Last Friday, as I was walking toward the Back Bay train station in Boston on a sunny afternoon, I came upon a crowd of people chatting and taking pictures with their cell phones. There on the sidewalk was a beautiful, huge, black-and-white-mottled bird—big as a wild turkey, but not—with a rectangular head, stern golden eyes, and a yellow beak with a pointed, curved tip. Wildlife in the city!
But as I reached into my coat pocket for my own phone, I noticed something odd about the scene—gray and white feathers, enough to fill a pillow, scattered everywhere. And then something else—a bloody carcass that the bird was in the process of shredding and eating. “It’s rather gruesome,” one of the paparazzi commented, “but my son will be fascinated.”
Yes, indeed. Gruesome and mesmerizing. As I later determined from my bird field guide, the predator was an immature bald eagle feasting on a pigeon in Copley Square.
And no, I did not take a picture. I felt really bad for the pigeon.
Now, for those of you who have no sympathy for pigeons and consider them flying rats or worse, hear me out. I’ve done a lot of reading about pigeons in the past few years, as they figure prominently in the World War I novel that I’ve been writing (now in third draft revisions). They are truly remarkable creatures.
They come in an astounding array of colors. Even common gray pigeons have stunning iridescent, jewel-toned feathers. Just take a closer look next time you see one in the sun.
They have an extraordinary ability to find their way home, somehow sensing the Earth’s magnetic fields. That’s why pigeons have been deployed since ancient Rome to carry messages.
Which brings me to the fact that the humble pigeon has saved lives. One of the most famous was Cher Ami (Dear Friend), who delivered a vital message that led to the rescue of more than 500 American soldiers during World War I. (And no, he’s not the pigeon in my novel, but certainly an inspiration). This little pigeon survived a bullet to fly 25 miles in a half-hour and deliver his life-saving message. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for bravery. His stuffed body still resides in the Smithsonian.
The predator eagle was certainly just doing what wildlife do on that Boston sidewalk, eating its prey. And we are all certainly drawn to the unusual, unexpected spectacle, and the exercise of raw power—these days, more than ever, it seems. All too easy to ignore or discount the subtle, the nuanced, the peaceful.
As I reached the train station, I was heartened to see a score of pigeons hanging out in the sunshine by the entrance. An everyday city sight, but so calming, no crowds. Nearby, a young man kneeled with his cellphone, taking their picture.