Pincushion, porcupine, paleolithic—a procession of alliteratives suggested themselves to my writer’s brain as I goggled at the two-week-old squabs. My first four starter pigeons had arrived by airmail nearly three years prior; these were my first hatchlings. Between me and the pigeons it was clear that one or more of us had been confused about their sex or slow to catch on to the facts of life. But after the untimely demise of my first two males, repeated mismatched pairings, and countless abandoned eggs, the seemingly miraculous had finally transpired.
Not altogether unlike my own birthing of a baby Bird eight-and-a-half years into marriage. While groping my way through early parenthood, one of the many authors I had consulted pointed out that the dependence of homo sapiens infants on their parents is surely no accident. Many creatures are born with far greater self-sufficiency than humans; some fend for themselves within hours of birth. In that same amount of time, most humans would expire unless provided with shelter and sustenance.
We are supremely relational creatures. Stimulation and interaction are essential to infants’ neural and physical development. Moreover, the bonds we form with our caregivers establish a capacity for relationship essential to healthy functioning throughout life.
Pigeons depend no less on social structures, as one might infer from the flocks that notoriously throng to urban areas. Our squabs and their caregivers were clearly bonded. Mother and father took turns sitting on the helpless, naked bodies of their offspring for the first week. Both parents responded to the hatchlings’ insistent peeping by injecting “pigeon milk” from their own beaks into the youngsters’ comically oversized ones. The results of this attentive nurturing were daily gains in physique and ability, sometimes observable between morning and night.
By the end of the second week the still attentive parents were nonetheless giving their progeny a wide berth. It wasn’t hard to discern why on the morning I looked into the carrier and winced. “That looks like it hurts.”
The avian equivalent of pimply adolescents, the squabs were now covered in one-inch quills. The bristling pinfeathers shifted in mesmerizing patterns with the juveniles’ ginger movements. No longer snuggled up side by side, the siblings maintained a deliberate distance. I imagined Victoria protesting to her brother, “Ouch! Get away!” and Edward retorting, “You’re no down comforter yourself!”
Unbidden, a vision of my daughter’s middle school companions leapt to mind. Some days she and her classmates could hardly open their mouths without unleashing verbal darts. Not to mention the poking, stabbing, punching, and wrestling that went on between—and sometimes during—classes.
Anyone who steps into such a vacuum of life experience and impulse control does so at their own risk. The teachers who not only tolerated but thrived in the company of blundering young adults earned my gratitude as well as admiration. An observer might conclude that their counsel, consolation, admonishment, and inspiration was eclipsed by the turbulence. But the very ability of creatures who once were adolescents to speak wisdom and exhibit civility gave me hope for their charges.
Mother Rosalind likewise maintained a close watch on her offspring, despite the judicious margin required by their prickly condition. When strangers appeared outside the enclosure that housed the pigeon family, Rosalind would position herself to screen the squabs from view. Upon the opening of the door, she would swell to twice her normal size. And if any dared to trespass on her territory, she would respond with resounding thwacks of her maternal wing.
Within a few days the pinfeathers sprouted a creamy fluff. This expanded and spread, until the prickly quills and leathery skin were clothed in silky gowns. As the youngsters’ body size became more commensurate with their beaks, they progressed from gangly adolescents to demure debutantes.
Most humans emerging from adolescence have acquired sufficient social graces to avoid stepping on the tender feet of our associates and have discovered that deliberate jabs rarely yield desired results. The more fortunate among us will have been guided by attentive parents or other mentors. The wisest will go on learning for the rest of our lives. And hopefully those social graces will seep beneath the surface, inclining us to genuine goodwill and amiability toward others.
Which is not to say we won’t go through rough spots. A month or so after the August arrival of my first pigeons, I was alarmed to discover feathers scattered across the lawn. Closer inspection revealed scruffy patches in their previously flawless plumage. Had they succumbed to predation, mites, disease?
Having already some experience with chickens, I soon realized my birds were molting. For many years I puzzled over this avian habit of shedding feathers when the weather begins to cool. Wouldn’t it make sense to hang on to those down furnishings?
Eventually I learned it’s an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new maneuver. Birds discard their worn and tattered togs to lay in a fresh stock of insulated apparel for winter. I, too, find that seasons of transition tend to, if not create, then expose the chinks in my character.
The occurrence has become sufficiently familiar that when stress, illness, change, disappointments, and other challenges reveal unsightly flaws, I resist the impulse to despair. Better to acknowledge the need to release attitudes, habits, perspectives, and fears that time has shown to not wear well. Such a procedure is, of course, a process and its execution more formidable than uttering a glib truism. But one of life’s less comfortable consistencies is the reliable return of those seasons and opportunities for growth.
Perhaps the sight of adolescent pigeons serves principally to remind me of what I am—or at least once was—underneath. That beneath my adult plumage I’m not all that different from bristling adolescents whose socialization is incomplete. That they are feeling their way forward under the tutelage of imperfect guides. And my best response may be loving attention and the acknowledgement, that looks like it hurts.