An Accidental Tourist

Here was nothing particularly distinctive about this pigeon. Glossy green and purple feathers around its throat; black, white, and gray mottles on its wings. I'd seen hundreds like it before.

But never on my front walk.

I live in a town on Long Island Sound, 21 miles from midtown Manhattan. Here, a sea gull circles overhead. A crow heckles when we put out the trash cans. But a pigeon foraging in the front yard? It wasn't a familiar sight.

I pointed her out to my son and daughter, guessing about the bird's gender.

"She's got one of those green twisty things on her leg," Elizabeth said.

"Hey, yeah. There's a gray one on the other," John added.

Was this a homing pigeon who'd lost her way?

Later that morning, the doorbell rang. It was the mailman, but he wasn't delivering a package.

"Are you an animal lover?" he asked.

I thought for a moment. Not his usual inquiry.

"I like animals," I answered in a drawn-out way, as if I were considering my response.

"Then you'd better do something about that pigeon before a cat gets him."

I ignored the mailman's choice of pronoun and looked past him. The pigeon was resting comfortably on the flagstone walk.

I didn't want this bird's fate on my conscience. I telephoned the local chapter of the Humane Society. If they could get a closer look at those bands, maybe they could figure out where the pigeon belonged.

"We'll send someone out today," they said. But when the representative from the Humane Society got there, the pigeon couldn't be located.

The next morning, when I went out to get the paper, she was back, pecking the earth under the hedge that bordered our front lawn.

"Let her stay," my son said. He'd emerged from the door behind me. There was a gentleness in his 10-year-old voice.

"OK," I said, won over by his coaxing.

We went to the library to research our visitor. The librarian in the children's room produced an abundance of information. We immersed ourselves in pigeon scholarship.

Pigeons were not fussy eaters, we learned, but still, we wanted our company to have the best. The clerk at the local pet shop recommended a wild birdseed blend - half a cup a day.

Every morning, we scattered seed and set out a bowl of fresh water for "Pidge," the gender-neutral name we settled on. It was hot, and there were no nearby fountains for her to drink from or splash in. Twice a day, I fastidiously hosed down the front walk, which had become her favorite promenade.

"Has Pidge been fed?" I'd call out each night around dinner time. Yes. Usually more than once. She'd worked her way into the rhythm of our routine.

Whenever we returned home, from the swimming pool or a bike ride, she seemed to be there to greet us. Once, ice cream cones dripping in our hands, we rounded the corner onto our block and spotted Pidge. She was nestled comfortably - smack in the middle of the street.

"A car's coming!" my daughter cried out. I looked up the slope of Elm Avenue and saw a big, black Buick coming over the crest of the hill. The driver couldn't have known that he was bearing down on our bird: Against the asphalt, her coloring camouflaged her.

I screamed and flailed my arms to warn him that there was something in his path. He slammed on the brakes. The screech made us cringe. Pidge disappeared from sight under the front of the car.

THERE was an impossible moment of quiet. Even the cicadas were silent. Had the driver stopped in time? We forgot all about our ice cream and waited while he shifted into reverse.

There sat our pigeon - unharmed and unhurried. Only when the driver honked his horn did she stand up, flap her wings, and - finally - take off for the safety of our garage roof.

I nodded and waved gratefully at the man behind the wheel. He drove off, shaking his head at the bird's lack of street sense.

The encounter shook me. I felt responsible for this pigeon's well-being. I wondered what would happen when the summer weather waned. As much as we were enjoying our adopted pet, those green and gray leg bands were reminders that this was not her home. Someone, somewhere else, awaited her return.

Several weeks passed. We noticed that Pidge's midday absences began to lengthen. Washing down the front walk once a day sufficed.

"I think that Pidge may be getting her bearings back," I told John and Elizabeth. "I think her visit with us may be coming to an end."

"But we want her to stay," they protested, and increased her ration of seed.

But one day Pidge didn't make her first appearance until evening. She cocked her head as if to get a better look at her admirers on the front porch.

The next day, she didn't show up at all. For a week we kept changing her water and putting out seed, but only the crows benefited. House guests can interrupt your life, but the best ones become part of it. I'm glad we took pictures.

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