The homing pigeon that made itself at home

I recently received a note from a friend explaining that the home she and her family had made and lived in for the past 30 years was to be dismantled and removed, all because they had established themselves without the requisite permits. It got me thinking about home and what it signifies - shelter, warmth, one's own space, a pleasantly familiar refuge from the world. But it's also a place that fosters the resolve to venture out, fearlessly, into the world.

I jotted off a response to commiserate but also to encourage the sense of adventure that I knew was intrinsic in this family. Home is wherever we find ourselves, if we will see it that way. I learned this from an experience my husband and I had with a homing pigeon.

The pigeon flew onto our ranch on a Thursday morning. Jerry was feeding the wild birds before we left for work when he noticed it sitting on the shop roof, ruffled and bedraggled. He greeted it with a welcoming nod while throwing hen scratch plainly in view.

My husband was first to arrive home, and he found the pigeon had moved from the shop roof to the back porch of our log cabin. To Jerry's surprise, the pigeon didn't fly or flinch when he walked onto the porch to unlock the door.

To his greater surprise, the pigeon strutted in front of him into the kitchen and flew into the sink, dropping its calling card along the way. (Did our log cabin remind the bird of its coop back home?)

As Jerry caught and caged the bird to feed it and let it rest for flight, he noticed a tag on the pigeon's leg: "August - S.L.O."

We surmised that the pigeon lived in San Luis Obispo, about 110 miles south. We concluded that it must be a homing pigeon on a return trip from some faraway place and was too tired to make the last leg of its journey. No problem. In the past, we had provided a stopover for Canada geese, several of which tried in vain to entice our domestic geese to accompany them on their flight northward. Fortunately, our geese were too well-fed to lift off.

After a full day's rest on Friday and most of Saturday, the homing pigeon looked considerably better. Jerry attached a note to its leg that included our name and phone number, in the hope that the bird would fly home and its caretaker would call to let us know. Late that afternoon, we took the pigeon into our pasture, where Jerry lifted it out of the cage and gently launched it into the sky. The pigeon soared beautifully high. It would be just fine for the flight home, we thought.

But, wait. No! It flew right back to the shop roof. "Drat! Another bird mouth to feed and care for," I thought.

Not that this pigeon wasn't welcome. It's just that it would take some special care because it was tame. It didn't seem to notice the cat stalking it. Neither did it know about the night beasties that mysteriously appeared to dine on our fine-feathered friends. Over the years, predators had decimated our well-fed geese, a flock of bantam chickens, and, gradually, our guinea fowl, even though they seemed to know to roost high in the trees.

So the pigeon went back into the cage. We would try again in the morning.

Morning found the bird disinclined to leave its comfortable cage and the daily room service of two square meals and a kind word we were providing. It was extending its "R and R" through the weekend. Needing advice on how to handle this feathery situation, Jerry called an acquaintance who raised homing pigeons. He was told that it was right to feed and care for this pigeon, but that we should take the bird away from our ranch to let it go.

Monday morning Jerry took the very well-rested and well-fed pigeon to a far corner of our ranch, out of view of the house and other buildings the bird had connected with food, water, and shelter. He didn't want to take the bird entirely away from the ranch just in case it was seriously lost.

We were concerned that the bird would venture into unfriendly territory if it didn't get its bearings and fly home, and we were prepared to provide a foster home if that happened. But this time, the bird had that "let me go, and I'll show you I can live up to my name" look. It soared and soared - up, up, and away - over our neighbor's ranch to the north, a ranch with big dogs that had big teeth. "No! No! San Luis Obispo is south of us," I thought.

My husband was sure the bird would be sitting on the shop roof when we got home from work. But it wasn't. We breathed a tentative sigh of relief. But was the pigeon still soaring north, caught in some drifting winds, pulled against its will in a direction not its own? Had it become dinner for some wild or not-so-wild creature? Would we see "our" pigeon in the morning? We hoped that it had headed in the right direction - its home, not ours or anyone else's.

That night, the phone rang. The pigeon's caretaker was calling to say anyone who was concerned enough about a pigeon to feed, care for, and tape a note to its leg deserved a call to hear that the bird-in-training had come home. It had been the bird's maiden long-distance voyage, and it came through with flying colors, notwithstanding its short hiatus.

For this bird, perhaps the "homing" instinct encompassed a broader sense of home than is generally considered. It wasn't familiarity of surroundings that it needed, but a place to touch down. It homed in on a temporary place, where it found food, water, and safety until it could fly home. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from this bird-in-training. When we can't be in the home we love, we can love the place we're in - and enjoy the adventure.

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