Looking at the ground as I walked home from school, one of the last things I expected to see out of the corner of my eye was a large, dead pigeon on the ground. I was thinking about my homework and listening to music when I saw the grey, feathery mass lying there in the gravel. My heart skipped about three beats, and I flinched harder than I had in years. What struck me most about the creature was that it was physically undamaged. No wounds, no signs of decay, no flies buzzing about to recycle the meat. If its red eyes weren’t staring lifelessly into nowhere and its wing not bent at an odd angle, I would have wondered if it was alive.
The poor bird’s feet were still curled, as though it had been perching. I looked up in the tree above its body and identified a probable branch where it must have been sitting when it gave up the ghost. Pigeons are not exactly light, delicate birds. They are thick and heavy. I could almost hear a reverberating thud from the bird’s fall to the ground. The longer I looked, the heavier my eyelids and heart grew. I walked away quickly to try to forget it. Someone would come to clean it up soon, right? This wasn’t my problem.
I don’t like pigeons. Particularly the flock of pigeons living at Chathamtowne (there are about 30 of them). They live on the rooftops from fall to early spring, making little scratching sounds with their talons on the rooftops and gutters, occasionally giving little breathy coo sounds that sound more like gargles than the call of a member of the dove family. One of their favorite activities is to line up en masse on the powerline right above the sidewalk and poop, all in a row. I usually shoot them an annoyed glare as I pass by on the other side of the sidewalk.
But when I left my apartment to walk to school the next morning, the dead pigeon was still there, untouched. My heart hurt, so I resolved that if it had not been moved by the time I came home from school, I needed to act. I came home and jumped again as I saw it on the path. Pushing aside the worries of my day, I went directly into my house and dug out two old cardboard boxes that looked like they might be about the right size. I found some old rubber kitchen gloves and walked back outside, crouching next to the dead bird. Still no flies or bugs to be seen. I looked back and forth between the boxes and the bird. The boxes were too small. I ran back into the house for a paper grocery store bag. Returning to the still bird, I crouched again and took a deep breath.
I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t know what it was going to feel like or if it was going to leak fluids or if maybe, just maybe, it would spring to life again and take my handling it as a threat and peck my eyes out. I swallowed these fears and grasped the edge of a wing, slowly wiggling the body to test how it might move. Taking another deep breath, I slid my hand under its breast and lifted it sideways into the paper bag.
It was so much heavier than I thought it would be. I could feel the distribution of the wet weight of its organs, and the bones were slightly flexible, lightly springing as I moved the bird into the bag. Feeling the weight of the bird made its death more real, and I resisted the simultaneous impulse to gag and cry. I got the bird into the bottom of the paper grocery bag and carefully rolled up the end.
I picked up the bag with the bird inside took it into my apartment, having decided that I should perhaps look up Provo City protocol on dead bird finding and handling. I discovered that there isn’t really a policy other than to use gloves and to dispose of the body in a closed bag. During my research, the dead pigeon spent a total of about 30 minutes in my apartment by the door in the paper bag, and my roommates (thankfully) didn’t ask what was in the bag.
I finally took the bird into my hands again and carried it to the dumpster outside. I paused in front of the dumpster. After all the trouble and thought I’d been to for this creature, it felt wrong to just throw it away like yesterday’s trash. Yes, these birds were a nuisance and I’d never liked them (I still don’t). However, in looking after one of their dead, I somehow felt a connection to the flock. The live birds were all still sitting on the power line, apparently unaffected, pooping as usual. There was nowhere else for me to put the body other than in the dumpster. Maybe I would have buried it if I owned a bit of land.
I gently hefted the paper-wrapped pigeon in my hands, feeling its heaviness again. I prayed in my heart for the bird and its kin. I reached down into the dumpster and placed it on the pile of trash, covering it with some loose bits of garbage. I turned around and walked back to my apartment, nodding to the pooping pigeons as I went.
Anne Whitehouse is a second-year MA student in the Environmental Humanities Program at the University of Utah. She grew up along the Sammamish River in Western Washington, where she learned biking trail etiquette and how to recognize the call of the song sparrow. Lately, she studies the relationships between urban rivers and their people through Korean literature and history, finding particular fascination with Seoul’s Cheonggye Stream. When she’s not writing or studying, Anne enjoys reading books, going for bike rides along the Provo River, playing video games, listening to Korean music, and snuggling with her 2-year-old rough collie, Liesey.