Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, February 26, 2009


(Excerpted from my book, Rigor Vitae)The ancient silo loomed before us, a monolithic silhouette incrementally blocking the night sky as my companion and I approached. While sealing an opening with cardboard I gestured to Stan with my net, indicating where he was to block the other exit. Persuading him to stop here hadn’t been easy. We were returning home from a day of hawking in northern Utah. Stan’s falcon had flown poorly and been lost. Daylight’s final hour was spent tracking her down. Now that she was hooded and calm, preening on the cadge in the back of his station wagon, he just wanted to get her home.

Stan’s grumbling was just perceptible as he fitted his cardboard in place. Once sealed, the structure's contents were ours for the taking. Inside it was warm, humid, and absolutely dark. The tower pulsed with birds, those three successful immigrants: Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), English Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and my quarry, Rock Doves (Columba livia).
I climbed the decrepit steel rungs to the upper roosts the pigeons preferred, net and canvas bag dangling from my belt and darkened flashlight gripped uncomfortably in my mouth. Stan remained below to receive the birds I lowered to him.

Halfway up a disturbed entity fluttered blindly about my face. I reflexively snatched it from the air. The alarm call of a starling is a shocking thing: a high, strident croak describing unimaginable horrors. This avian siren launched the silo’s entire population to flight around its interior, drowning their sentry’s cry with the thunder of ten thousand wings. Barely audible through the din was a string of invectives rising from Stan. As each bird became airborne it emptied its ballast, and when I returned to terra firma, my reluctant accomplice was drenched.

Just beneath their skin-deep beauty, we are all smirkingly aware of birds’ capacity for hyper-metabolizing. The tension between the lovely songster and the mess it makes has been clear ever since Basho penned his Bush Warbler haiku in the seventeenth century:

Bush warbler—
A dropping on the rice cake
At the verandah’s edge

Thirty years ago the sight of a few braying Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) overhead was a rare treat for most Americans. A few decades of concerted habitat management later, you can't swing a male model without hitting one of the birds, leaving many of those same Americans cursing as they scrape up the scuz.

In cities throughout the world, millions of man-hours are devoted to eliminating the common Rock Dove and its droppings. Originally a Eurasian species, it’s been domesticated for some 5,000 years and has accompanied humans in their diffusion across the globe. Now hardly a city fails to slump beneath the weight of the birds. Even Antarctica harbors feral pigeons.

As we’ve become more cognizant of chemistry’s dark side, many of yesterday’s toxic pigeon controls have given way to mechanical devices for excluding the birds or driving them away. Today’s most popular chemical weapon is Avitrol, a brand name for strychnine-laced birdseed. The victims that eat sublethal quantities go into paroxysms that are said to frighten off other pigeons. Unfortunately, they are also apt to attract predators to a lethal meal.Until recently, a more gruesome concoction prevailed. Fenthion is a potent organophosphate that was sold in a form that could be painted onto favorite perches. So powerful were its effects that contact with the foot of any bird that dared step in it caused necrosis, loss of motor control and eventual death. Fenthion is very stable and persists in the food web, accumulating in body fat. In 1999 the EPA came to an agreement with Rid-A-Bird, Inc., makers of the Fenthion perch to voluntarily discontinue their product. Fenthion is still sprayed in Florida against mosquitos, and is still used as an avicide in much of the world. In Australia it is an important weapon against Mediterranean Fruit Flies.

For the better part of my life I’ve played my own consequential role in pigeon control. Live pigeons are a valued commodity for falconers, used to trap falcons, train them, or serve a “bagged” quarry on the days when a decent slip at a wild duck or pheasant couldn’t be found. For many years I flew a wonderful Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) named Hillary, a passage bird (trapped in her first fall). When Hillary was in the air, a live pigeon in my hawking bag was essential, to flash for a split second when her mind began to wander. Trapping pigeons during the day or netting them by night, one had to be mindful of Fenthion, Avitrol, and the rest of the day’s arsenal. Even products like Ornitrol, a sort of avian RU486 were worrisome when the birds were winding up as hawk food.

As an adolescent, my nets and I scrambled about vacant warehouses and office buildings deep into the night, arrested for it but once. I scaled the face of Salt Lake’s city hall for the pigeons in her belfry, and am surely one of very few who can boast of having smoked a joint on top of that structure’s clock tower. Deciding to seek actual permission to enter the place at night, I put a formal petition before the city council. The pigeons had been seen as a problem, and my permission was granted with surprising speed. A newspaper reporter noticed my petition in the council’s minutes, and thought it might make a good story. He had no idea. While I was at school he called my mother, who had been ignorant of my participation in the political process. When asked to confirm that I wanted the pigeons for breeding stock (My petition hadn’t been 100% on the level), she replied, “No, I imagine he’s probably going to feed them to his hawks!”

When I got home, I called the reporter and after some fancy talking hung up, believing I had convinced him not to mention my falconry. The next morning’s paper bore a scandalous article complete with remarks from the head of the local Humane Society chapter, who called falconry “inhumane.” My key to the bell tower was revoked and a poisoning campaign was unleashed on the pigeons, to which the Humane Society had no objections.

Thirty years later the Rock Doves still own that belfry.
upper: FEAR OF FLYING (1990) acrylic 20" x 26"
lower: THE PLUMING POST--PEREGRINE & ROCK DOVE (1989) acrylic 30" x 20"


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