and his friend came back a little later.  I was watching from inside, under the window blinds.  I could see Timmy, clearly recognizable by his banded wings, and it seemed like there was another pigeon too -- but a very small one.  I got closer to window and caught my breath.  It wasn't a pigeon at all.

It was a Steller's Jay.
This is the Jay that was eating with Timmy.

Last winter, and well into the spring, the Jays were frequent visitors to my yard.  They come swooping in with their wings spread wide, looking like a caped superhero and announcing their arrival with loud screeches.  I haven't seen them in a while, but all day Saturday I kept hearing them.  When I was out for a walk with my dog Lulubelle, and when I took my "puppy" Zeke to the park, I could hear the Jays but I never saw them.  And now here he was.

So, fighting pigeons and then Timmy sharing dinner with a Jay -- that's lot of adventure for one Saturday afternoon.

For previous posts about Timmy and pigeons see "Around the Yard and Around the Web", "Pigeon Watch" and "Timmy!"

You can also enjoy my recent article "Crazy Flickers" over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn't included.   

Birdland West readers will be interested in my review of Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson, which is posted now at Books and Beasts.   It's a great book and a must read for all bird lovers.  Check out the review here.

 (Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)


  1. Fun post! I do think Timmy's companion needs a better name, though. Glad they are keeping you entertained and intrigued!

  2. I love this story about Timmy. Thanks for posting it and for showing so much care to these guys. My husband and I are both wildlife rehabilitators (moved to Seattle recently from San Francisco) and ended up with two rescued racing pigeons for a year, species our hospital wouldn't take. I've always liked pigeons, but through my association with those two, I learned to love and respect them in ways that transcended my previous understanding.

    As far as the gender differentiation, even seasoned pigeon rescuers and handlers have a tough time with this. Short of medical sexing tests (which can be done), it is most often the male who presents with the "lobster tail" twirling behavior when in the presence of the female. If Timmy exhibits his masculinity in this way, you can be fairly certain he is a he. :-)

  3. Thanks, Ingrid. I haven't seen either of the pigeons doe the "lobster tail" behavior, but I'll keep looking. I have also done some volunteer work as a wildlife rehab assistant and I remember how impresses I was with one domestic pigeon that was brought in. As you said, the wildlife center couldn't take him, but they had contacts to find a place for him. He was a very beautiful, impressive bird.