Rae's Rescue Journal: The Sick Baby Pigeon Who Seemed Hopeless (but Wasn't)
In bleak times like this, you have to cling to every scrap of positivity that comes your way.
For me, one such scrap has come in the form of a very sick baby pigeon.
He was brought to me on Tuesday this week, and at first, I was certain that he was going to die. A member of the public had found him in a car park with no parents in sight, and had immediately scooped him up, taken him home, and set about looking for a rescue space for him. When she found me through a local Facebook group, she mentioned that other people in the car park had not shared her sympathy, squealing in disgust as they passed the small bird huddled on the ground.
This isn’t unusual. The popular myth that pigeons are a significant carrier of disease - especially ironic in the midst of a pandemic caused by human activity - often acts as a free pass for the public to treat them with utter callousness.
In the field of wildlife rescue, horror stories about the treatment of pigeons abound; including tales of them being tossed in skips or dust-bins, burned with improvised flamethrowers, stamped on, kicked, thrown off balconies, and deliberately run over. Once, a school friend contacted me about a pigeon nest in the stairwell of her block of flats - someone had poured bleach over it, coating the parents in the noxious chemical as they tended to their eggs.
Nevermind that most people cannot name a single disease supposedly spread by pigeons, nor any examples of anyone they know having contracted one. The extent of their knowledge is this; they’ve heard the term ‘rats with wings’ bandied about their whole lives, and this is enough to eradicate their empathy for an entire animal species.
Honouring the government’s advice about social distancing, the finder left the pigeon on my doorstep in a shoebox. I was relieved about the lack of contact, since conversely, the longer I work from home, the more I seem to resemble a homeless person.
I took him into the bathroom - our ‘quarantine’ room for new arrivals - opened the box, and my heart immediately sank into my mismatching slippers.
He was crumpled in the corner, small and still. His face was mostly featherless and looked raw and pink, and his eyes were sealed shut with pus. His back was also bald and inflamed, bearing signs of feather-plucking - an aggressive behaviour sometimes observed between birds. He breathed with his beak open, an indicator of respiratory distress, and each exhale was audible, crackly and wet.
Then there was an all-too-familiar sickly smell, which usually accompanies a condition called canker, or Trichomoniasis, which can be fatal at an advanced stage. It’s called by a single-celled parasitic organism, a protozan, and infects the oral, respiratory and digestive tracts of birds. It manifests in yellow-white lesions that as they grow, can obstruct the bird’s ability to eat, and eventually, breathe.
It’s passed between animals through shared water sources, or directly, from parents feeding their offspring. If this baby had a severe case, I suspected why his parents were no-where to be seen; it had probably already killed them.
I carefully opened the pigeon’s swollen beak, and was immediately greeted with an even more pungent smell, followed by the sight of yellow growths coating his entire throat. My dread was accentuated by the knowledge that the canker, though life-threatening, was likely only a secondary infection to another disease, such as Mycoplasma. This tiny 200-gram bird had a whole lot of problems.
I considered getting in a cab and taking him to the vet there and then, to be euthanised, as the likelihood for recovery seemed slim, and I didn’t want to prolong his suffering. But it’s my opinion that animals, just like people, will fight to live, and so every chance should be extended to them to do so. I decided to try.
The first thing the majority of wildlife casualties need is heat and rehydration. I started there, to immediate improvement, and then began trying to reduce the canker with an over-the-counter medication called Spatrix, and lemon juice, which melts the growths, I think through its sheer acidity.
I was all out of metronidazole, an antibiotic and antiprotozoal medication that is needed for late-stage canker, but managed to get some, through frantic messaging of my rescue contacts (thank you Conchi). This meant a small delay in treatment, which heightened my doubts about the pigeon’s survival. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing by keeping him alive.
Lots of time at home in the next few days equalled lots of time to obsess over this pigeon. I became fixated on fixing him. Every morning when my alarm sounded for his first feed, I’d go into his room muttering under my breath “please don’t be dead please don’t be dead please don’t be dead”. To my surprise, instead of finding a lifeless bird, each day I’d find him a little brighter, and a little more active.
The canker was no longer visible in his throat. His breathing was less noisy. His eyes were open, and I didn’t need to scrape pus out of them on an hourly basis. He accepted formula greedily, desperately, since the canker had likely been preventing him from feeding properly previously.
And then there was today, which marked the biggest improvement of all. I opened his carrier in the morning, bleary-eyed, put my hands in to lift him out, and was surprised when he fluttered out instead, honking and spluttering in panic. This was followed by a battle, involving lots of flapping and squeaking, to administer his medication and his first feed of the day. It seems that having recovered enough to become aware of his surroundings, he'd decided quite promptly that he didn’t like me and that he would avoid me at all costs. I was delighted.
He is not out of the woods yet. But I never had any expectation that he’d survive even the first night; his continued improvement is ‘an accident of hope’, to quote the poet Anne Sexton.
As the news threatens of an ever-more frightening and uncertain future, his future looks more positive by the hour. In the midst of so much horror, it’s not much, but it is something. And as I said, you have to keep hold of the little things.