I’d just gone in to look for my notepad. “You can come in,” Rita said, “but this is not a happy time.”
One of the sparrows was being lifted from his small cage.
“His feet are dead,” Rita said, her sky blue eyes the color of the sky she tried to return all her beloved birds to. No bird was turned away here. When I first arrived that day I watched them amputate the toe of a female pigeon whose feet had become tangled in something alien, perhaps hair from hair extensions.
Pigeons have four toes, did you know that? And their eyes are rust colored, or sometimes blue. Three toes form a “peace sign” Helen–an attorney who had captured this pigeon and brought her by taxi from Wall St. to the Upper West Side– explained to me, and the fourth points in the other direction. These women know everything about birds–their feet, feathers, bones, beaks, everything. The feet are very important. Landing gear, for one thing, or, in the case of a sparrow, what they use to grip.
“He’ll never survive,” she said, cradling him in her hand, as she placed him under the glass dome that would put him first to sleep. “Turn the light off, it’s calmer,” she said, and her assistant did. In the darkened room, my heart was pounding.
“I gave him his favorite worms and he ate them all,” she said to Rita, and I watched his tiny head droop under the glass dome.
Rita took him out, turned him upside down, and injected something into what seemed to be the heart area.
I saw that his feet were a mess.
His feathers looked clammy.
“I’m sorry, I’m getting my sweat all over you sweetheart,” Rita said to him.
I thought my heart would break, along with his. But I had decided not to leave, not to run away.
“The sad statistic is 50% don’t make it,” Rita said. Birds like seagulls, hawks, raptors–they need every bone in their complex wings working right or they can’t fly right, at angles. So if one of those birds breaks a wing bone it can mean death, whereas pigeons rely less on their wings for food. Pigeons can even function without any feet at all.
“There was this male pigeon I will never forget,” Helen said, “you know they dance. They dance for the females, every time they see a female they start dancing. Well this guy, it was a snowstorm, a really bad snowstorm, and he was down by the Chelsea Pier, and he had no feet, but he just started dancing this really wild dance for a female near by him. It was as if he was saying, “Hey baby, come on, we’re all gonna die anyway, let’s dance. It was just amazing. Pigeons are very stoic animals.”
Outside the room, pigeons were flying from one side of the room to the other. A pigeon teenager was brought in while I was there and everything was off. He couldn’t open his beak for one thing. His lead test came back very elevated. This is curable, but takes a few weeks.
A young volunteer, a boy, said, “Did somebody just get euthanized?’
Rita explained to him who it was.
I wanted to stay in there, because it was good. Goodness. No bird was garbage, each bird was loved. When they suspected a bird could fly they would toss the bird like a baseball into the middle of the room, and up they went.
I kept turning, to conceal my tears, and awe.
Aug 2, 2014